The world's greatest Cuban baseball historian, and probably the world's most censored baseball historian, has passed away, I learned today. Severo Nieto was a kind man, a packrat, and a proud Cuban patriot who sincerely believed it the first several times when Fidel Castro's wretched regime told him that, desafortunadamente, there just wasn't enough paper to publish his dozen or so follow-ups to his debut book, which was only the first-ever Cuban baseball encyclopedia. (Nieto's sin was to have specialized in Cuba's rich, eight-decade professional era, instead of the glorious revolutionary amateurism that came after.) From my June 2002 reason article about Nieto and the idiot U.S. embargo that reinforced his intellectual isolation:
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."
It was Berman who sent me the news of Nieto's death. An excerpt from his e-mail sums the historian up well:
Severo died in Havana three years ago, not long after I last saw him in June of 2004. He was 81. His widow and daughter are trying to relocate in Miami for economic reasons but aren't optimistic of their chances. His daughter has asked me to try to sell Severo's collection of hundreds of sports books—some going back to the 1890s—but I know it will be next to impossible for me to do so, as long as the blockade exists. First, it's harder than ever to get there. Second, I'm pretty sure it would be illegal for me to bring them into the U.S., even though most were printed in the U.S. Third, I'm sure they weigh hundreds of pounds. […]
McFarland finally did publish one of Severo's books but didn't promote it on brochures. I don't think they were ever particularly interested in his work, possibly because it was hard to retrieve it from those old disks. In Cuba, he's still widely respected as a man who spent six decades as a sports journalist. But that never translated into economic success, of course. […]
Severo was a good friend. I've often thought we must have looked strange together. He spoke virtually no English, my Spanish is passable, at best, he was extremely deaf, and I'm not far behind. I'm happy I knew him.
Nieto's first book in English, detailing how American Negro League teams played in Cuba before World War II (including against white American competition), will finally be coming out this August. It's called Early U.S. Blackball Teams in Cuba: Box Scores, Rosters and Statistics for the American Series, 1900-1945. I look forward to reading it.