Conrado Marrero’s stint in MLB doesn’t tell his whole story
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.