Presented by Leonardo Padura last February during the Havana branch of the International Book Fair 2016, Béisbol y nación en Cuba (Baseball and Nation in Cuba), by university professor Félix Julio Alfonso López, is a very valuable contribution to the history of the national sport that, though sustained by passion, is the fruit of the pressing investigative rigor and the efficacious expression that a dominating and charming narrator places on the “game’s field” beyond the nine innings.
It is a compilation of four books that appeared between 2004 and 2013, to which several texts not collected in those volumes are added. According to the author, “what gives unity to the text is the cultural history of Cuban baseball, examined from different perspectives and interpretative possibilities, which range from the demystification of its origins to the condition of nationalist discourse, its relations with violence, gender, sugar, music, literature, television, the U.S. imprint and Cuban baseball’s relations with Latin American countries like Mexico and Venezuela.”
Alfonso López’ contributions in that field are more than necessary in the local sphere where the books that include these conditions have been very scarce. The volumes dedicated to the sport are generally full of statistics and lack an adequate management of the narrative discourse.
Starting with the first article, “Archaeology of Cuban Baseball,” the author shows his tools, it should be said: his hierarchy as a researcher when participating in the old debate about the origins of baseball on the island, with the aim of bringing up the following questions: Who introduced baseball in Cuba? When did the first historic game of our baseball take place? Which teams played in the oldest game known and what was the character of that game?
Félix Julio explores multiple sources, organises the documentation, confronts mistakes, displays his doubts, argues with criteria, and clarifies the problem as no others had done who during so many years have done with stubborn determination. But the enigma continues latent, because “once again the historic truth escapes us, and it is impossible to categorically respond. New doubts, renewed suspicions are added to the existing ones, hidden in fragmentary texts, nebulous memories, contradictory affirmations. In the end, knowing who introduced baseball, where, when and who really played baseball for the first time in Cuba is perhaps just an erudite curiosity or a personal obsession of little practical use.”
Without leaving loose ends, Alfonso López takes the discussion on the subject to such a level that no serious historian can come and add injury to insult if unequivocal sources, supports unexplored until now, do not appear. The testimonies indicate that probably already in the 1860s baseball was played in the western region, and maybe also in the centre of the island, but there is no irrefutable documentation that confirms this. It is true that on December 27, 1874 a baseball game was held in Matanzas, but the chronicle about this event is imprecise in many details about the teams that played. Therefore, the mystery continues open, in the air, like a very high fly ball that never falls.
The article that gives the name to the book, “Baseball and Nation in Cuba,” is also fundamental. Here the author, according to his own words, draws a map on the way in which baseball has been making up – from its emergence and in the first decades of expansion and its spreading – narratives or discourses associated to the idea of the building of the nation and nationalism, a process that culminated in what was considered, already in the Republic, the nation sport of Cubans, despite that it could also be the same in its place of origin, the United States.
In his tour, the researcher consults an extensive bibliography that includes the texts about the vicissitudes regarding baseball since the 19th century, collected in literary, theatre works and numerous periodical publications, where the ideas about nation and sport are intertwined, from diverse perspectives, rooted in frequently found positions.
The article titled “Reds and Blues,” the colours that identified the Havana and Almendares teams, is about the beginnings of the largest sports rivalry between two baseball clubs in Cuba, whose stubborn determination “can be interpreted as a reflection of a violence contained at other levels of post-war Cuban society.” This narrative takes place during the colonial stage, in the last third of the 19th century, but in the following century, lions and scorpions will again charge, with new actors, and in a new social context.
The article “Elena A. at Bat” introduces a touch of genre. It is a review of women’s participation in Cuban baseball around the middle of last century, institutionalised in 1947 by the constitution of the Women’s Baseball Sports Organisation of the Republic of Cuba, as a consequence of the social and political struggles carried out by women in Cuban society during the first decades of the 20th century. The text also extends to the women’s leagues of that sport in the United States, and the visit of U.S. women baseball players to Cuba to play against locals teams since 1926.
The article “Sugar and Baseball in Cuba” illustrates how the new socioeconomic relations born with the Republic promoted changes in the sports sphere, and how “the real democratisation of the baseball game and its conversation in part of popular culture” take place in the 20th century. Because, while in the previous stage, during the 19th century, baseball had been the patrimony of the white men of the well-off classes, and only practiced in urban spaces, now the workers (white, mixed blood and black) and the rural areas entered the game, especially in the sugar mill towns.
Other articles report on the references to baseball made by José Martí, as well as the relations between music and baseball in Cuba, or the presence of baseball in Cuban literature, among the many relevant texts of the book, which is a work of indispensable reading for those who want to have access to the evolution of this sport on the island. (2016)
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