Friday, March 18, 2011

Interview With the Author: Jim Vitti- Brooklyn Dodgers in Cuba

As I wrote about previously, "Brooklyn Dodgers in Cuba" is a new book being released on the 28th of this month by Arcadia Publishing. When I first heard about it I immediately sent along some questions to the author, Jim Vitti, hoping to hear more about the book and his experience in writing it. Thankfully, he responded back.

Jim Vitti's two year journey about the Dodgers in Cuba started during his research for a book about Baseball on Catalina Island- a book subsequently called "Chicago Cubs: Baseball on Catalina Island."
While researching that one, I stumbled onto the notion of ‘baseball on islands.’ Two of our favorite concepts, but like hot dogs and chocolate you usually don’t think of them at the same time. But a nifty notion, which I began to explore . . .
Soon, he discovered that Baseball was played on islands throughout the world.
But what caught my interest was the Dodger camps in Cuba...

So it seemed like a natural semi-sequel, and off to the races I went. The interesting irony is the completely different feel of the stories: The Cubs on Catalina is springtime, youthful and innocent . . . while The Brooklyn Dodgers in Cuba is booze and broads and betting and bullets – a steamy summer night.
This is about where I realized that this book would likely include much of the gossip and wild tales I had been seeking. So, instead of trying to recapture his words I thought it would be best to let the rest of the interview continue in his own words. It's a bit long, but it is really worth the read- especially the final part when I ask, "was Ernest Hemingway a Dodger fan?" You Betcha!

Did you have an opportunity to interview, not only former Dodgers from the time period, but also Cuban players and fans?
That was such a treat – I got to interview 41 Dodgers who played there (including the last living player from 1941 and the last one from 1942, helping add to the depth beyond the 1947 story). I also talked to about three dozen other non-Dodgers who played there. The timing was good but sad: two dozen have died since the interviews, so a silver lining is at least their tales are recorded here.

I did get to interview some Cuban players and fans, including Connie Marrero – who’s now the oldest living major leaguer (99) – living with his family in Cuba, lucid as can be. (On pitching against DiMaggio: “I punched him out” . . . about Robinson stealing 2nd: “on the catcher, not on me” . . . on seeing Castro pitch; was Fidel any good? “Let us say he liked to pitch.”)
Did you visit Cuba?
I got to go to Cuba twice, and was lucky enough to go with the guy who opened the CNN Bureau in Havana – so he knew the lay of the land, and had great contacts. Got to watch a game at the same ballpark in Havana where the Dodgers played in ’47 (sitting in Castro’s box, no less; alas, el Prejidente was not on site that night).
Who did you enjoy interviewing the most?
The interviews that leap to mind are Jesse Gonder, because he’d say absolutely anything, and Eddie Stevens – an asterisk to history. He was the Dodger starting first-baseman when ’46 ended, and if you’ll remember Rickey had Robinson play first as a rookie (to avoid spikes from Dixie that might happen to miss the bag at 2nd by well-planned mistake). Ed Stevens is the guy who, in the gritty reality of history, literally lost his job to the Great Experiment. It was fascinating to hear his (very gracious) take on it.

Vin Scully, too – the most gracious human being who ever walked the planet. He gets to Dodger Stadium at 4 PM for a 7 o’clock game – still working that hard, after all these decades. And I’m waiting in the hall up in the press box for about five minutes as he’s doing some prep work, and he comes out and extends his hand and Vin Scully’s first words to me, as he shakes his head reticently, are, “I’m sorry I kept you waiting!” I want to say, “Are you kidding? You’re Vin Scully! I’m sorry to be breathing the same AIR you’re breathing, and you’re apologizing to me?” And then, he proceeded to tell me some great stories that I don’t think had been published before – again, that great miracle of spring training not counting, so none of it mattered, nobody asked about it, nobody wrote about it.

While in Cuba, I almost did get an interview with Castro. They play this funny cloak-and-dagger game. You get an e-mail saying, “The specialist is familiar.” (CIA-crypted translation: Castro knows you’re here.) Then you wait around and all of a sudden get a call to be in your room for the next few hours. False alarm. Repeat 2-3 times, hope an entourage shows up, but this was a few seasons too late – his health had diminished and we never got that interview. But plenty of the ballplayers had hilarious Castro encounters on the field – Gonder, Clyde King, Gene Mauch, Yaz, Stu Locklin, and of course Lasorda.

