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
YearRecordPositionPlayoffs
1954
78-77
5th
None
1955
87-66
3rd
Lost 1st Round
1956
72-82
6th
None
1957
72-82
6th
None
1958
65-88
8th
None
1959
80-73
3rd
Won JWS
1960
76-77
5th
None


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.
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