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May 25, 2006


Scott Simkus

Like Cheech and Chong, I’ve been thinking about grass a little too much the last couple days… outfield grass, that is. North of the Mason-Dixon line, here in Chicago, we can go extended periods of time (six or seven weeks during the summer season) without any precipitation. During such a stretch, the grass becomes dormant, turns brown and recoils. The earth hardens and cracks, little pebbles become dislodged and sit atop the surface. Bald spots develop in areas of heavy foot traffic. During such a drought, on a ballfield without sprinklers, the ground plays fast- lightening quick- more like playing on asphalt than artificial turf. Ones knees begin to ache after a couple weeks of running down flyballs and attempting to cut off shots in the gap on such a surface. On the flip-side, when it rains an inordinate amount, or rains on a daily basis, the turf grows at an unruly pace, is thick and stays moist at the base, eating extra-base hits like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors. The maintenance crew- if one is employed- can have a difficult time simply keeping up with the mowing schedule due to the weather. My point is: Aside from financial resources, Mother Nature probably had an impact in maintaining the Cuban and Negro League fields. In the early twentieth century, old Almendares Park most likely employed a horse-drawn lawnmower. These were developed in the mid-1850s to accommodate the growing interest in well-maintained golf courses in Europe, as well as here in the U.S.. The horse may have been fitted with leather booties, so as to minimize the damage to the playing surface, and would have been “operated” by a two-man team. One man in back, steering the steel mower dragged by the beast; an apprentice at the front, leading the horse by a leather strap, keeping his direction straight. I’d imagine it would take several hours to mow the vast expanses of Almendares, time which may or may not have been available depending on the weather during a particular week or month. May to October is the wet season in Cuba, the prevailing winds are usually from the northeast, year round. Havana’s climate most closely resembles Miami, of course, but is surprisingly slightly drier. Havana can get 50-60 inches of rain per year, compared to Chicago (33), New York (43), Kansas City (29) or St. Louis (34). For obvious reasons, the typical Cuban baseball season coincided with the driest, coolest time of the year (Dec-April), but the Summer Leagues (1905, for instance) coincided with their wettest time of the year. Not sure what any of this information is worth, but where else to belabor such trivia than your blog?

Gary Ashwill

Ah, the height of the grass--for some reason I've never thought of that. That's a very good point, and might come into play in the Negro Leagues, too, especially when they played in their own or semi-pro parks, where there probably weren't many resources available for upkeep.

About the height of the mound: there were Spanish-language Spalding guides published in the 1900s--Echevarria mentions them, and says they were used in Cuba as an authority on the rules (p. 128). I'd assume they were probably the same as U.S. rules, but you never know.

A couple of other factors to consider: foul territory (some old photos of Cuban baseball I've seen seem to show some pretty vast distances back of home plate) and hitting background. Also battered baseballs, which might have been kept in play longer. Doctored pitches probably weren't to blame, as I believe an American pitcher was said to have been the first to throw the spitball in Cuba only around that time (1905, 1906).

I looked at that Echevarria passage when writing the post. I think he was talking about the new Almendares Park built in 1916, the one that was destroyed in the 1926 hurricane; there was an old one before that was built by the Zaldo brothers on Carlos III Avenue back in the 19th century. It was used through the 1915/16 season. I've been searching through that book and a couple others to find the dimensions of this older park, but haven't found anything yet.

It would also be interesting to find out more about the parks, their exact positioning, etc., because of the wind factor you mention.

Scott Simkus

I know you've read Echevarria's book: On page 151 he says old Almendares was about 500 feet to left (no batter ever cleared the fence), and approx. 400 feet to right, with Oms, Charleston, and Jud Wilson among the only four or five to clear the wall on the fly. But aside from the long walls, why the low offensive production? A few things to consider: Height of the mound. Are there any publications (Spalding, spanish language, or otherwise) with a listing of rules, regs. for Cuban ball, including, of course, the standard mound height at the time? #2: Prevailing style of play. According to your research, both in 05 and 07, all teams, with the expception of one, averaged over one sac bunt per game. The champion in 05 avg. over two! For comp, McGraw's 05 World Champion Giants had 90 in 154 games, to lead the MLB. #3: Positioning of the field. We know the park was destroyed in '26 by a hurricane- but how did the wind blow there on a regular basis- in or out? #4: Height of grass (don't laugh)- having played over 20 years of hard ball and softball I came to appreciate how much the outfield grass effects the offensive production. In high turf, shots which are normally destined to split the gaps or scoot down the line for extra bases die a quick death and are easily fielded. Obviously, we have no way of knowing how well the field was maintained in '05 or '07. Today, most MLB outfields are cropped as if they were fairways at Augusta. Here in Chicago, when we had old man Larry Bowa at short, the groundscrew kept the infield turf high, as if it were a prairie, allegedly helping Bowa "cover" more ground.

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