Cuba Proves Real-life 'Field of Dreams,' but Without the Cornfields and Ghosts

While the common refrain for Diaspora Jews has always been ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ could the new toast for Jewish-American baseball enthusiasts be ‘Next year in Havana’?

Spectators cheering during a baseball match between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team in Havana, March 2016.
AP

Cuba may be a country in transition, but one thing that will never change is its love of baseball – and that goes for the Jewish community, too. “Cubans are crazy about baseball, and Cuba’s Jews are no different than anyone else,” officials from Havana’s Jewish Community Center told me during a visit to the Caribbean island last month.

Cuba had nearly 25,000 Jewish residents in the 1920s. But following the revolution in 1959, some 94 percent of the community fled the island, relocating mostly to the United States. Now, Cuba’s Jewish community numbers between 1,200 and 1,500, but its connection to baseball remains as strong as ever.

According to Hella Eskenazi, the head of Havana’s Jewish community, the tradition began with the first generation of Jews to be born there, and has been passed on to the that generation’s children and grandchildren.

The country’s passion for the sport was abundantly clear when I visited the 55,000-seat Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana last month. Although the local baseball season ended in April, the ballpark was still ringed with people. It turns out that even in off-season, the stadium serves as a neighborhood hub where, among other things, local residents utilize the stadium’s Wi-Fi connection.

Baseball has always been Cuba’s number one sport. And it served to help the native Jewish population assimilate into Cuban society and differentiate them from their immigrant parents.

None of the community members I met could recall any Jewish players, executives or team owners (before the revolution, of course). Still, all agreed that Jews, like all good Cubans, are rabid fans.

Historian Ismael Sene, 78, is a lifelong baseball fanatic. Now retired, he still hosts two weekly baseball programs on Cuban television, and is a former member of the election committee of the country’s baseball Hall of Fame.

“In high school, I had a large group of friends. We were all crazy about baseball and constantly went to games together,” recalls Sene. “One day, we all attended a funeral. I was amazed to find myself in a Jewish cemetery and for the first time realized that half of my friends were Jewish.”

Dreams and hopes

The Cuban-Jewish community’s connection to baseball closely mirrors that of American Jewry. When the great mass of Jewish immigration arrived in the United States around the turn of the 20th century, baseball was indisputably “America’s Game,” and would remain so for the next 60 years. The first generation of Jews born there used their attachment to baseball to become “real Americans.”

The Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team enter the Latinoamericano stadium in Havana, March 2016.
AP

In those days, baseball tickets were dirt cheap and the ballpark was a perfect place to foster dreams, hopes, fantasies and, for some – like today’s Cubans – escape from difficult realities. The game itself was the experience, unlike modern-day American baseball, which is marketed as “family entertainment” – including all types of activities between innings to capture waning attention spans.

This attachment to the game was passed on to the baby boomer generation, and partially to the following one.

The anticipated flood of American tourists, now that travel restrictions to the island are gradually being loosened by Washington, could open a new chapter in relations between Jews and Cuban baseball.

While the common refrain for Diaspora Jews has always been “Next year in Jerusalem,” could the new refrain for Jewish-American baseball enthusiasts be “Next year in Havana”?

Just like the vintage 1950s American automobiles on Cuba’s streets, with its intimate ballparks and spirited fandom, Cuban baseball is a true nostalgia trip – a real-life “Field of Dreams,” but without the cornfields and ghosts.

American entrepreneurs are already lining up, hoping to gain a future foothold in Cuban baseball if and when the U.S. embargo on the communist state is lifted. The most prominent group is the Caribbean Baseball Initiative, led by Lou Schwechheimer. All the members of Schwechheimer’s group are Jewish, including two former U.S. diplomats, and Schwechheimer himself is an experienced Minor League baseball executive.

The Caribbean Baseball Initiative owns several Minor League teams. Its goal is to establish a Minor League team in Havana that would be affiliated with a Major League team, renewing a longtime tradition that ended with the revolution. The group visited Havana last November for exploratory talks with Cuban baseball officials.

‘Treated like royalty’

Another Jewish baseball entrepreneur in Cuba is Kit Krieger. A former college baseball player from San Francisco who now resides in Vancouver, Krieger’s Canadian company, Cubaball, has been taking groups on baseball-oriented tours of Cuba for over 15 years. Recently, Krieger also took a U.S. group to Cuba via Canada, bypassing the U.S. embargo on tourists visiting the island.

Another Jewish connection to Cuban baseball is the relations between the Israeli and Cuban baseball federations. These ties began in the early 1990s when the Israel Association of Baseball was moved from the Asian region (where international baseball activity was practically nonexistent) to the European region. This was a turning point for Israeli baseball, according to then-IAB president Leon Klarfeld.

“We began to be invited to all the major conferences in the world and Cuba, a major player in the politics of international baseball, was always present,” he relates.

During that period, the conference of the International Baseball Federation was held in Havana, and Klarfeld was one of Israel’s two representatives. According to Klarfeld, “not only is Cuba crazy about baseball, but the man on the street is totally knowledgable about the game. When people saw our badges, we were treated like royalty.”

Cuba and Israel have never met on the baseball field, but if Israel manages to qualify for the final round of the upcoming World Baseball Classic, it could happen soon.

A Cuban softball team did participate in the 2013 Maccabiah, and is also due to take part in next year’s event. And, in an interesting twist, a team of Cuban immigrants has been competing in the Israeli Softball League since 2008. The great majority of these players became Israeli citizens in the past 10 years: the team comprises Jewish players as well as several non-Jewish Cubans married to Israeli women.

“We all played either baseball or softball in Cuba,” says Roberto Popowski, the team’s manager, “and we felt it was important to maintain this tradition in our new country.” The team is nicknamed “the Cerveceros” (the brewers) – not through any identification with Milwaukee’s Major League franchise, but due to the players’ affinity for pizza and beer.