Relive the tumultuous preseason before Robinson broke the color barrier

Today marks the release of a book that illuminates one of baseball’s most pivotal seasonsHavana Hardball: Spring Training, Jackie Robinson, and the Cuban League

6116“An in-depth look at a pivotal time in baseball history.”—Lou Hernández, author of Baseball’s Great Hispanic Pitchers

“Set against the backdrop of Old Havana, Cesar Brioso has given us an insightful, often loving ode to a memorable season when baseball’s past and future came together.”—Tim Wendel, author of Summer of ‘68: The Season That Changed Baseball, and America, Forever

“Long before the true Gold Age of Cuban baseball marked by the most recent quarter-century, there was also an era of pre-revolutionary professional winter league action housed in Havana. Brioso brings much of that lost ‘other’ Cuban baseball back to life.”—Peter C. Bjarkman, author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864–2006

“A must read for baseball enthusiasts. Recounts the travels of Cuban ballplayers, the particular plight of black Cubans and African Americans, and the triumphs and travails of Cuba’s professional leagues.”—Adrian Burgos Jr., author of Cuban Star: How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball

In 1947, Jackie Robinson was on the verge of making his major-league debut in the United States, an event that would fundamentally change sports—and America. To avoid harassment from the white crowds in Florida during this critical preseason, the Dodgers relocated their spring training to Cuba, where black and white teammates had played side by side since 1900.

It was also during this time that Major League Baseball was trying its hardest to bring the “outlaw” Cuban League under the control of organized baseball. As the Cubans fought to stay independent, Robinson worked to earn a roster spot on the Dodgers in the face of discrimination from his future teammates.

Havana Hardball captures the excitement of the Cuban League’s greatest pennant race and the anticipation of the looming challenge to MLB’s color barrier. Veteran journalist César Brioso brings together a rich mix of worlds as the heyday of Latino baseball converged with one of the most socially meaningful events in U.S. history.

César Brioso gave us the scoop on his new book, telling us about his early memories of playing pick-up baseball games, his transition from sports writer to author, and where he would take Jackie Robinson out to lunch:

9/27/12 1:03:07 PM -- McLean, VA, U.S.A Staff writer, Cesar Brioso Photo by H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY Staff ORG XMIT: HB 42465 9/27/2012 [Via MerlinFTP Drop]
Credit: H. Darr Beiser

I always loved history too, so I started researching and interviewing players for newspaper articles. It wasn’t long before I knew I wanted to someday write a book about Cuban baseball history.“—César Brioso

You grew up listening to your father tell stories of baseball in Cuba. How did that play a role in you deciding to become a sports journalist? How did it play a role in you writing this book?

I don’t think my father’s stories about baseball in Cuba really played a role in me wanting to become a sports journalist. But my love of baseball, which began with my father and I watching Yankees games, certainly did. I knew before I went into high school that I wanted to be a sports writer. As a kid, I probably listened politely to my father’s stories about Cuban baseball, but they didn’t completely sink in. That came later, once I was in college and working as a sportswriter and kept coming across the names in my father’s stories and realized that some significant players had played in Cuba. I always loved history too, so I started researching and interviewing players for newspaper articles. It wasn’t long before I knew I wanted to someday write a book about Cuban baseball history.

 Did you play baseball as a child? What was your favorite team?

 I never played Little League, but I constantly played pick-up baseball games with friends throughout my childhood and adolescence. And I played on the softball team of every newspaper I ever worked for. Growing up in New York and New Jersey, my favorite team was and remains the Yankees.

How did you feel interviewing the heroes of your father’s stories?

It was like getting an extra bit of insight into the baseball my father watched as a child in Cuba. I first started interviewing a lot of these players in the 1990s and when I would finish an interview, I would often call my dad at some point and say, “Guess who I interviewed recently?” When I would tell him it was Max Lanier or Agapito Mayor or Monte Irvin, the stories of the teams he rooted for as a kid would start flowing again.

What was the most interesting thing you learned while researching this book?

Two things. First, of course, was the drunken boxing match between Ernest Hemingway and Hugh Casey of the Dodgers in Hemingway’s farm outside Havana. Just an amazing story and a great bit of color to liven up the Dodgers’ connection to Cuba in the 1940s. The second thing is something very “inside baseball”—that Dixie Walker invented the first-base screen during the Dodgers’ spring training in Cuba in 1947. I’ve gone to baseball games my entire life and seen these devices used during pre-game batting practice and infield drills. I had never heard that Walker had invented them until I stumbled across a New York Times story from 1947 explaining how he came up with the idea. The fact that it was done in Cuba, during that particular spring training by Walker, who was so central to the story of Jackie Robinson’s spring training in Havana. . .it was a detail I had to get into the book.

Jackie Robinson is one of the most famous figures in baseball history. What does Havana Hardball add to what we already know about him?

The fact that Robinson’s historic major-league season began with spring training in Cuba and just how fraught with twists and turns and how tenuous that initial part of the 1947 season was for him.

If you could have lunch with Jackie Robinson, where would you eat? And what three questions would you ask him?

At the Columbia Restaurant in Tampa so I can expose him to good Cuban food unlike what he apparently experienced during his stay in Havana in 1947. And I would ask him (1) How were you able to keep your cool and—as Branch Rickey implored—not fight back in the face of the verbal abuse you faced your first season in the majors? (2) What were your impressions of Cuba when you were there in 1947? And (3) Despite the obvious progress gained by you breaking baseball’s color barrier, did you have any regret that it also meant the eventual end of the Negro leagues?

What was it like to make the shift from sportswriter to author?

Well, I actually stopped being a fulltime sportswriter several years ago, switching to copy editing and eventually to digital production. So becoming an author was really going back to what I always wanted to do—write. The difference is that instead of being assigned what sports to cover, as an author I was able to decide what I wanted to write about and choose a sports subject I was truly passionate about—Cuban baseball history.

If you had to make a prediction right now, which teams do you think are going to the World Series?

St. Louis Cardinals (that would make my wife and in-laws happy) vs. New York Yankees (which may be just wishful thinking).

What are you reading right now?

I recently finished reading Rickey & Robinson: The True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball, by Roger Kahn.

Do you have any future projects in mind?

I’ve already started interviewing former Cuban League and Havana Sugar Kings players and pulling together newspaper articles from the late 1950s. I want to write about the finals days (years) of professional baseball in Cuba in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s revolution.

César Brioso is a digital producer and former baseball editor for USA TODAY Sports. In his 25 years as a sports journalist, he has written for the Miami Herald and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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