Tito Rondon sent me this story about Babe Ruth's trip to Cuba almost exactly a year ago. Various things got in the way, and I never posted it—but here it is at last.
Tracer: Papi Fabré (with apologies to Rob Neyer and Bill James)
By Tito Rondon
In the mid-70s, the Honduran national team was playing a series of practice games in Nicaragua; Isidro “Papi” Fabré was the manager. He coached Honduran baseball for over 40 years. I wanted to meet him.
Honduras was playing San Fernando in Masaya, and I went into the dugout prior to the contest.
The players worshipped him, and loved to hear his stories again and again. Since I was a new face, the players asked him to tell me about the time he had faced Babe Ruth. He wittily described how he had struck out the Bambino.
“Well, I figured I had the Babe’s number,” said Papi. “And in his next at bat I had him, I thought. He lifted a fly ball near first base in foul territory. But Armando Marsans was the promoter, and he had put together our team, and though he was around 40 and hadn’t played regularly for some time he put himself in at first just to be able to say he had played against Babe Ruth. And darn if the old coot didn’t drop the easy fly ball. Made me mad.”
“Tell him the rest,” implored the Honduran ballplayers.
“Well,” said Papi after a well timed theatrical pause, “Ruth hit my next pitch so hard the ball hasn’t landed yet.” Everybody broke up.
Abel Linares was a Cuban entrepreneur; in 1897, while living in Key West, he organized the first games between Cubans (white) and Americans on United States soil.
After the 1920 season, he reached an agreement with the New York Giants to play a series of games against the Cuban teams Habana and Almendares.
The Giants, second in the National League behind the Brooklyn Dodgers, brought 12 players to the island: Frank “Pancho” Snyder and Earl “Oil” Smith, catchers; George “Highpockets” Kelly, first baseman; “Laughing Larry” Doyle, second baseman; Dave “Beauty” Bancroft, shortstop; Frankie “The Fordham Flash” Frisch, infielder; Ross Youngs, George Burns and Vernon Spencer, outfielders, and Jesse Barnes, “Rosy” Ryan, and Pol Perritt, pitchers.
Linares also offered Babe Ruth two thousand dollars per game to participate: the Babe agreed to visit Cuba.
First, the Giants played eight games, taking three out of four from Habana (Ryan picked up a couple of wins) while Almendares managed to win two and tie the other two; Fabre hit two for four and pitched a three hit shutout in the last game, October 28 (the series had started October 16.)
Finally, on Saturday the 30th, Ruth made his debut. The Giants lined up with Burns LF, Bancroft SS, Youngs RF, Ruth CF, Frisch 3B, Kelly 1B, Doyle 2B, Smith C and Perritt P. Snyder pinch hit.
Habana had as an attraction the first two Cubans to make the major leagues (not counting Esteban Bellán of the old National Association), Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida. The line up was Manuel Cueto 3B, Joseito Rodríguez 2B, Ted Easterly RF, Jacinto “Jack” Calvo CF, Angel Aragón LF, Hod Ford SS, Fidelio Hungo 1B, Ricardo Torres C and Oscar Tuero P. José Acosta and Lefty Stewart (a U.S. minor leaguer) also pitched, Almeida replaced Easterly, and Oscar Rodríguez pinch hit.
The Giants won 4-3, with Ruth hitting a double and a triple with a run and two RBI. The fans grumbled.
Then it was the turn of the Scorpions, Almendares. Their order at bat to face the battery of Ryan and Snyder was Bartolo Portuondo 3B, Bernardo Baró RF, Baldomero “Merito” Acosta LF, Cristóbal Torriente CF, Pelayo Chacón SS, Armando Marsans 1B, Eusebio “Papo” González 2B, Eufemio Abreu C and Emilio Palmero P. Paito Herrera pinch hit and Adolfo Luque relieved.
New York won 3-0, and Ruth had two singles in four at bats. The game is considered historic because Palmero struck out Ruth with reportedly three straight fast balls in the fifth inning, thereby becoming the first Cuban pitcher in history to fan the Babe.