It’s a joy to call an old ballplayer who had a cup of coffee at the Show 60 years ago and let him re-live his Elysian days for a while. And you learn an important interview technique: If you call this 80-year-old up and say, “Lefty, what’d you boys do in Havana in 1947?” he will invariably say, “Aw, I don’t remember, that was too long ago.” But if you start with, “Hey, Lefty, I just talked to Scat Davis about . . . ” and he’ll interrupt with laughter and say, “Scat Davis, why, that ol’ son of a buck, I remember the time we snuck down the fire escape with Shotgun Shuba and Pee Wee to meet these pretty little senoritas . . . ” Those wonderful men are all so generous and helpful, every single one of ‘em.
Jim also provided some resource books that he used in his research.
Tommy’s autobiography contains some of these crazy Cuban tales, but it’s kinda like you speed over ‘em in his book because you want to get to the real story, the stuff with Fernando and Gibson and Garvey and the World Series. But the cool thing is, in this book, the whole focus is the springtime stories in Cuba, so they take center stage and seem to gain more meaning when they’re the spotlight, not the warm-up band.

Durocher’s book has some juicy ones too, including the middle-of-the-night meeting in a hotel kitchen in the Caribbean which changed the course of baseball history (Leo got wind of the anti-Jackie petition, and expressed his opinion; oh, to have been a fly on the wall. I’m sure he coined some of the obscenities we use today on that night). I love the irony of that – such an unlikely site for such a pivotal moment in National League history.

The best book, which is kinda lost to time, is Kirby Higbe’s autobiography, The High Hard One. Huh – Kirby Higbe? Why would Kirby Higbe write an autobiography? I know not, but I’m thrilled he did; it might just be the funniest baseball book of all time. It’s filled with Cuba tales, include plenty of Hemingway escapades. You should be able to find a used copy on ebay or
I understand there are over 200 vintage images of the Dodgers in Cuba, how did you ever find so many?
A little here, a little there. Libraries & historical societies in LA & Brooklyn. Vintage wirephotos from private collections. Copies from ballplayers’ scrapbooks. Baseball cards. Original shots in Cuba and Florida. And the best find, some archived photos from Cuba . . . which have never before seen the light of day here
I think the thing I look forward to reading about the most is Hemingway’s connection with the team. I don’t want to give away too much, but did Hugh Casey really kick his butt? Were there other Dodgers with as good as, or better, pugilistic skills?
Higbe’s book is a fantasyland of lost Hemingway tales, and I included a few (as well as other Hemingway stories from a few other Dodger quarters). Hig and ol’Case would literally sneak out and go to Papa’s and drink and drink and drink and put on boxing gloves and pound the stuffing out of each other all night long. Hall-of-Famer Billy Herman went along once too, but only once because he got a little nervous when Hemingway challenged him to fight: “We can have a duel. Knives. Guns. Swords. Any weapons you want.” So, there’s an entire chapter in my book devoted to Hemingway – the tales are so rich (and so plentiful).

Besides the baseball angle, as a writer Hemingway was a key part of my Cuba travels: I insisted on going to Cojimar, the fishing village from The Old Man and the Sea. Perhaps the highlight of my career as a writer was getting to have lunch at The Terrace, literally the same fabled bar where the Great Novel ends. Dude, I got tears in my eyes, looking down at the water from the window, where the tailbones of the Great Fish rested as the American tourist did not understand as the waiter tried to explain: “Tiburon.” Ay. And Dodgers drank there . . .
And finally, would it be fair to declare that one of the greatest American writers, Ernest Hemingway, was a Dodger fan?
There’s no doubt Hemingway was a big Dodger fan. For starters, all you have to do is read The Old Man and the Sea (among other works) and know he was a big baseball fan – there’s so much baseball detail in that book, including plenty of very-accurate references to the ballplayers being in Cuba (for instance, you might wonder why Dick Sisler gets so much ink, until you realize he was a bigger star there than here back then . . . Gonzalez and Luque . . . McGraw drinking at The Terrace . . . and of course, Dodger Durocher.) Add to that his residences in New York and Havana – the two Dodger cities in those days – and it’s pretty obvious that as a baseball fan he would’ve followed the Bums, before you even get to the most-importantly-obvious oh-yeah moment, he hung out with Dodgers and hunted with ‘em and fished with ‘em on his beloved Pilar and downed rum with ‘em and fought with ‘em and thus, with his mindset, considered them his brothers-in-manhood. So if ya love baseball, and the Dodgers are your hometown team (in not one but two of your hometowns), and you party with the boys in blue . . . yeah, Hemingway was a Dodger fan.

