Cuba is a country with a rich sporting culture, being a country in the Caribbean and having a Latin American culture would lead you to believe that soccer is the most popular sport in Cuba.
Unlike the majority of Latin America Cuba does not follow the trend of being a soccer nation.
A country that thrives off of a sport introduced from the country being heavily entwined with the USA for decades, and an incredible record in the Olympics, Cuba is a country like no other.
Cuba’s National Sport
The national sport of Cuba is baseball and is by far and away the most popular sport in the country.
Cuba has a long and bloody history with the United States of America but the love of baseball is something that both countries share.
In Cuba 62% of the population play baseball.
Baseball was introduced to the country in the early 1860s by Cuban students who had been studying at US colleges as well as American sailors who were at port in Cuba.
The sport was banned in 1869 by the Spanish authorities who held Cuba at the time.
This took place during the first Cuban War of Independence.
The occupying government had become worried that the sport was becoming more popular than the Spanish sport of bullfighting.
Cuban’s had been expected to attend bullfights as homage to the ruling Spanish in what was called an informal cultural mandate.
This caused baseball to be seen as a symbol of freedom and egalitarianism to the Cuban people.
The ban on the sport is what has seemed to propel Esteban Bellan to remain in the United States and the early adopter of baseball in Cuba became the first Latin American baseball player to appear in the Major Leagues.
In 1878 the professional Cuban League was founded.
Having three teams at its conception every team would play each other four times.
The three teams were Almendares, Havana and Matanzas. The first match would be played between Havana and Almendares.
The Havana team would win by only one point in a close 21-20 match.
The nation’s capital would go on from their first win to take the inaugural championship.
Their captain Bellan would be the stand out player.
In 1899 a team known as the All Cubans was compiled of Cuban League players.
This team would be the first team of Latin Americans to tour the United States.
The year 1908 saw Cuban teams becoming competitive on the international stage, with many clubs scoring victories over Major League Baseball teams.
Players such as Jose Mendez and Cristobal Torrienre were star players and found themselves enshrined in the United States National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
By the 1920s the Cuban League was seen as a fiercely competitive league with a high standard of play.
Many players in the United States would head over to Cuba in the winter during their off season to play in the Cuban League.
Come the start of the second world war baseball was absolutely thriving in an independent Cuba that was deepening the organization and maturity of the league.
Cuba had established several amateur leagues known as Los Amateurs.
Many of these leagues were made up of factory workers or business workers who would play for a team who represented their companies.
The origin of the amateur clubs found their roots in the exclusive social clubs in the capital Havana such as the Vedado Tennis Club.
The growth of the amateur scene in Cuba can be attributed to the economic recovery in the country in the early 1930s.
In 1934 there were six amateur teams, this number would grow to 18 by 1940.
Sugarmill baseball was a big form of amateur baseball in Cuba.
Becoming popular in the 1950s, this group of amateur baseball players consisted of people who were workers at the sugar mills.
Being loosely organized and established regionally each team would represent a different sugar mill.
The games would be played during the workers free time away from work, primarily the weekends or holiday seasons.
The league’s players used the sport as an escape from the harsh working conditions of the sugar mills.
This amateur league would produce some of the best talent of what many consider the Golden Age of the Cuban League.
The Cuban Revolution saw the sport fundamentally change forever.
The new government made baseball a symbol of excellence and used the sport to encourage nationalism.
In 1961 the professional baseball system was replaced with the amateur baseball leagues, the most popular of these being the Cuban National Series.
This reorganization of the structure of the sport was due to the aim to organize the sport based on a socialist model of sports driven by the ideals of the nation and not about money.
Many players were restricted to play in their provinces, the political authorities were in charge of important management decisions and player salaries rather than the clubs themselves.
All sports saw a big change in revolutionary Cuba but baseball continued to play a pivotal role in the day to day life of Cubans.
During this period other sports such as soccer and boxing began to become more popular in Cuba, sport itself became an expected fulfillment of a Cubans daily life to ensure they remained fit and so were more prepared in case of any hostile policies placed on the country by the United States.
During this period many former professional players would begin defecting to neighboring countries in pursuit of the chance to continue playing professionally.
Fidel Castro himself stated that it is hard to prevent the country’s baseball stars from defecting, ”if you have to compete against six million dollars versus three thousand Cuban pesos you cannot win.”
Other problems were that bribery was rampant in the leagues due to the lack of money in the sport making players and coaches more susceptible to throwing games for cash.
The fall of the Soviet Union saw Cuba’s economy take a major hit and this massively affected baseball in the country many could not afford their own cleats so had to share with players, and games would be canceled due to power outages.
Baseball In Modern Day Cuba
1999 saw the Cuban National Team play a two game exhibition match against the MLB team Baltimore Orioles.
This marked the first time the Cuban National team had played an MLB side and was also the first MLB team to play in Cuba since 1959.
The exhibition would be a draw with both away sides winning the two games. Baltimore in Havana and Cuba in Baltimore.
15 years later in 2014 the United States and Cuba sought to reestablish diplomatic relations that the two had held previously.
These talks would lead to another exhibition match with the Tampa Bay Rays being the opposition for the Cuban National team.
The Rays would win the series 4-1. The game was attended by the United States President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.
In January 2019 Matthew McLaughlin would be the first American to play in the Cuban national baseball system for over 60 years.