Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Latino Baseball Swag

New Colors from Classic Leagues

Baseball may by the US "national pastime," but in Cuba, the game is a passionate, national obsession. Always has been.

Both US & Cuban pro leagues were formed in the mid-1800's. The American leagues were formed in 1869, with the emergence of the Cincinnati Red Stockings team. Cuban professional leagues followed in the 1880's.

Cuba learned of the game from Cuban students sent to the US and American sailors who brought the game to Cuba, where it quickly became wildly popular. So popular, in fact, that early Cuban teams pioneered branding and merchandising techniques that would take their US counterparts decades to discover and employ.

For example, each of the four major Cuban teams - the Alamendares; Habana; Cienfuegos; and the Mantanzas clubs - had an established team color, slogan, and mascot. As a result, fans became even more attached to their teams and strident in their support. Families were sometimes separated and estranged due to conflicting club loyalties.

According to Jerry Cohen, owner of vintage baseball apparel manufacturer Ebbets Field Flannels, "Cuban professional teams always paid special attention to the appearance of their uniforms and gear including the use of vibrant colors, fancy-script fonts, beautiful women and animal mascots so cute they would make teenage girls squeal with delight."

Ebbets Field Flannels, for example, features a line of T-shirts emblazoned with Cuba's version of "the girls of baseball." Cuban artist Andre Garcia, often compared to Playboy Magazine's Vargas, produced a series of highly stylized images of team pinup girls, barely clad in revealing team jerseys and an early version of hot pants. "Each team had its own look, and Garcia successfully melded graphics and sex appeal to create some truly memorable images," says Cohen.

Baseball history makes it clear that in addition to memorable images, Cuban teams played a lot of memorable ball games - even holding their own against some US major league clubs.

According to a Wikipedia article on the subject: "Beginning in 1908, Cuban teams scored a number of successes in competition against major league baseball teams, behind outstanding players such as pitcher José Méndez and outfielder Cristóbal Torriente. By the 1920s, the level of play in the Cuban League was superb, as Negro League stars like Oscar Charleston and John Henry Lloyd spent their winters playing in Cuba."

There are many connections between the early American Negro Leagues and Cuban Pro teams. Since the Minor Leagues including the Negro League played in the Summer like the Majors, and Cuban pros played Winter ball, players were sometimes shared between teams. Negro League greats like Josh Gibson and Sam Bankhead joined Charleston and Lloyd along with a host of their contemporaries to play ball in Cuba. Just imagine some of those games, featuring teams comprised of the best Cuban pros along side the very best of the Negro Leagues. It was probably some of the greatest baseball ever played.

Cuba, of course, has a large Afro-Caribbean population and prejudice there is muted at worst and non-existent at best. That fact served to facilitate the exchange of players between leagues.

A little-known story including the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey and barrier-breaking player Jackie Robinson involves the first season after Rickey had stunned baseball by signing Robinson to play for the Dodgers. Like today, the team conducted Spring Training in Florida - which was still practicing segregation in 1947 when Robinson joined the Dodgers. To avoid the prejudice sure to dog practice and the segregated society that would not even permit Black players to set foot legally on a field occupied by Whites, the Dodgers moved their Spring Training to Havana. After his brief but illustrious career in the Negro Leagues, Robinson must have felt right at home in the Cuban capital.

Today, there are 30 Negro League players and five league executives in Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame. The recent deaths of two of the league's oldest surviving players, Buck O'Neill (94) and Silas Simmons (101), has refocused attention on the important role that the Negro League teams played in the communities they represented and in the evolution of the Major Leagues.

As interest has grown, so has the line of vintage baseball apparel. Ebbets Field carries a full-line of historically-inspired Jerseys, T-shirts and hats from great Negro League teams like the Monarchs; the Homestead Grays, Birmingham Barons, Cleveland Buckeyes, Detroit Stars, and of course, the New York Cubans. This swag is unique, classy and way cool. Take it from me.

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