The death of Conrado Marrero, two days before turning 103, now places his legend in another dimension, in eternity, where he continues talking about baseball and chewing tobacco. When evoking him, we will speak of one of great gifts: his memory.
On several occasions I had long conversations – the term of interview is not exact – with The Premier of the Cuban pitchers and what impressed me the most during those meetings was his memory, his ability to remember events from long ago and to organise them coherently in a story.
I’m convinced that that talent, his exceptional memory, was one of the resources that most helped him in his long career as a pitcher, while being able to remember the pitches he threw to each of the batters he faced and all the circumstances that surrounded each game. In 2002, when Marrero was already 91 years old, he told me these anecdotes:
“I once threw a straight ball in good zone on two strikes without balls to Stephens, the Boston’s fourth bat, which he did not swing and the umpire called it; then he told Grasso [the catcher]: ‘is that one of Marrero’s new pitches?’ But I did that once and for at least two years I didn’t repeat it with the same batter, so it would be forgotten.
“I did it twice to Gus Zemial, Philadelphia’s fourth bat, who was a tremendous batter. The first time with full bases and two outs. He was in two strikes because he had connected two fouls; then I threw him a straight ball through the middle and he saw it go by without batting it. When the umpire lifted his hand he couldn’t believe it. He kept looking at me with hate for a long time. Well, he went to cover in the left field and he continued looking at me. After some time went by I repeated the recipe with him and I again struck him out.”
Marrero was able to remember, more than half a century after having seen them, how the great baseball players of his time stood on the batting box. He also remembered his favourite pitches and how they were received in the home plate. When I asked him how Ted Williams batted, this is what he said:
“Far from home, but close to the front plate. Since he was a tall man, he would hit the ball like two fourths before reaching home, he wouldn’t let it get there. From the knee up to the shoulders, he would swing at everything that passed by there. But if it was bad, he wouldn’t bat it. He had a tremendous concept of the good ball. He always hit it. He didn’t wait for the countdown. He didn’t let the good ball go by even with three balls.”
“And how did you pitch for him?”
“I would try to make him indecisive. I would frequently throw him a high ball, rather straight, because if the pitches to the side were bad, he wouldn’t bat them, and if they were in the strike zone he would connect them well because he had long arms and would let them get far. But I wasn’t always the same. Sometimes I dominated him and at others he would bat me.”
Meanwhile, he said the following about Mickey Mantle:
“Mickey Mantle was a left-handed ball golfer and on the right he batted high. So, when he batted on the right, you could defend yourself by pitching him low balls, but not so on the left, because he golfed and his batting was incredible. But I was lucky with him by pitching him high balls. By the way, he once tapped my ball with two strikes. I threw him a nackle which he broke and tapped. He was so fast that when he hit the ball he almost always did a base on balls, because who was going play him after that. He was very good at tapping the ball. He bunted with two strikes and didn’t miss.”
When asked if he played against Joe DiMaggio, he answered:
“Yes, twice. Once I gave him a base on balls and the other strike out. But at that time he was no longer playing well. Because when he was a baseball player he was perfection. The most perfect baseball player there was. He did everything well. He batted well, he ran well, he pitched well and he fielded marvelously.”
Marrero’s memory was so astonishing that, two months before his centennial, I asked him if he remembered his childhood and he said: “Yes, I remember I didn’t have a dime, in the middle of the countryside, and people used to shout: look, there goes Rosillo, there goes the Rosillo plane, then I looked up at the sky, but I didn’t see it.” The famous flight by Domingo Rosillo was on May 17, 1913. A month before this Conrado Marrero had turned two.
At 100, Conrado Marrero was able to remember the names and surnames of all the teachers he had had, one of whom, Rosenda Burguet, “a tall and vain lady,” told him he was very good in arithmetic, but warned him that to say his lessons by heart was not reading.
What was the mystery behind such ability in a man who had only reached elementary education and who was forced to do agricultural work since early childhood until he was a young man, who did nothing else in his life but work hard, play ball and teach it?
Decidedly, that enigma departed with him, but I have no doubt that Conrado Marrero was a man of a privileged intelligence who set his mind on a sports speciality but who, in changing contexts, would have also been a brilliant professional in other disciplines, like researching history, just to give an example.
Another of his qualities, linked to his good memory, was his talent for telling anecdotes. Marrero never lost the thread of a story. At 101, when I met him for the last time, he was still coherent in his story. He could interrupt it for a few seconds, but did not abandon it, he always took it to the end.
And what can we say about his longevity? How can such a long life be explained in a man who started working when he was a child and remained active, teaching baseball, until he was 90 years old?
Evidently, Conrado Marrero was much more than an exceptional baseball player and his legend transcends the universe of sports. Perhaps it could be said of him what a New York Times journalist wrote in 1969 about Joe DiMaggio: “It’s not because of the records that we remember him.” (2014)
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