Foul Ball

How a communist dictatorship and a U.S. embargo has silenced a Cuban historian.

George W. Bush would love to be the president who finally topples the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. He also probably wouldn't mind winning Florida by a somewhat more comfortable margin in 2004, or seeing his brother Jeb get re-elected governor this November.

With these goals as a backdrop, the Bush administration launched a crackdown last July on Americans who have the bad manners to spend money in Cuba -- 766 unlucky travelers were fined up to $7,500 for violating the Trading With the Enemy Act in 2001, up from just 188 during Bill Clinton's final year as president. By punishing a tiny fraction of the estimated 200,000-plus Americans who visit the communist island each year, Bush hopes to inflict some kind of indirect damage on the septuagenarian tyrant who has confounded no fewer than eight of his previous U.S. counterparts.

Which brings us to the revered Cuban baseball historian Severo Nieto. Nieto is certainly among the most peculiar and unsung victims of the long standoff between the U.S. and the Castro regime. While perhaps less spectacular and certainly less harrowing than many tales of repression emanating from Cuba, Nieto's story brings to light a sad and often unexamined effect not just of Castro's tyranny but of American policy: how the U.S. embargo, whatever its intention, starves both sides of meaningful and important communication.

The apolitical Nieto, who is a few years El Jefe's senior, basically invented Cuban baseball research in 1955 when he co-authored the country's first-ever baseball encyclopedia, laboriously reconstructing the statistical record of the professional league's first 78 years out of a mountain of newspaper clippings, program scraps, and his own scorecards. Since that dramatic debut, Nieto's been on one of the longest losing streaks in modern publishing history. He has spent a half-century documenting Cuba's tremendously rich professional past in more than a dozen books, but not a single one has been published in any country.

"I tried several times," Nieto told me in his cluttered Havana apartment four years ago, "but they say it's difficult now in Cuba because we don't have any paper." Castro, of course, has been overseeing one of the world's most politically selective paper shortages for decades, reserving precious pulp for odes to Cuba's famed amateur athletic accomplishments while rejecting books that glorify anything about the pre-revolution era.

Cubans aren't the only ones who suffer from this revisionist whitewashing. Americans want access to the archives, because the history of the two countries' professional development is closely intertwined. Indeed, the story of the U.S. national pastime is inextricably linked to Cuba.

Long before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier (after the Dodgers' 1947 spring training in Havana, incidentally), Cuba was the only place where the best white major leaguers -- Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth -- played against some of the top black talent of their era. The U.S. Negro Leagues were stocked with Cubans such as Martin Dihigo (a Hall of Famer in four separate countries), and black American stars from Josh Gibson to James "Cool Papa" Bell to Buck Leonard, who spent their winters starring in the competitive winter league in Havana.

In the tumultuous 1950s, the Cuban Sugar Kings served as the AAA affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds in the summer, while winter-league fans could watch the likes of Brooks Robinson and Jim Bunning duke it out with Cuban stars Minnie Minoso and Camilo Pascual. American scouts, led by Papa Joe Cambria of the woeful and heavily Cuban Washington Senators, fought over a talent pool that would produce many of the names that defined 1960s and '70s Major League Baseball -- Hall of Famer Tony Perez, three-time batting champion Tony Oliva, 1965 MVP Zoilo Versailles, three-time world champion Bert Campaneris, cigar-chomping pitcher Luis Tiant, and 1969 Cy Young Award winner Mike Cuellar.

Even with a flurry of recent books about Cuban baseball, such as Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria's The Pride of Havana and Milton Jamail's Full Count, the historical record remains a gaping hole, one that Nieto is uniquely positioned to help fill.

"Very little information is available at this time -- it's truly one of the last frontiers of baseball research," says Steve Wilson, senior editor of the McFarland & Co. publishing house, which bills itself as the largest publisher of serious baseball nonfiction. "Nieto's painstaking research over several decades has resulted in a tremendous store of information about this relatively unexplored area of baseball history."

The prospect of getting their hands on Nieto's unpublished treasure trove -- which includes such books as Big League Teams in Cuba, Martin Dihigo, El Maestro, and Professional Baseball in Cuba, 1878-1961 -- has left American baseball historians salivating. Yet none of his work has ever seen the light of day across the Florida Straits. The main obstacle to the consummation has been a heartbreaking communications gap, created by two governments that have been unable to budge from positions of mutual hostility.

It's easy -- and not necessarily wrong -- to think of the U.S. embargo of Cuba primarily in economic and political terms: We hope to starve Castro and his government to death, or at least to the point of collapse. But over 40 years out, it's transparently clear that people such as Nieto are the ones bearing the burden, impoverished as much by their removal from an international community of cultural and intellectual exchange as by their banishment from economic trade with the U.S. And it is clear, too, that people in the U.S. are paying a price not to be measured in dollars and cents for their government's refusal to allow commerce in ideas and knowledge along with goods.

When I visited Nieto, his most prized possessions weren't his various signed baseballs or ancient game programs, but rather letters from Americans expressing interest in his research. He proudly showed me carefully preserved correspondence from Pacific Coast League historian Jay Berman, from historian-authors John Holway, Peter Bjarkman, and Larry Lester, and from the publisher McFarland & Co. When I asked why these encouraging notes hadn't led to anything concrete, he shrugged and motioned to the telephone. "I can't call them," he said.

Most Cubans cannot make international phone calls from their homes. Many can't even receive them. McFarland & Co.'s Wilson summarized the problem succinctly: "Mr. Nieto speaks no English and is, we are told, hard of hearing, so we have not tried to communicate by phone. Mail to and from Cuba is unreliable and e-mail nonexistent."

In the end, the only real way for Nieto to communicate with his suitors and potential collaborators is for them to visit him in Cuba. That's especially unlikely to happen any time soon. As the Knight-Ridder news service put it on March 22, "The White House, eager to please Cuban-American voters in Florida who play an outsized role in national politics, plans soon to announce moves to tighten the embargo."

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