Conrado Marrero's stint in MLB doesn't tell his whole story
APR 24, 2014 12:57p ET
It’s quite possible that you’ve never heard of Conrado Marrero, which is a tremendous accident of history and politics. He died on Wednesday, and he should have been one of the more famous old baseball players in America.
Marrero pitched for many years in Cuba. He was the Cuban League MVP in 1947 and 1948. Even that might not have happened if he hadn’t lied about his age. When Marrero made his American League debut with the Washington Senators in 1950, he was just a few days shy of his 39th birthday. That made him 40 in the summer of ’51, when Marrero was an All-Star.
In his five-year major-league career, he pitched against the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and all the other AL stars of the early ‘50s. You might imagine the stories he could tell.
And he would tell them, for almost 60 years. But he wouldn’t tell them to big-city newspapermen at Old Timers Days, and he wouldn’t tell them in those documentaries built by Ken Burns or hosted by Tom Brokaw. That’s because upon the Fidel Castro-led revolution in Cuba, Marrero chose to remain behind the Sugar Curtain.
“I stayed here,” he once said, “because my parents were here and they were old.”
He stayed, and so it took a great deal of effort for American writers and fans to draw upon Marrero’s experiences and his memories. But a few have made that effort; most notably, SABR members Peter Bjarkman and Kit Krieger. Bjarkman knows as much about Cuban baseball as anyone you (or anyone else) are likely to meet, and he penned the essay about Marrero for SABR’s indispensable BioProject:
To aging North American fans, Marrero is remembered exclusively for his five brief seasons with the American League also-ran Washington Senators, the team he joined in 1950 as a grizzled 39-year-old rookie. It has often been reported that Washington owner-manager Clark Griffith erroneously believed Marrero was born in 1919 instead of 1911 when he signed him on, but that part of the legend is probably only apocryphal. Marrero was nonetheless anything but a novelty act during his Washington years, featuring one of the league's most devastating curves and claimed repeatedly by manager Bucky Harris to be the most valuable "stopper" on an otherwise lamentable Washington mound corps. "Connie Marrero had a windup that looked like a cross between a windmill gone berserk and a mallard duck trying to fly backwards," once noted Dominican slugger Felipe Alou. But it was always the issue of his age (more even than his huge cigars or funky delivery) that remained the Cuban's most notable calling card.
Throughout his career, Marrero was plagued with questions about his age, same as Satchel Paige. It’s worth pointing out these questions were due largely to Marrero’s obvious seniority and his international background -- and that many, many, many US-born players of that era were actually older than they claimed. I once studied the matter and discovered that roughly half the major leaguers in the early ‘40s were lying about their birthdays.
Anyway, Marrero was 39 during most of his rookie season. We know that now. When Marrero was 100, he became the oldest living major leaguer and NPR did a story about him:
Marrero broke his hip last year in a fall, and his hearing isn't so good anymore, so he shouts a bit when he talks. But the stories he tells are of the long-gone ghosts of baseball past, like the man he remembers as the best hitter he ever faced, Ted Williams.
"My favorite memory is the time he hit two home runs off me," Marrero says. "After the game, Williams put a hand on my shoulder and said, 'Connie, today was my day.' And I told him, 'What do you mean? Every day is your day, pal.'"
Those five seasons in Washington didn't make a lot of money for Marrero, and he never received a pension from Major League Baseball.
A new assistance program from the baseball players union has made him eligible for a $10,000 annual payment. The money has been held up by the US trade embargo against Cuba. But his grandson said the issue is finally being resolved.
Gee, that was kind of the union, wasn’t it? Maybe they can make sure that every centenarian major leaguer gets $800 a month!*
* - I kid the current players because I love them. And for a long time it was real hard to get money into Cuba. Or something. Great foreign policy, by the way. Seems to have worked just brilliantly for the last half-century.
Just a few weeks ago, Kit Krieger visited Marrero (as it turned out) one last time. For some years, Krieger’s been leading an annual trip to Cuba for baseball fans, and one of the highlights has always been spending some time with Marrero. Now, more than ever, I regret never having joined one of Krieger’s groups.
When Krieger visited last month, though, it was pretty clear that Marrero didn’t have much time left. From Rick Maese’s story in the Washington Post:
There was 102 years of life there, a man who spawned superlatives in two languages and in two countries, who struck out Mantle and Williams and all the rest, who Life magazine once called the “most implausible ballplayer in the US,” who lived through a revolution and inspired generations of Cubans.
Connie Marrero, the oldest living former major-league baseball player, had withered to maybe 80 pounds. He no longer smoked the cigar, Krieger said, just moistened it and let it roll around between his lips, letting the flavor take him somewhere else. He couldn’t see and couldn’t talk.
“But it was Connie,” Krieger said.
I can’t let this opportunity pass without mentioning Marrero’s style. I’ve seen him listed at both 5-foot-8 and 5-foot-5 (!) but everyone agrees that he was built low to the ground, and by the time he reached the majors didn’t throw hard at all. Again, the Post’s Maese:
They talked for years about Marrero’s stuff, not his stats. He had a herky-jerky pitching motion that drove hitters batty. The delivery was unlike anything baseball had seen before — “he resembles an orangutan heaving a 16-pound shot,” wrote Life magazine.
And the pitches were hard to describe. Journalists would ask him what he was throwing and Marrero reportedly told them, through an interpreter, “Everything but my cigar.”
American reporters coined his fanciful pitch El Curvo and predicting the movement was pointless. He liked to shake off the catcher’s signs, refusing to throw a fastball and pointing a finger at his chest, as if to say, Leave it to me. Marrero tossed a three-hit shutout his rookie season against the Tigers in which his catcher claimed Marrero didn’t throw a single fastball.
Wednesday, the Baseball Prospectus staff ran a list of their 10 favorite pitches. Fascinating stuff, really. That gave me an idea for a story: 10 pitchers I wish I could see throw in a game. Paige is certainly on that list, along with Walter Johnson and Bob Feller and a few other Hall of Famers. And of course Marrero. He really must have been something. For more than a century.
Compared to Marrero, Rob Neyer’s still quite young. And his Twitter feed is just a baby! Unlike 98-year-old Mike Sandlock, who takes over as the oldest living major leaguer and still dreams of baseball.