Conrado Marrero, the oldest living professional baseball player, died in April 2014 in his native Cuba at age 102.
RELATED: Here Are All the Cuban Baseball Players in the U.S. Hall of Fame
Known as “Connie” Marrero in the U.S., the diminutive [1.65 meter, 72 kilogram] pitcher was renowned for his control and presence, in a long and storied career that began in Sagua la Grande, 350 kilometers east of Havana.
He went on to pitch for a string of Cuban and Mexican teams, including Cuba’s national team, before making his U.S. Major League debut in 1950 at 39 — an age when most players have retired or plan to leave the game.
In interviews with the Associated Press prior to his death, the cigar-chomping Marrero was fond of recounting career highlights that included pitching against Major League Hall of Famers, such as Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Larry Doby.
In five years with the Washington [D.C.] Senators, Marrero compiled a 39-40 record, with 297 strikeouts. He was named to the American League All Star team in 1951.
Cut by the Senators four years later, he returned to Cuba to play for the Havana Sugar Kings and retired in 1957. He was honored by the Cuban government as a Hero of the Republic of Cuba in 1999.
Past age 100, Marrero was blind and confined to a wheelchair, with hearing and speech difficulties. Reporters say he spent much of that time listening to Cuban baseball on the radio — often chewing on a cigar and always ready to reminisce about his Major League career.
Cuba’s Impact on U.S. Baseball
The path to playing Major League Baseball has historically not been clear or easy for Cubans.
That is particularly true for black Cuban players, who in the early 1900s were confined to the Negro Leagues in the U.S. while whites played on MLB teams.
Integration led to Minnie Minoso being the first black Cuban MLB player in 1949, but a decade later Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba and the subsequent breakdown in relations with the U.S. meant the league was no longer an option for players still inside Cuba unless they defected.
Castro’s politics and his decision to shut down professional teams in Cuba sent some of the great baseball players from two generations fleeing to the U.S.
First wave of Cuban baseball players
The first wave included Hall of Fame first baseman Tony Perez, a seven-time All-Star who won two World Series with the Cincinnati Reds, as well as three-time all-star pitcher Luis Tiant and three-time World Series champion Oakland Athletics shortstop Bert Campaneris.
Minoso was already in the United States, but Castro’s policies influenced his decision to leave for good.
Those players were all adults in the early 1960s, but at the same time two children who would grow up to be two of the best hitters to ever come out of Cuba were taken to the U.S. by their parents.
Rafael Palmeiro played 20 seasons in the majors, mostly with the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles, combining a slick glove at first base with a powerful bat that amassed 569 home runs and 3,020 hits.
He was 6 years old when his parents took advantage of the so-called Freedom Flights that brought a quarter-million Cubans to the U.S. between 1965 and 1973.
A plane also brought an infant named Jose Canseco, whose family settled in the Miami area. He went on to star for Oakland and several other teams, slugging more than 40 home runs in a season three times and winning two World Series.
Palmeiro, and to a lesser extent Canseco, arguably should be considered to join Perez and three other Cubans from the Negro Leagues whose resumes earned them spots in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Check out Cuban baseball defectors in the U.S.