2011 Topps Heritage: '62 Mint Dodgers

On with the parade of Dodgers cards within 2011 Topps Heritage. Here are a couple of limited inserts that feature, not only, a couple of Hall of Famers, but some vintage mint state uncirculated coins from 1962. It is an insert set called '62 Mint.

As a former coin collector who still dabbles in that hobby from time to time I really like these cards.

#62M-DS Duke Snider(click to enlarge)

Tsunami Relief Efforts Continue for Dodgers This Saturday

This would be a great weekend to be in Arizona. Not only can you catch some Dodger Baseball, but you can also lend some financial assistance to our friends in Japan while getting a Dodger autograph at the same time. BTW, here is a link to the Japanese Red Cross Society.
This Saturday, March 19 as the Dodgers take on the Milwaukee Brewers at Camelback Ranch – Glendale, the Dodgers will collect donations that will be given to the Japan earthquake and tsunami relief efforts. Dodger players and coaches will be available from 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. and all fans who make a monetary donation at that time will receive an autograph. Donation booths will then be open in both the center field and home plate concourse areas from 12:30 p.m. until the end of the game.

Dodger players and coaches who are scheduled to sign autographs tomorrow include Chad Billingsley, Casey Blake, Jonathan Broxton, Jamey Carroll, Andre Ethier, Rafael Furcal, Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Ted Lilly, James Loney, Vicente Padilla, Ramon Troncoso, Juan Uribe and Maury Wills. Japanese minor leaguers Kazuki Nishijima, Kazuya Takano and Robert Boothe will also be on hand. Players will sign autographs in the ballpark’s third base side aisles at some point during the donation period.

Dodger pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, who is starting the game Saturday, will also sign autographs for donors at the center field concourse table after he comes out of the game. Hall of Fame Manager Tommy Lasorda will sign autographs for fans at his usual table outside of the center field gate.

Fans that give $20 will receive a voucher good for one baseline reserve seat for any remaining Dodgers Spring Training game at Camelback Ranch – Glendale, with a maximum of four vouchers per guest, as well as two tickets to one of two upcoming Spring Training exhibition games at Dodger Stadium.

Monetary donations of cash and checks will be accepted. Checks should be made out to American Red Cross with “Japan Tsunami Fund” in the memo line.

This past Tuesday, Dodger Stadium hosted a drive-through relief event that raised funds for Japan.

The Dodgers have a long-standing history with Japan dating back to the 1950s. Current Dodgers from Japan include pitcher Kuroda and minor leaguers Nishijima, Takano and Boothe. Nine members of the front office are also originally from Japan

Day 30 Spring Training Report

Here is todays lineup for the Dodgers: Furcal SS, DeJesus 2nd, Ethier RF, Kemp CF, Loney 1st, Uribe 3rd, Thames LF, Navarro c, De La Rosa SP

Below are Day 30 Spring Training notes from the Dodgers:
  • GEARING UP: The Dodgers travel to Scottsdale to take on the Giants for the fourth and final time this spring, having dropped the first three matchups between the division rivals. The two clubs will meet next on Opening Day, March 31, at Dodger Stadium for a nationally-televised primetime contest on ESPN.

  • THE FINAL 42: Following yesterday’s game, infielder/outfielder Jerry Sands and infielder Justin Sellers were reassigned to minor league camp. Sands, the Dodgers’ 2010 Minor League Player of the Year, batted .364 with two home runs, five RBI and a .773 slugging percentage in 16 games with the big league club. The Dodgers now have 42 players left in camp with an even split of pitchers and position players.

  • BOMBS AWAY: The Dodgers slugged three home runs yesterday, including back-to-back jacks by Hector Gimenez and Gabe Kapler in the eighth inning as Los Angeles scored a 6-4 comeback win over the Diamondbacks. Matt Kemp put the Dodgers on the board with a two-run blast in the fourth inning off Aaron Heilman for his team-leading third homer of the spring. Kemp is batting .316 on the spring and leads the Dodgers in hits (12), home runs, RBI (9) and total bases (24).

