ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The oldest living former Major League Baseball player doesn't live in the United States. He lives in Cuba. His name is Conrado Marrero, but he was Connie Marrero when he pitched for the Washington Senators in the early 1950s.

Today, Marrero is blind and unable to walk and, next month, he'll be 101 years old. Nick Miroff spoke to him in Havana.

NICK MIROFF, BYLINE: The man who once struck out Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle lives in a small, modest apartment in Havana with the family of his grandson and caretaker, Rogelio.

Marrero wears dark sunglasses and a red jersey and cap with the logo of the Cuban national team. Marerro broke his hip last year in a fall and his hearing isn't too good anymore, so he shouts a bit when he talks, but the stories he tells are of the long-gone ghosts of baseball past, like the man he remembers as the best hitter he ever faced, Ted Williams.

CONNIE MARRERO: (Through Translator) My favorite memory is the time he hit two home runs off of me. After the game, Williams put a hand on my shoulder and said, Connie, today was my day. And I told him, what do you mean? Every day is your day, pal.

MIROFF: Marrero was small at 5' 8" and he was nearly 39 years old when he joined the Washington Senators in 1950 after a star career in Cuba. He pitched five seasons in the big leagues and, with his windmill delivery, he won 39 games and lost 40, the mediocre record partly to blame on the Senators' weak lineup.

In 1951, Marrero was an all-star at age 40 and remains one of the oldest players ever to be selected, but the highlight of his life came a few years earlier in Havana, when Marrero got to meet a visiting baseball idol he remembers as Baby Ruth.

MARRERO: (Through Translator) I stuck my hand out and shook Babe Ruth's hand and that's when I felt like I had made it. We were standing by the outfield fence and that's when I really became a ball player.

MIROFF: Marrero went home to the island when his big league career ended and he stayed, even after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution sent many of his relatives fleeing. He coached players in the Cuban leagues well into his 80s. A few years ago, he finally gave up cigar smoking, but he still likes to keep an unlit one in his mouth and his formula for longevity also includes wine and large amounts of Cuban coffee.

According to his grandson, if Marrero is mostly forgotten in the States today, he's still known to fans in Cuba.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SHOUTING)

MIROFF: This is the sound of an ordinary afternoon at Havana's hot corner and these men aren't actually fighting. They meet in a designated spot in the city's central park to argue about baseball with whoever happens to be there, sort of a pick-up place for casual shouting and trash talking about the island's national pastime.

One of the deans is Angel Garcia, wearing a Chicago White Sox cap. He says Marrero isn't thought of one of Cuba's all-time best players, but living to be 100 has added to his legacy.

ANGEL GARCIA: (Foreign Language Spoken).

MIROFF: To do what he did at age 39 is what makes him great, especially playing for a basement-dwelling team like Washington, Garcia said. By the time he got to the big leagues, he was already an old man.

Those five seasons in Washington didn't make a lot of money for Marrero and he never received a pension from Major League Baseball. A new assistance program from the Baseball Players Union has made him eligible for a $10,000 annual payment, but the money has been held up by the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

His grandson said the issue is finally being resolved, but it was hard not to wonder if Marrero has any regrets about leaving the States.

MARRERO: (Through Translator) I'm Cuban and I came back to my homeland, to the place I was born, to the place where I lived most of my life. I wish our countries could be united again, just like the way they used to be.

MIROFF: Marrero describes living to 100 as if it was some kind of accident that has taken him by surprise. Now that he's blind and confined to a wheelchair, he said he doesn't see much purpose to continuing on, but he still listens to Cuban baseball games on the radio every night and, if you put a ball in his hand, he proudly shows off his grip for a curve ball. I'm ready to pitch again, he says, but I don't have a catcher.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.