Should Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel Robinson, go to Estadio Latinoamericana in Havana on Tuesday, she'll see a game at the same site where her husband played 69 years ago just before breaking baseball's color barrier.
Rachel Robinson and her daughter, Sharon, traveled to Havana Sunday aboard Air Force One for President Obama's historic visit to Cuba, including Tuesday's exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national baseball team.
Jackie Robinson's groundbreaking 1947 major-league season began with spring training in Cuba as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers' Class AAA Montreal Royals farm team, playing games at what was then called El Gran Stadium.
As a kid growing up in Cuba in the 1940s and '50s, my father, Cesar, attended games there, watching his favorite team, Almendares, one of Havana's four professional baseball teams that played in the Cuban League every winter.
The Cuban League, which debuted in 1878, had been integrated since 1900 with white major- and minor-league players having Negro League players and black Cubans as teammates every winter.
It was the reason then-Dodgers' president Branch Rickey relocated the team's spring training base from Jim Crow-era Daytona Beach, Fla., to Havana in 1947 as he prepared to elevate Robinson to the majors.
My father didn't get the chance to see Robinson play in Cuba, but he saw many others, including future Hall of Famers Ray Dandridge, Monte Irvin and Tommy Lasorda and a then-little known Dodgers minor league player named Kevin Connors, who would go on to find more fame as Hollywood actor Chuck Connors in The Rifleman.
When I was a kid, I would listen to my father's stories about the different American players — both black and white — who would play in Cuba each winter. Those stories fueled my interest in Cuban baseball history, an interest that was heightened once I learned that Robinson's history-making season began in Cuba. I spent years seeking out those players to chronicle their experiences.
Dodger pitching great Don Newcombe was one of the many I have spoken to over the years. He was in Cuba with Robinson, along with Roy Campanella and Roy Partlow, as teammates on the 1947 Royals team in spring training.
While the Dodgers stayed at Havana's opulent Hotel Nacional, the Royals were housed and trained at the Havana Military Academy, about 15 miles outside the city. Rickey, perhaps out of an abundance of caution, housed Robinson and his other African-American teammates at the Hotel Los Angeles, a place one newspaper described as "a musty, third-rate hotel” that looked "like a movie version of a waterfront hostelry in Singapore."
Newcombe once told me the story of how he was stopped in the lobby of the exclusive Hotel Nacional when he went to talk to Rickey.
"One (white) bellhop
put me out of the lobby," Newcombe said. "I told him I had to see Mr.
Rickey with the Dodgers. I was allowed to go to the house telephone and
call Mr. Rickey to get permission to go up to his room to see him.”
Newcombe was with the Cincinnati Reds in 1959, when his team played a pair of spring training games in Havana against the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was the last time any major-league team played in Cuba until the Baltimore Orioles visited in 1999. The practice of Americans playing in Cuba ended in the early 1960s after Fidel Castro came to power.
Like many Cubans, my father fled his home country after the revolution, forced to give up his job and his home after he applied for permission to leave for the USA. I was only 5 months old when my family left Cuba in 1965.
My father has refused to go back, fearful because he managed to escape despite being of military draft age at the time. My mother, Maria, returned in 1980, spending a month on a ship in Mariel harbor before finally being able to return with her brother and his family.
I've never been back, but I long to. I've always longed to see the land of my birth. But, most of all, I long to go to see baseball games in Cuba. I long to go to the "Esquina Caliente" — the "Hot Corner" at Havana's Parque Central, where people still gather as they have for decades to talk baseball. And I long to walk into El Gran Stadium, just as my father did as a die-hard Almendares fan so many years ago.
Watching on television as Air Force One landed in Cuba on Sunday, my one thought was, "It's time."
Brioso, a digital producer for USA TODAY Sports, is the author of Havana Hardball: Spring Training, Jackie Robinson and the Cuban League