Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Inter-American League of 1979

This is the last of a four-part entry on the role of minor league teams in Latin America. As we highlighted in the three prior posts, Cuba was the location of the first two minor league teams in Latin America (Havana Cubans and Havana Sugar Kings). This time around, the idea was more ambitious. Organized by Roberto “Bobby” Maduro, the league was to be played within the U.S. and Latin America. The league was to be played within the framework of an AAA class league with no affiliation to Major League Baseball. With the league commencing play in 1979, the following cities were chosen:

Miami Amigos (U.S.)
Caracas Metropolitanos (Venezuela)
Maracaibo Petroleros de Zulia (Venezuela)
Santo Domingo Azucareros (Dominican Republic)
Puerto Rico Boricuas
Panama Banqueros

Though the idea that baseball was very popular in Latin America, the interest in the new league by the local population did not reflect that. Very often, the team’s average attendance was in the low one thousands and in some cases in the hundreds. This lack of revenue from the gates with limited revenues from radio and television plus the expense of international travel put a dent in the league’s operations. With the financial losses mounting, the Panamanian and Puerto Rican franchises folded on June 17 leaving only 4 teams continuing play. This was only to last for another 13 days when the rest of the league was disbanded. Of the six teams, only the Maracaibo Petroleros de Zulia and Miami Amigos were the only teams remaining that wanted to continue the financially troubled league.

The final team standings were as follows:
Inter-American League Standings 1979
Santo Domingo 3829
Puerto Rico 1639

Here is a description of the 6 franchises:

1. Miami Amigos

The team played its games at Miami Stadium leading the league with a 51-21 record. With the league folding during its inaugural season, the Amigos were crowned as the only Champion of the Inter-American Baseball League. Being the best team of the league, they naturally led in the league in most categories. Former Major-League player and future Major-League manager Davey Johnson managed the Amigos. The team’s average attendance was 1,350 fans per game.

2. Caracas Metropolitanos

The team played its games within the Venezuelan capital of Caracas finishing with a record of 37-27 for second place. Jim Busby managed the team, and the team drew an average 3,500 fans per game, which made it the most popular team in the league in terms of attendance.

3. Santo Domingo Azucareros

The team played its games within the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo finishing with a record of 38-29 for third place. Mike Kekich managed the team, and the team drew an average of 1,000 fans per game.

4. Maracaibo Petroleros de Zulia

The team played its games within the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo; the team went 31-36 for fourth place. Former major leaguers Pat Dobson, Gus Gil and Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio managed the team, and the team drew an average of 1,100 fans per game.

5. Panama Banqueros

The Panama Banqueros went 15-36 for fifth place. Chico Salmon and Willie Miranda managed the team, and the team drew an average of 800 fans per game.

6. Puerto Rico Boricuas

The team played its games within the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan; the team went 16-39 for sixth place. Jose Santiago managed the team, and the team drew an average of 650 fans per game. As with the Panama Banqueros, financial difficulties forced them to fold at the end of the first half of the season.

Why did the league fail?
For obvious reasons, a lack of profits was the main reason. With only one team having a television deal (Caracas) and only three with radio deals, it was hard to promote and generate revenues from a product that was not visible to the local population. In addition, the expense of international travel between locations was crippling league’s dwindling finances.

Similarly to the situation with the Montreal Expos who played a number of games in Puerto Rico a couple of seasons ago it was hard to convince the local population to attend games. In comparison to the Winter League games that are played in Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean, many of the fans are allowed free entry after a certain amount of time after the game has started. In addition, the expense of attending a Winter League game is less for the fan that it would be for a fan at a Major League Game.

Can a league like this succeed today?
In my opinion, if the league does not have substantial financial banking then it can’t survive. Only with the backing of Major League Baseball can an endeavor like this succeed. The league would need operate within the off-season of the Caribbean Winter Leagues so as to not affect their season. With the potential shift of power in Cuba at the end of the Castro regime, the movement for the reintroduction of professional baseball in the Caribbean/Latin American could be looming on the horizon.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Havana Sugar Kings 1954-1960

Continuing with the four part series on Minor League baseball in Latin America, this third entry is about the Havana Sugar Kings of the International League. This period was one where baseball and politics walked hand in hand. Things not only in the Minor Leagues changed but things were never the same in organized baseball.

