Héroes de Cartón: A Cuban Collection

When I first traveled to Cuba in 2015, I had hoped to bring home some cards of the stars I would be seeing while I was on my baseball tour. Still naive about the differences between Cuban baseball and the major leagues, I believed that there would be such a thing. I knew the stadium amenities weren’t going to be luxurious (they weren’t) and the food at the park was bound to be lousy (it often was, though the pulled pork sliders I bought outside of Estadio 26 de Julio in Aretmisa remain vividly delicious in my memory). Still, surely an enterprising soul, or the government, had managed to publish a few sets of baseball cards. I was quickly corrected by none other than fellow traveler and Cuban baseball expert Peter Bjarkman. He informed me there were no modern cards in Cuba. There was one set published in 1994 which included pre-MLB cards for the Hernández brothers, Liván and Orlando. The one before that was sold in the 1950s.

I had never given much thought of what it would be like to be a youthful fan who could not regularly experience baseball cards. I loved the cards long before I truly loved the game. In the days before the internet and daily airings on team-owned networks, they were my most direct connection. I thrilled with each new pack and the treasures I found inside.

That same passion, this time on the faces of a gaggle of Cuban children, was on display whenever a member of our group pulled out a pack of Topps at one of the five Serie Nacional contests I attended. They would swarm, a collective that would consume any gleaming picture of a hero-in-action they could get their hands on. Bonus points if it was Yasiel Puig or Aroldis Chapman. At one point I pulled out a business card to give to a local sportswriter and a child’s eager hands immediately reached out to me. Just the image of a baseball on my card was enough to ignite their imaginations.

Jorge Soler’s rookie card appears in the Topps 2015 set, the year I began the collection.

All of this got me thinking about the Cuban stars of the past, and whether they had baseball cards. I had learned that generations of Serie Nacional heroes have never had one. But, what about the hundreds of Cubans who played in the major leagues? Surely many of them must have cards. I first considered starting a collection of all of the cards featuring Cuban-born players. I quickly realized that a complete collection of Cubans was going to necessitate far too much energy and money pursuing just José Canseco. There are roughly 3000 distinct cards of the tainted slugger. I decided that maybe the best way to approach this new whim would be to just get the rookie cards. The set would become relatively finite and definitely more achievable.

Many of them have rookie cards, but certainly not all. Some never had a card issued at all, at least none that my current research has revealed. Others have cards, but not ones that modern collectors consider “rookies.” Cards from a player’s minor league days do not qualify. Neither do cards from foreign leagues, such as the pre-revolution Cuban Winter League.

Tony Taylor’s 1958 Topps rookie card. Taylor is tied with Bert Campaneris for career triples by a Cuban-born player.

Such is the case of the Acosta brothers, José and Merito. The two appeared on Clark Griffith’s Cuban-laden Washington Senators of the 1910s and 20s. However, neither made enough of a mark to appear on a card during World War I and the lean years of the hobby that followed. Cards were produced in smaller sets, thus players like Merito, who appeared in 180 games in the outfield over five seasons, and José, who pitched in 55 games over three years, often fell through the cracks.

However, while playing for the 1923/24 Marianao squad of the Cuban League, they both appeared in a set that was issued in their homeland by Billiken. Like their American counterpart, these cards could be found in packs of cigarettes. In addition to Cubans, they also featured American Negro League legends like Oscar Charleston and Andy Cooper. Per the definitions set by modern collectors, these do not qualify as “rookie cards.” I decided that because so many of the pre-revolution members of the fraternity fell into this category, I was expanding my criteria to include first-known cards, as well.

The most respected Cuban-born player in his homeland is Martín Dihigo, whose 1945/6 Caramelo Deportivo is not a part of the collection because the color line kept him out of the majors.

As of this writing, there have been 208 Cuban-born men who have played or managed in the majors. So far, and research is ongoing, there appear to be 194 cards in the set I have designed. I had four at the outset, just by culling from my own collection: a 1990 issue of Tony Fossas, a 1989 Orestes Destrade, a 1987 Rafael Palmeiro and, from a pack bought in the interest of the project, a 2015 Jorge Soler. All of them happened to be Topps. There are numerous other publishers in this set, including Bowman, Upper Deck and Fleer. Going back before World War II, there are Zeenuts, T207s, an E135, and multiple cards from the candy manufacturer Caramelo Deportivo.