On Wednesday November 3 the Giants beat Habana 7-1 (Ruth went 0-3, knuckleballer José Acosta, “Acostica,” becoming the second Cuban to strike out the Bambino), and Thursday Almendares fell 10-8. Ruth had two hits to hike his average to .375, but the fans were disappointed because he had not hit a homer yet.
On Saturday 6 New York faced Almendares again, and the game turned out to be unforgettable for Cuban fans. With all their pitchers tired, the Giants turned to George Kelly.
Torriente touched him for three homers, and also had a double off Ruth, who relieved for one inning, and had six RBI. After the one out two run double in the fifth, Ruth retired Eusebio González and Mike Herrera and Kelly came back to the mound.
It was the first three-homer game in Cuban history, exhibition or not, and the feat shone in comparison to Ruth’s drought. But it must be said that the Babe spent most of his time (and a lot of his money) either at the racetrack or at Jai Alai, and also that the Cuban pitchers were very careful and “hid” the ball.
On Sunday the Giants, behind Ryan, beat Habana 8-7, and finally, on Monday against Palmero Ruth hit a gigantic home run. Yuyo Ruiz reports that when Almendares Park was torn down in 1932 the fans were still talking about the homer. Almendares won anyway, 6-5.
On Friday (November 12), the Giants (Ryan) and Habana (Tuero) tied 3-3, and on Sunday Ruth faced Fabré. In the first inning he homered, and later signed the ball: “At 2:10 on November 14, 1920, this ball was hit for a home run by Babe Ruth.”
The Giants won 7-3 behind Perritt and took the series; the last game was played against a so-called “All Cubans” team, and Ruth skipped the contest. He participated in two more games, in Santiago, for three thousand dollars, but only Rosy Ryan accompanied him.
The top hitters in the series were Bernardo Baró (.424), Cristóbal Torriente (.379), Pelayo Chacón (.364), Dave Bancroft (.362) and Ruth (.345). Everyone else hit under .320. The papers reported that Linares made $40,000.
The reports I read were from Yuyo Ruiz (Puerto Rico) and Jorge Figueredo (Cuba).
1) The promoter was Linares, not Marsans.
2) Marsans did not play first base in the November 14 game when Ruth homered off Fabre. Ramón González did, and he was charged with an error. So he might have prolonged Ruth’s at bat by dropping the foul fly. In the earlier game that Fabre pitched Marsans played first cleanly.
3) Marsans was only 33, but was considered a veteran. Sportswriter Horacio Roqueta wrote that “the old man Marsans continued to hit the ball hard, showing that even though his motor has been running for a while, there is still gas in the engine.”
4) Marsans was playing in part because he was an attraction as one of the first two Cuban big leaguers. But so was Almeida.
5) There is no mention of a Ruth strike out while facing Fabré.
6) The titanic blast was hit off Palmero (“The Blond Guy from Guanabacoa”); the home run off Fabré was a garden-variety Ruthian long homer.
Hope all this was not boring, and gives a fairly interesting view of the quality of Cuban Negro leaguers.
This is Gary again. A belated thanks to Tito for this great story. The only thing I can add is this: Fabré did not strike out Ruth in this series. He pitched against the Babe twice. On November 6 (Torriente’s three-homer game), with Fabré pitching a complete game, Ruth walked twice, reached first on an error by Paíto Herrera, and popped up twice, to catcher Eufemio Abreu and first baseman Armando Marsans (maybe that’s how Fabré came to associate Marsans and a popup by the Babe). On November 14, again a complete game by Fabré, Ruth homered, walked twice (once intentionally), hit a sacrifice fly to right field, and lined into an unassisted double play by third baseman Bartolo Portuondo.
These are Ruth’s known strikeouts in the series: on October 31 he struck out twice against Emilio Palmero. On November 3 Ruth struck out three times against José Acosta and Oscar Tuero. On November 8 Emilio Palmero struck out three Giants; it’s unknown if Ruth was one of them. On November 12 Lefty Stewart struck out three more Giants. Two of his victims, George Kelly and Rosy Ryan, are known; again it’s unknown if Ruth was the third.