Monday, October 18, 2010
This is the second installment of the "Guest Author" series. This week the story is by Gary Ashwill, famed baseball researcher and co-proprietor of The Outsider Baseball Bulletin. Gary is one of the foremost experts on black baseball and when he agreed to do a story for the site I was keenly interested to see who the ballplayer would be. To my surprise he hit the proverbial home run, at least for me. See, as well as being interested in pre-war baseball history, one of my other passions is the Spanish Civil War, especially the international volunteers who fought on both sides. Until Gary emailed me his story, never in a million years would I have guessed those two interests could be combined...
Basilio Cueria was big and powerful, an ex-soldier who had been a baseball prodigy from the time of his childhood in Marianao, a suburb of Havana. He was an all-around player, a catcher who could also play the outfield and first base, and even filled in at second and third occasionally. The owner of one of his teams, the promoter Syd Pollock, even hyped him as “Babe Ruth Cueria”—but despite his potential, he never hit enough to make him more than a benchwarmer with several Cuban traveling clubs in the United States during the 1920s, when he wasn’t working in a Long Island factory.
So how did this Afro-Cuban immigrant, journeyman ballplayer, and blue collar worker become the subject of admiring profiles by two of the twentieth century’s greatest poets?
Cueria may not have been not a great ballplayer, but he was an ardent opponent of dictators and would-be dictators. He came to the United States in 1921 to play baseball with Abel Linares’s All-Cubans team, then became involved with Cuban émigrés who opposed the authoritarian governments of Gerardo Machado and Fulgencio Batista. Cueria wound up more or less exiled from Cuba for the better part of two decades. After retiring from pro baseball, he organized an amateur team in Harlem called the Julio Antonio Mella Baseball Club, named after the founder of the Cuban Communist party, who had been assassinated in Mexico.
At two in the morning on January 20, 1937, Cueria arrived in France aboard the S.S. Berengaria, then secretly made his way overland to Spain, where he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade—American volunteers fighting on behalf of the Spanish Republic against the fascist rebels led by Francisco Franco. During his first year in Spain Cueria survived trench warfare at the Battle of Jarama and artillery and air bombardments at Brunete. He transferred to the regular People’s Army, and rose to the position of artillery captain under the famous peasant general Valentín González, known as “El Campesino.”
That fall Nicolás Guillén, the greatest Cuban poet of the twentieth century, traveled to Spain as a magazine correspondent. Looking to interview Cubans in the Republican forces, he quickly found his way to Cueria, whom he remembered as catcher for the Marianao club in the Cuban League. Now, Guillén wrote in the the leftist journal Mediodía, Cueria had “exchanged the diamond for the trenches,” and “the ephemeral glories of baseball championships” for “the higher glories of fighting fascism.”
Guillén also introduced Cueria to the American poet Langston Hughes, who was reporting on the Spanish war for the Baltimore Afro-American. Hughes described the former Cuban Star as a “tall fine looking captain who was immensely popular with the officers and men under his command.” Cueria, Hughes claimed, was trying to teach baseball to Spanish soldiers, and was looking forward to returning home to New York, where his family still lived. “Our side is sure to win,” he said. “We can’t let the Fascists put it over on us. They’d put all the worst old prejudices back into force and probably even introduce new ones, like Hitler and his Aryanism in Germany. No, we’re not going to let them win!” He asked Hughes to “tell the Mella Club to keep up that team in Harlem, so I can play with them when I get back. Tell all those Harlem baseball players hello!”
Guillén’s interview shows a more pensive side of the soldier/ballplayer. He asked Cueria about his plans for the future, and whether he intended to come home to Cuba. “Look, I can’t say anything about the future,” Cueria replied. “I’m no fortune-teller. But my thinking now is to return to Cuba when this is done, when we’ve won, and it’s safe. And nothing gives me greater hope than the possibility of seeing people who are dear to me, people I haven’t seen for a long time. My friends, my teammates, like Oms, Fabré, José María Fernández…” He fell silent. Then, as if talking to himself, Cueria murmured: “If they don’t kill me, I’ll come back.”