The Havana Sugar Kings were an AAA affiliate of The Cincinnati Reds from the years 1954-1960. Playing within the prestigious International League, the league truly had an international feel, with teams in Cuba and Canada (Havana and The Hamilton Tigers, Montreal Royals, Toronto Maple Leafs).

Though the team was short lived, it did find success. Twice the team reached the post-season in 1955 and 1959, and it was in 1959 that the team reached its peak. Ending up with 3rd place in the league, The Sugar Kings upset both the Columbus Jets (AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks to Terry Proctor for the correction in the comments section. The Columbus Jets played from 1955-1970 before moving to Charleston, West Virginia becoming the Charleston Charlies in 1971. The Columbus Clippers were created in 1977) and the Richmond Virginians in the playoffs for a berth in the Junior Series. Politically, the rise of the Havana Sugar Kings was paralleled by the rise to power of Fidel Castro.

Meeting the representative of the American Association and the defending Junior World Series champion Minneapolis Millers (An affiliate of The Boston Red Sox with a young Carl Yazstremski on the playoff roster), the series was a riveting affair. Going the full seven games, two of the games (including the decisive seventh game) were decided in the last of the ninth inning, as well as, two others being decided in extra innings.

The series opened at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota. Though winter weather tends to come to the Minneapolis area earlier than other locations in the US, a rare blast of early winter weather arrived leading to small crowds. With the series tied at one (Havana won Game One 5-2, Minneapolis won Game Two 6-5), and snowflakes dotting the Minneapolis landscape, the series was shifted to the warm weathered locale of Havana. Though the weather was to the liking of both teams, the political climate was not. Armed troops were located throughout the city and especially at the Gran Stadium where the games were being played. The Millers were told not to leave the hotel during their free time, for their own safety.

Havana jumped out to three games to one lead on two consecutive extra inning victories (3-2 in 10 and 4-3 in 11). Not conceding defeat, the Millers roared back with two consecutive victories, tying the series and forcing a deciding Game Seven which Havana ended up winning leading to a massive celebration within the city of Havana. The celebration and joy would be short lived.

Though Castro vowed to support the Minor League endeavor, his nationalization of American industries in Cuba led to the eventual withdrawal of the Havana Sugar Kings. On July 13, during the 1960 season, The Havana Sugar Kings were no more. With the move to Jersey City, they became known as the Jersey City Jerseys. They played out the 1960 season in Jersey City to a 76-77 record. The move of the Sugar Kings not only signaled the end of Minor League baseball in Cuba, but also the end of all professional sports in Cuba. Many Cuban born professional athletes decided to stay in the United States, never again seeing their native land becoming enemies of the state. Throughout the years, a many number of players would also defect the island nation to the shores of the United States and the fulfillment of the dreams to play professional baseball.

Though the loss of Havana was felt throughout the International League, the league officials tried to maintain a foothold in the Caribbean. In 1961, the Miami Marlins (the same of the former Florida International League with the Havana Cubans from 1946-1954) were moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Financial difficulties led to the team to be moved to Charleston, West Virginia becoming the Charleston Marlins.

Playing on the Sugar Kings championship team of 1959 was Mike Cuellar, a Cuban from Las Villas who would pitch on the powerhouse Baltimore Orioles of the late 1960’s, Luis Arroyo, a Puerto Rican who played on the 1961 Yankees, and former major leaguer Cookie Rojas. Here is the final record count for the Havana Sugar Kings:
Havana Sugar Kings 1954-1960
Lost 1st Round

Our next and last post on Minor League Baseball in Latin America is an ambitious effort to bring Minor League Baseball to the Latin Caribbean basin. Though the idea had potential, it was possible way ahead of its time.