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Béisbol in New Britain: Local minor league team employed barrier-breaking ballplayers

Until recently, if a baseball player from Cuba wanted a shot at playing Major League Baseball, he had to defect from the island with the help of criminal organizations as part of a treacherous journey to the United States.

This was life under the communist government’s rule prior to 2018, when a deal was struck between Major League Baseball and the Cuban Baseball Federation that allows certain ballplayers to sign with MLB teams.

When Cuba was a protectorate under the U.S. government, people could move freely. In the spring of 1908, four Cuban ballplayers arrived in New Britain to play minor league baseball in the Connecticut State League before two of them launched into MLB history as pioneers.

Charles Humphrey, owner of New Britain’s ball club, heard about Armando Marsans, Luis Padron, Rafael Almeida and Alfredo Cabrera from sources in Havana and worked to sign the talented men after they completed the winter baseball season in Cuba.

New Britain’s Daily Herald buzzed with updates of their impending arrival and the impact they would have on the local team, which was renamed the Perfectos in a nod to the talented newcomers.

“The difficulty has always been to get the Cubans to leave the island, but New Britain wants a good team and no effort will be spared by the management to have one,” the newspaper reported.

More difficult was navigating the Connecticut State League’s hateful color line that barred non-white players from competing, and the Perfectos risked losing their players before they ever took the field.

The local newspaper jumped to the players’ defense, noting they were “strictly white.”

“[Humphrey] has been very careful to inquire into this before signing them. They are really Spaniards in sense of blood descent.”

Whether they were is debatable. But light skin tones allowed the men to pass themselves off as European, and they posted impressive numbers during summers here and winters in Cuba.

Padron hit .314 in 1908, third in the league, led the team with seven home runs and won 18 games as a pitcher in his only full season with the Perfectos. He returned to Cuba and joined the island’s touring teams, making stops in Connecticut over the next 15 years.

Marsans, Almeida and Cabrera played together with New Britain across four seasons from 1908 to 1911, and Cabrera endeared himself to fans and the media. Marsans and Almeida routinely batted at or above .300 with power and speed on the basepaths. Cabrera was considered a top-notch shortstop with plenty of speed and a good bat, cracking 407 hits in 416 games for New Britain.

New Britain seemed to love their imported baseball stars, until 1911.

Almeida never showed up for spring training camp and Marsans disappeared without a word in May, leaving fans and reporters grasping for an explanation. Even Cabrera was out of the loop and reportedly hurt by his teammates and friends. Eventually, both players explained their absences by claiming they had sick relatives in Cuba.

But there was more to it.

Cincinnati Reds manager Clark Griffith offered a tryout that spring to Almeida, who spoke no English and used Marsans as an interpreter, according to the late Cuban baseball historian Peter C. Bjarkman, a Hartford native, who authored “Smoke: The Romance and Lore of Cuban Baseball.” And Marsans was more than a translator, as Griffith quickly learned. He immediately purchased both players’ contracts for $1,000 each and made plans to bring them to Cincinnati. The Daily Herald was sore about their abrupt departure and smeared them in stories.

Skin color came up again in Cincinnati. Reds president Garry Herrmann arrived at Cincinnati’s Union Station to greet Almeida and Marsans and initially mistook two porters for his new players. But Cincinnati newspapers soon ran with the Spaniard storyline, “after the needed assurances and documentation had arrived from Havana,” Bjarkman wrote.

And on July 4, 1911, Marsans and Almeida made history when they debuted for the Reds in Chicago to become the first Latin American players in the National League.

They followed in the footsteps of Latin American baseball pioneers Esteban Bellán, the first Latin American professional baseball player in the United States (1868-73 in two different leagues), and Luis Castro, who broke into the American League with the 1902 Philadelphia Athletics as the first Latin American player in Major League Baseball.

Marsans lasted eight years in Major League Baseball, Almeida three and Cabrera played one game for the 1913 St. Louis Cardinals.

By that time, the New Britain Perfectos were on the verge of collapse in the Connecticut State League. But they left behind their legacy as a team that helped launch the careers of talented Cuban ballplayers.

Short note: I unearthed this slice of history while researching Swat McCabe, who played a prominent role in the history of Muzzy Field in Bristol, Conn., and suited up for New Britain after his playing career with the Cincinnati Reds. He's shown in the two photos. I always enjoy rabbit-hole discoveries like this.


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