Steve Bellan and the Origins of Cuban Baseball
Here’s another tidbit from John Thorn’s Baseball in the Garden of Eden (Simon & Schuster 2011).
I had always though baseball caught on in Cuba in the 1890’s around the time of the Spanish American War, which was also a time when barnstorming teams were making heralded Caribbean trips. According to Thorn, baseball reach Cuba at least 20 years earlier.
It was apparently common well before the Spanish American War and possibly as far back at the 18th century for wealthy and upper middle class Cubans to send their children to the U.S. for higher education and to make life-long business contacts. One of these young Cubans was Esteban “Steve” Bellan who came to New York from Havana at age 13 to attend Fordham University’s Rose Hill preparatory school.
Despite the relatively late start to take up baseball, Bellan quickly established himself on the diamond, so much so that he eventually became the first Cuban ever to play in a U.S. professional baseball league. He played in the National Association’s first three seasons from 1871 through 1873, the first two years for the Troy Haymakers and then briefly in ’73 for the New York Mutuals. His best season was 1872 when he hit .278 in 23 games (Troy played only 25 league games that season), roughly splitting his time between shortstop and third base.
After seven games for the Mutuals in 1873 in which he hit only .189, Bellan returned to Cuba at age 23 and quickly set about organizing a baseball team there, presumably largely consisting of other young Cubans who had been educated in the U.S. and developed a passion for baseball too. Thorn writes that in 1874 Bellan’s Club Havana defeated Club Matanzas in the first organized, or at least documented, baseball game played in that country. Thorn also notes that each team played with 10 men in that first game, with the second baseman playing on or near the bag and a “right shortstop” playing between second and first.
Baseball must have caught on like wildfire in Cuba, because under Bellan’s direction the Professional Baseball League of Cuba was formed in 1878 and continued without interruption until 1961, after the Cuban Revolution, when Castro abolished professional baseball and replaced the Cuban League with an “amateur” national system, the highest level of which, the Cuban National Series, was, of course, “amateur” in name only and continues to this day.
In the winter of 1879, a group of American players who would play for the NL’s Worchester Ruby Legs in 1880 made a barnstorming tour of Cuba. In addition, two players who played for the NL’s Syracuse Stars in 1879, Hick Carpenter and Jimmy Macullar, actually played in the Cuban League that winter for the Colon Club, starting the tradition of American players playing in the Caribbean winter leagues which survives to this day.
Those of you who regularly read mlbtraderumors.com know we have been hearing all winter long about Cuban defectors Yoenis Cespedes, who just signed a four year $36 million contract with the Oakland A’s, and Jorge Soler, who is also expected to sign an eight-figure contract soon. Now you know it all started with Steve Bellan back in the 1870’s.
[Post Script: one final thing I learned from Thorn’s book is a better understanding of a statement from Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract that the early National League didn’t necessarily contain the nation’s best professional teams.
National League founder William Hulbert ran the league with an iron fist until his death in 1881. Hulbert threw out the New York Mutuals and Philadelphia Athletics after the the 1876 season when they had refused to make their final western road trip; the Louisville Greys dropped out after the game fixing scandal of 1877 as did the St. Louis Browns after signing fixers Jimmy Devlin and George Hall for the 1878 season in spite of Hulbert’s ban on these players; and Hulbert expelled the Cincinnati Red Stockings after the 1880 season for selling beer and liquor at their games in violation of league rules.
Hulbert was forced to replace these big market clubs with professional teams from smaller markets such as Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Providence, Buffalo, Syracuse, Troy and Worchester. Meanwhile, the expelled big market clubs didn’t cease to exist. Instead, they continued to play games outside of a league structure. This was not as difficult as it sounds today, because even the league teams in the 1870’s played far more games against non-league opponents — professional, semi-pro and amateur — than they did against league members each year.
As such, the big market teams could still afford top talent whether or not they were members of a league.
Evidence that the NL teams were not all the best teams in the country are demonstrated by the following examples. The Providence Grays joined the NL in 1878 with a line-up few of whom had played in the NL the year before and finished a strong 3rd in a six-team league. The Buffalo Bisons did the same thing in 1879, finishing a strong 3rd in an eight-team league.
Not until the American Association formed in 1882 and declared itself a major league and attendance throughout baseball exploded, in large part due to the fact that the AA and the NL moved teams back into the big markets previously abandoned by the NL, and also the fact that AA teams sold beer and played games on Sundays at cheaper ticket prices, did the major leagues really begin to have the resources to gather up all of the top talent.]