Come back he did. Nothing seems to have been written about the rest of Cueria’s experience in Spain. Franco had won by April, 1939; records show that Cueria re-entered the United States from Havana in April, 1940, so he may have spent a year or more looking up those old friends and teammates. But the Spanish Civil War was, of course, only the beginning. On October 26, 1942, Basilio Cueria, former captain in the Spanish Republican Army, enlisted in the United States Army—as a 43-year-old private. He wasn’t going to let them win.
On July 22, 1943, based at Camp Rucker in Alabama, Private Cueria, “Negro,” submitted a petition for naturalization as a United States citizen to authorities in Montgomery, Alabama—where, soldier or not, anti-fascist or not, he would have had to go to the back of the bus. Nor could he have voted, or exercised very many of the other rights he would supposedly gain as a citizen. Had he objected, he could have found himself beaten, arrested, even killed. All the “worst old prejudices,” you might say.
I don’t know where he served in the war, but Basilio Cueria, veteran of three armies, two wars, and ten years of professional baseball, died on May 8, 1959, aged 60, and was buried in Long Island National Cemetery.
Gary Ashwill writes the baseball history blog Agate Type (www.agatetype.typepad.com) and co-writes The Outsider Baseball Bulletin, an email newsletter about ongoing research into obscure corners of diamond history (www.outsiderbaseball.com). He has been compiling Negro league and Cuban League statistics for more than a decade. Along with work in journalism and freelance editing, Gary has written on American history and culture for such publications as the African American Review and the Oxford Companion to United States History.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
If anyone is interested, I put this Ted Williams drawing up on Ebay. (Frame not included). I have a few drawings like this that I had displayed in a show for fun and have no desire to keep them anymore, so if you want to see it or bid on it, go to: http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=150506075900
Sunday, October 10, 2010
While learning about the negro leagues years ago, I became interested in the various teams they competed against when not playing against other black teams. Back before the Second World War there was a whole parallel universe of baseball operating just out of bounds of the recognized leagues affiliated with major league baseball. Researchers Scott Simkus and Gary Ashwill seem to have coined the perfect phrase for these teams and the games they played: "Outsider Baseball". As a young amateur historian I found out about the bearded House Of David religious colony from Michigan which sent out as many as 3 different traveling teams a season to play all over the country. I heard about the Nebraska Indians, made up of, you guessed it, Native Americans. I read about barnstorming teams made up of major league stars angling to make a buck. All-Girl teams. Teams of washed up players sponsored by a shoe company. Prison teams. The F.B.I. had a team which J. Edgar Hoover never failed to come out and support. And I also came across the Japanese All-Stars which toured North America in 1935.
The team that toured North America in 1935 was an off-shoot of the Japanese "All-Nippon" Team that was assembled in the fall of 1934 to challenge the American All-Star Team that visited the island nation that year. I briefly talked about this tour in my Moe Berg post back in July. Although stocked with the best college ballplayers on the island, the Japanese lost all 17 games against the Americans. While it was looked upon as a national embarrassment, it inspired the formation of a regular professional team sponsored by the Yomiuri Shimbun Newspaper. In the Spring of 1935 the team, now called "The Dai Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Kurabu" (Great Japan Tokyo Baseball Club), embarked on a tour of the United States and Canada. Among it's players was a 28 year-old Hawaiian named Jimmy Horio.