Palmeiro holds most of the offensive records for Cuban-born players, even outshining Hall of Famer Tony Perez. If not for his involvement with PEDs, he’d likely be a Hall of Famer, himself.

The day after I finished the first draft of the checklist for the set, I paid a visit to a comic book store in New Paltz, New York. My ex-wife and I meet there sometimes when we exchange our daughter. B is a fan of comics and I like to encourage my kid to become a nerd, just like her old man. While not a large shop, the collection is extensive and a fan of the genre is certain to leave satisfied.

What it does not have, however, is very many baseball cards for sale. The two collectibles will often appear together at small retail shops like this, though such stores usually lean more heavily in one direction. No one would ever think of this place as a local card shop. But, it does sell packs of the current sets and that day had about 50 individual cards up for grabs. Of those singles, the inventory was split between medium value cards of current players, a sprinkling of stars from 1970s, 80s and 90s, and a few lesser known players from the 60s.

One of those latter cards was from the Topps 1965 set, number 201. Minnesota Twins rookie stars César Tovar and Sandy Valdespino share the honors. Tovar, a native of Venezuela, had a fine twelve-year career with the Twins, Phillies, Rangers, A’s and Yankees. He finished in the top twenty-five in MVP voting every year from 1967-1971 and led the league in doubles and triples in 1970. The Trading Card Database has identified 56 unique cards manufactured for Tovar.

Hilario “Sandy” Valdespino lasted for seven seasons with the Twins, Braves, Astros, Pilots, Brewers and Royals. He did not share the same success as his card-mate, though he did get eleven at bats in the 1965 World Series, contributing a double and a run. Valdespino was born in San Jose de las Lajas in Mayabeque and became the 106th Cuban to appear in the majors when he made his debut on April 12, 1965. Number 201 is his official rookie card, one of only nineteen different identified cards of the outfielder ever produced.

A cardboard miracle.

The odds of finding that card, in that place, just days after I decided to pursue this quest, cannot be calculated. It was a divine intervention, a gift sent by the baseball gods in the form of a fifty-year-old piece of cardboard.

Today I have 115 of the cards from the set. The latest pickup, a W514 of Dolf Luque, is a real beauty. The corners are a little rounded and there are some minor markings on the surface, but it is crease free and remarkably sturdy for something that was printed a century ago. Luque, the first Cuban superstar, is an underappreciated name from yesteryear and a personal favorite. Finally acquiring his card inspired me to tell this story.

Among Cubans, only Luis Tiant put up better career pitching numbers than Dolf Luque. The W514s began production in 1919, the year Luque’s Cincinnati Reds defeated the Black Stockings in the World Series.

As always, the final cards of this set are the most challenging and, of course, the most expensive. It is also a set that is always expanding. Despite the recent short-sighted pronouncements of the current presidential administration, Cubans will continue to find a way to travel those ninety miles to American shores to play the game. Last year, six more made their major league debut. Three of them have rookie cards, so far, and the recent call up by the Yankees of Nestor Cortes, Jr., who had a less-than-impressive debut with Baltimore last March, increases the chances of him getting one at some point this season. When he does, I’ll be there.

Author: Ralph Carhart

Ralph is the head of the Society for American Baseball Research’s 19th Century Baseball Gravemarker Project. He is the recipient of the SABR 19th Century Committee’s 2015 Chairman’s Award and the Baseball Reliquary’s 2019 Hilda Award. His historical interests include baseball’s pioneer days, the Negro Leagues, the Hall of Fame, Brooklyn, Cuba, and the New York Mets. He is the creator of The Hall Ball, an epic photo essay featuring pictures of (almost) all of the members of the Hall of Fame, living and deceased. His story was featured in the New York Times and CBS Evening News. His book, The Hall Ball: One Fan’s Journey to Unite Cooperstown Immortals with a Single Baseball, is scheduled to be published by McFarland & Company in early 2020. www.thehallball.com

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