(Pic Link: Yfrog Dodgers)
  • LITTLE BIG LEAGUE: The minor league schedule kicks off today with four games against the Rangers as a trio of big leaguers will join the future Dodgers with Ted Lilly pitching in a game on the back fields at Camelback Ranch and Jay Gibbons and Jamey Carroll playing in Surprise. Also back at Camelback Ranch, Vicente Padilla will throw off a mound for the first time since having forearm surgery on February 24.

  • THE RUB: The Dodgers’ reigning Minor League Pitcher of the Year Rubby De La Rosa will make his second start of the spring after striking out two and surrendering just one hit over 2.0 scoreless innings on Sunday against the Cubs in Las Vegas. The 22-year-old has limited opposing hitters to a .182 batting average without issuing a walk and struck out five in 6.0 Spring Training innings. RHP Ramon Troncoso, RHP Blake Hawksworth, RHP Kenley Jansen and LHP Ron Mahay will follow De La Rosa to the mound this afternoon. The Giants will counter with RHP Jeff Suppan.

  • LEADERBOARD: Dodger outfielder Marcus Thames is tied for third in the Cactus League with five doubles while fellow newcomer Tony Gwynn Jr. is tied for second with six steals. Gwynn is hitting .344 (11-for-32) and is second on the club in hits, trailing just Matt Kemp, who has 12. Trent Oeltjen, who became the fourth Australian-born player to suit up for the Dodgers last season, leads all Dodger hitters with a .438 average (min. 15 at-bats).

(PicLink: Yfrog Dodgers)
  • MAKING HIS BID: Xavier Paul stroked a double in his only at-bat yesterday and has caught fire of late, batting .545 (6-for-11) with a double, triple and one RBI over his last five games dating back to March 12. The 26-year-old is batting .290 (9-for-31) with a home run and three RBI in 17 Spring Training games.

  • BLUE CHIPS: A few Dodgers players and staff have a stake in this year’s NCAA tournament as Tony Gwynn Jr. (San Diego State), Strength and Conditioning Coach Brendon Huttmann (Kansas) and right-hander Josh Lindblom (Purdue) have their alma maters in the dance. Meanwhile, Dodgertalk host Josh Suchon has already ruined one of his brackets by picking his SDSU Aztecs to win it all, while his co-host Joe Block saw his Michigan State Spartans’ hopes dashed last night by the hometown UCLA Bruins.

(PicLink: Yfrog Dodgers)
  • BOYS IN BLUE: The Third Annual UMPS CARE Charities online auction is underway at, featuring priceless memorabilia and one-of-a kind experiences for teams throughout baseball. Fans can bid on a Dodger batting practice experience among the other great packages until March 20.

Blog Kiosk: 3/18/2010

Let's start the season, already!
  • New Dodger billboards are out and Vin Scully is My Homeboy has a pic of a beauty. "It's Time For The Voice Of Summer"
  • Even better, Left Field Pavilion made their own hilarious billboards, check them all out here.
  • Here's a great article from Steve Dilbeck about the the real vintage Dodgertown, it's St. Patrick's Day tradition and the painful loss of our teams history at the hands of a marketing campaign.
  • The Seattle Times has a story focused on some former MLB'ers in Japan.

    At least Ruiz, who homered off Josh Beckett, Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett during a late-season run with Toronto in 2009, is safe. He was playing with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in an exhibition game 400 miles away last Friday and never felt the magnitude-9.0 quake.

    Ruiz first learned of the disaster when umpires suddenly stopped the game in the eighth inning. The team's English translator explained the situation to Ruiz and fellow former major leaguers Darrell Rasner and Ryan Speier, and fans were sent home.

    Ruiz and the other Eagles - Kaz Matsui, Byung-Hyun Kim and Akinori Iwamura, among them - are practicing in Nagoya, about 300 miles from their hard-hit home in the port city of Sendai. They're staying in a hotel, feeling guilty.

  • Gold Baseballs? Are you kidding me? From Sports Collectors Daily.
  • They destroyed this Lamdo!
  • Atlantis?
  • Michael Lewis, the soothsayer? In 1989 he wrote "How a Tokyo Earthquake Could Devastate Wall Street and the World Economy." Read a copy of it here at The Big Picture.
  • Star Wars?