Jimmy Horio was born in Maui, Hawaii in 1907. Like most Americans, he learned baseball at an early age and was fortunate in growing up in Hawaii as the island was a hotbed of very talented teams made up of Japanese-Americans. He lived in Japan for a few years with his grandparents and later returned to Maui. He dropped out of high school with the ambition to become the first Japanese-American to play in the Major Leagues. The speedy Horio was signed by the Sioux Falls Canaries of the Class D Nebraska State League in the Spring of 1934. Jimmy batted .264 in 110 games. After the season ended he learned of the up-coming tour of Japan by the Major League All-Stars and wrote to the Japanese National Team's manager sending his semi-pro and minor league records and asked to be a part of the team.
Horio became the team's centerfielder but against the Big Leaguers didn't do too well, batting a lowly .196. But hey, he was batting against Lefty Gomez and Earl Whitehall, winners of 26 and 14 games that season. Jimmy's biggest contribution to the team however was not his bat, but the practical experience he brought with him as a bona-fide American Minor League player, which he readily shared with his teammates.
When the Dia Nippon team was formed, Jimmy Horio was again selected as it's centerfielder. In February of 1935, Japan's first all-professional baseball team sailed out of Yokohama Harbor, destination North America to try their lot against a full schedule real baseball competition. The Dia Nippon's toured extensively playing all-levels of ballclubs from small town factory teams to AAA level minor league teams. Gauging their success and talent is not an easy thing to do as they did extremely well against amateur teams and very good against minor league opposition, however the games against minor league teams were during spring training and many of the teams did not field their best players. None-the-less, the tour was very successful and huge crowds packed the ballpark when the Japanese came to town. American audiences were fascinated by their cultural differences such as tipping their caps and bowing deeply to the umpire when coming to bat or being thrown out steeling. Particularly noted during the tour was Jimmy Horio's excellent fielding and newspaper accounts are filled with mentions of the Japanese-American's exploits in the centerfield. His fluency in Japanese and English made it much easier for the tour to navigate it's way through the back roads of North America. It is reported that the Dia Nippon team's record for the 1935 tour stands at 74 wins and 34 losses.
After the Japanese players went home, Horio stayed in the United States where he was signed by the Sacramento Senators of the Pacific Coast League. The opportunity to play in the PCL might have come from a recommendation from Frank "Lefty" O'Doul who was part of the U.S. team in 1934 and now playing manager of the San Francisco Seals. Jimmy hit .250 in 20 games for Sacramento which at that time was part of the Brooklyn Dodgers farm system. The following year the Japanese team was back in the States, this time as the Tokyo Giants, now part of the first Japanese Baseball League. And this wasn't an exhibition tour, it was a serious spring training to get the team ready for the inaugural 1936 Nippon Professional Baseball League season.
Horio returned to Japan and joined the Hankyu Ball Club where he batted .233 for the first half of the slit season and .217 for the second. Again, although his averages were low, his influence on the game in Japan well out-weighed his offensive output. Horio steadily increased his batting average, batting over or close to .300 for the 1937-41 seasons. Horio starred for the Hanshin Tigers from 1939 to 1941 when he and Tadashi Kameda, the other American player in Japan, left the island due to the deteriorating political situation between the two countries. Jimmy continued to play semi-pro ball in Hawaii during the war, playing until he was 39 years-old. Jimmy Horio died from bone cancer in 1949 and although he never reached his goal of becoming the first Japanese-American in the majors, his influence on the game in Japan is still felt, forever known as "The Ty Cobb of Japan".
I'd like to thank two historians whose grateful sharing of their research made this post possible. Scott Simkus, co-proprietor of The Outsider Baseball Bulletin (www.outsiderbaseball.com) lent me his newspaper files on the 1935 tour as well as his painstakingly compiled statistics culled from available box scores. Robert Fitts, Japanese baseball card expert and author of two major books on Japanese baseball history: "Wally Yonamine: The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball" and "Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History Of The Game", helped me out with identifying and translating Japanese photo captions and generally sharing his knowledge of early professional baseball in Japan. I am also anxiously awaiting his book on the 1935 U.S. Tour of Japan, "Banzai Babe Ruth!" which is due to be released next year. (www.robfitts.com)