Baseball Cards Tell Story Of Negro, Cuban Leagues
GUY RAZ, host:
This past week, a complete set of Cuban baseball cards from the 1920s sold for $41,000 at an auction in Miami. And among those cards are some of the greatest American baseball players of all-time, ballplayers like Oscar Charleston, Pop Lloyd and Dick Lundy.
And why would Americans be featured on Cuban baseball cards? Well, for that, I'm joined by Peter Bjarkman. He is the author of "A History of Cuban Baseball." And he's at member station WBAA in West Lafayette, Indiana, at Purdue University.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. PETER BJARKMAN (Baseball Historian; Author, "A History of Cuban Baseball"): Thank you for having me.
RAZ: So I should mention, Peter, that all the American players in this set are African-Americans. What are they doing in a set of Cuban baseball cards?
Mr. BJARKMAN: Well, there's a couple of sides to this story. First of all, of course, those great black ballplayers back in the period before 1947 couldn't play in the major leagues. So they spent their summers playing in various Negro league structures here in the U.S. and barnstorming around the U.S., eking out a living at kind of a second level of baseball. Then they would play their winters in Cuba, in Venezuela, in Mexico, in the winter leagues, earning a second income down there.
RAZ: So these leagues in Cuba were integrated?
Mr. BJARKMAN: Yes, the Cuban professional league was integrated in 1900 and...
RAZ: So 47 years before the major leagues.
Mr. BJARKMAN: Correct. Correct. Amateur baseball in Cuba, where most of the better Cuban white players played, was not integrated. And many of the better white players played in the amateur leagues in Cuba because they could actually make more money playing amateur baseball because they only had to play one day a week, and they had very plush jobs from the companies that sponsored the teams, the telephone company, the electric company.
So, many of the top white players, until the 1940s, did not play professionally in Cuba. And the better players in the Cuban League were the black players that were imported from the United States.
RAZ: Oh, wow.
Mr. BJARKMAN: So players like Oscar Charleston and Pop Lloyd and Lundy and some of these others, they were the biggest stars down there. So they were really icons in Havana.
RAZ: Do we know anything about life in Cuba for these players?
Mr. BJARKMAN: Well, it certainly was very good for them in several senses. They earned quite a good salary for a short season. They only played a couple of times a week. Havana was a very lively city, as it still is. But certainly before the revolution of 1959, it was a very it was the gem, the Venice of the Caribbean, and it was a great nightlife down there.
All the games were played in the city of Havana. So they didn't have to do a lot of traveling. And they were there for a few months and lived like kings during the winter, and then came back and barnstormed across the U.S. again in the summer.
RAZ: And, of course, Jackie Robinson played in Cuba as well at one time, right?
Mr. BJARKMAN: Well, he didn't actually play in the Cuban League, but the very interesting fact is that in 1947, when Jackie Robinson went to spring training with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Branch Rickey was planning to bring him that spring to the major leagues, Branch Rickey put the Dodgers spring training camp in Havana because he thought, first of all, Robinson would be out of the pressure and the limelight of the U.S. media, but also it'd be much more comfortable in an integrated city that had an integrated baseball league.
So Jackie Robinson's spring training the year that he came to the Dodgers took place in Havana.
RAZ: Peter, I understand that you are a bit of a collector yourself. Is the discovery of this complete set of Cuban cards a pretty big deal?
Mr. BJARKMAN: Yeah, it's a very big deal because, I mean, the interest in these particular cards of players like Charleston and Lundy is because since they didn't play in the major leagues, there were no baseball cards of Negro league players back in the teens and the '20s and the '30s. In fact, there were very few photographs and images of these players.
So once the Negro league history became quite a big thing in the '80s and '90s and certainly in the last decade, there's been a great search for anything, any kind of memorabilia connected with these players, and they were on Cuban baseball cards, but they never existed on American baseball cards.
So to find these cards from the '20s with these wonderful images of these players is quite a find for collectors.
RAZ: That's Peter Bjarkman. He is the author of "A History of Cuban Baseball." He joined me from WBAA in West Lafayette, Indiana, at Purdue University.
Peter Bjarkman, thank you so much.
Mr. BJARKMAN: Well, thank you for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.