The late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro loved baseball. And you may have heard that he was such a good player that years before the Cuban revolution, he tried out for the New York Yankees in Havana.
Or not. This myth has persisted for years, and though it might be fun to contemplate the historical consequences of this "What if?" scenario, Adrian Burgos Jr., University of Illinois history professor and author of Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line, says it simply didn't happen.
"He didn't try out for the Yankees," Burgos tells NPR's David Greene.
It's possible Castro went to an open tryout held by the Washington Senators in Havana, Burgos says, but he was not "at the level of a talented Cuban ballplayer where the scouts went looking for him."
On teams that were active – and weren't – in Cuba before the revolution, which began in 1953
The Yankees weren't active in Cuba to scout any talent. They weren't active in Latin America until the 1960s. So it wasn't the Yankees. It was the Washington Senators and the New York Giants, right across the river from the Yankees, that were the most active teams in Cuba.
On what the myth says about baseball in Cuba
It says a lot about baseball in both Cuba and in the United States. One of the fascinating dimensions of this is that Castro very much loved baseball, he used baseball in a Cuban tradition of politics — that Los Barbudos [the Bearded Ones, Castro's own baseball team made up of revolutionaries] played before exhibition game[s] in Cuba during professional seasons.
He wanted to share with the Cuban people that he, too, was a fellow Cuban, he loved baseball. Baseball is such an ingrained part of Cuban identity that he and the other military leaders and even someone like [Cuban revolutionary] Che Guevara had to learn how to play baseball.
On what Castro did to dispel the myth
Fidel Castro enjoyed the myth of him having been a real Major League Baseball prospect and he would not have knocked that down in the least.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There's a lot of myth and legend surrounding the life story of the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. When it comes to sports, here's one thing we know for sure - he loved baseball. Here's Castro featured in a 1959 newsreel.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: Showing another aspect of his character, the unpredictable Castro dons a baseball uniform to pitch a full inning. Castro pitching is credited with striking out the three batters he faces.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Could be...
UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: That's one game where the ump really has to be careful. Viva Fidel.
GREENE: Fidel Castro was so good at baseball, in fact, that he once tried out for the New York Yankees - or not. That is a myth that has existed for a very long time. And let's sort it out now with Adrian Burgos, Jr. He is a history professor at the University of Illinois and also author of "Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos And The Color Line." Professor, welcome to the program.
ADRIAN BURGOS JR: Thanks for having me on.
GREENE: So Fidel Castro did not try out for the Yankees, is that right?
BURGOS: No, he didn't try out for the Yankees. What we know is that he probably showed up for a Washington Senators open tryout in Havana. But he wasn't at the level of a talented Cuban ballplayer where the scouts went looking for him.
GREENE: So this was a major league tryout that he kind of forced his way into or was hanging around the field or at least there?
BURGOS: Well, Joe Cambria, who was a scout for the Washington Senators, had a series of open tryouts where if you were a Cuban with a baseball dream, you can just show up and run through the paces and maybe you'll get an offer, maybe not.
GREENE: Do we know how he did?
BURGOS: Well, what we know is that he didn't get offered a contract, so.
GREENE: And this was a younger Castro. This was before the revolution, before he became the leader of Cuba?
BURGOS: Right. This is well before, you know, the revolution and even before the events of 1953.
GREENE: So how did this myth about the Yankees come into existence?
BURGOS: You know. I think the myth about the Yankees is pure historical what-ifs.
BURGOS: And - because the Yankees weren't active in Cuba to scout any town. They weren't active in Latin America until the 1960s, to be honest. So it wasn't the Yankees. It was the Washington Senators and the New York Giants right across the river from the Yankees that were the most active teams in Cuba.
GREENE: Well, does the fact that this myth was out there, that someone wanted to spread this rumor that Fidel Castro had tried out for, you know, what's considered the greatest American baseball team of all time, does it say anything about baseball in this island?
BURGOS: It says a lot about baseball both in Cuba and in the United States. One of the fascinating dimensions of this is that Castro very much loved baseball. He used baseball in a Cuban tradition of politics that Los Barbudos, the baseball team or the bearded ones, played before an exhibition game in Cuba during professional seasons.
GREENE: Did you say the bearded ones?
BURGOS: The bearded ones. That's what they named their team - Los Barbudos.
GREENE: Was that because of Castro's beard? He wanted baseball to be very much part of him and part of his own identity?
BURGOS: He wanted to share with the Cuban people that he too was a fellow Cuban. He loved baseball. Baseball is such an ingrained part of Cuban identity that he and the other military leaders - and even someone like Che Guevara - had to learn how to play baseball.
GREENE: Just before I let you go, let me just return to that rumor of Fidel Castro and the Yankees. Did he ever do anything to knock that rumor down or say, no, that's not true? Or did he enjoy it being there?
BURGOS: Fidel Castro enjoyed the myth of him having been a real major league baseball prospect. And he would not have knocked that down in the least.
GREENE: All right, Adrian Burgos, Jr. He is a history professor at the University of Illinois and also author of "Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos And The Color Line." Professor, thanks a lot.
BURGOS: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.