SABR

Aquino Abreu

This article was written by Peter C. Bjarkman.

Aquino Abreu was a diminutive righty who pitched for a decade and a half during the formative years of the modern-era post-revolution Cuban League. That Abreu’s triumphs fell entirely outside the realm of professional Organized Baseball may be a prime reason he remains virtually unknown to North American and Asian baseball fanatics. Few know anything about his feats if they hail from parts of the baseball universe located outside of Cuba, an island nation long shielded from outside scrutiny by the vagaries of mid- and late-20th century Cold War politics.

Yet in December 1965 and January 1966, the crafty Cuban ace put together three of the sport’s most remarkable performances – feats rarely rivaled in any other league or in any other decade. Perhaps most noteworthy was his pair of consecutive no-hit, no-run games – a feat achieved just once in the big leagues and only twice ever in North American Organized Baseball (see footnote 6 below for further details). Hardly less rare, however, was this same obscure hurler’s iron-man single-game performance less than a month before. He rang up 19.1 scoreless innings before losing on one run in the 20th. It’s not an exaggeration to propose that no other pitcher in the game’s long annals ever matched this trio of brilliant outings in such a brief span.

Baseball history is remarkably full of short-term wonders that flash for a week, a month, or even a season – but soon fade away to mediocrity. Cuba’s Abreu was a classic example of the phenomenon. He was one of the earliest notable figures of Cuba’s post-1960 “revolutionary” baseball, but his brief fame rested more on his few spectacular moments than on sustained performance. At the end of his near-decade-and-half league career (1962-75), the native of Cienfuegos Province stood below .500 (55-59 in 14 National Series). He earned a few moments of overseas glory with the Cuban national team, long before it became an invincible dynasty in international tournament play. But he never stood out among the Cuban League pitchers of his own decade, let alone the legendary mound aces that would follow. The parallels between Aquino and Johnny “Double No-Hit” Vander Meer are striking – both in terms of their marquee accomplishment1 and their up-and-down overall careers2 – though one must still be careful about equating them.

In his 14 National Series seasons, Aquino won more than he lost in just four.3 Only once did he reach double figures in wins: he was 10-1 during his best season, 1968-69. His 5-10 mark in the winter of 1973-74 balanced that feat. In retrospect, perhaps Aquino’s most distinguished stat was his ERA, which fell under 2.00 in seven seasons, exactly half of his National Series career. Yet that was an era of pitching dominance – Abreu himself never led the league in ERA; the leaders averaged a minuscule 0.95 while he was active (one of them as low as 0.37 and four others below 0.70). In fact, no National Series leader ever went above 2.00 until 1988 (the circuit’s 27th year of existence).4 Nonetheless, he was arguably one of the most solid hurlers in the league’s early years, even if he rarely stood among the year-end statistical leaders.

The Cuban League has emerged in recent decades as a world-class venue ranking only below the majors (and perhaps also the Japanese Central and Pacific Leagues). This was certainly not the case during Abreu’s era, however – Cuba’s top stars of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s performed when IBAF tournament play featured aluminum bats. They earned stellar international reputations largely by drubbing amateur squads composed mainly of university all-stars or pro-league rejects. Had they chosen to leave their homeland, few Cuban Leaguers of Abreu’s decade would have been able to crack big league rosters or even Triple-A lineups. Even so, 18 straight innings of no-hit baseball at any level – merely considering the bounce of the ball, occasional superb contributions of skilled defensive teammates, and the undeniable role of raw luck – is indeed miraculous.

That fact is strongly supported by the equal rarity of such an event at any level of Organized Baseball. Many writers have labeled Vander Meer’s feat as the most unbreakable record in baseball, since a hurler would need to complete an unimaginable three straight hitless nine-inning outings to best it. Only two other major-league pitchers – Howard Ehmke in 1923 and Ewell Blackwell in 1947 – have ever come legitimately close to matching Vander Meer in 1938.5 More obscure were Bill Bell’s consecutive hitless games in May 1952 for Bristol (Virginia) in the Class D Appalachian League.6 No documented evidence is known that might suggest this stellar event has taken place in any other pro league found in any of the world’s ball playing nations.

Little is known publicly about Abreu’s early life away from the baseball diamond, other than his origins. Abreu’s father, Lupgardo Abreu Gómez, and his mother, Petrona Aguila Arbolaez, were part of the largely impoverished farming class that populated central Cuba during the decade immediately preceding World War II. Tomás Aquino Abreu Aguila was born in the rural agricultural distinct of southern Cienfuegos Province – in the village of San Fernando de Camarones7 – on March 7, 1936. The island’s population was then still recovering from a bloody U.S.-backed 1933 revolution that had ended the ruthless dictatorship of President Gerardo Machado, but also first brought future strongman Fulgencio Batista to prominence.

Aquino married twice, the second time in 1958. He sired three sons – all with his first spouse, María Cuéllas – named (in order of age) Francisco, Reinaldo, and Pedro. The remainder of Abreu’s private life remains altogether obscure. His rare public comments have always been narrowly focused solely on his substantial athletic career in the 1960s and 1970s.8

In 1989, interviewers Leonardo Padura and Raúl Arce prompted Aquino to comment about his three sons and their own baseball ambitions. The ex-pitcher’s answers were somewhat evasive. Only the middle son (Reinaldo) apparently harbored early baseball ambitions. “He was also a pitcher and accounted himself well as a youth, but he had to give it up,” Abreu observed. “He is now a physical education professor,” Abreu continued, “but the others followed different paths: the elder is an engineer and the younger is a minor official with FAR (an acronym for the Cuban Armed Forces). Even if they didn’t become ballplayers, the most important thing is that they are happy and that I am proud of them all.” But the self-described proud father never revealed why Reinaldo had to relinquish his own pitching dreams (perhaps because of injury, if not lack of talent).

In that same 1989 interview, Abreu also provided only sketchy details concerning his own start on the amateur diamonds of rural Cuba in the ’50s. His fantasy from the start was to become a famous baseball figure – “I always dreamed of being a ballplayer, of appearing on television, of wearing those fancy uniforms, and of being popular, and cheered for. But despite those dreams I never thought I could play in the organized leagues, or even less that I could represent Cuba overseas. But it all came true and therefore today I am hugely satisfied.”

Abreu also informed Padura and Arce that his earliest memories were of weekend games in local pastures serving as crude diamonds. He and his buddies played barefoot and without any formal equipment outside of a rubber-taped ball and crudely carved bat. A pitcher from the outset, young Abreu was invited in 1950 (at age 14) to play on a neighboring village club from Cumanayagua during the regional juvenile championships. He had apparently drawn some local attention as a hard thrower, although he admittedly knew very little at the time about the art or science of pitching. Early success in these local youth tournaments eventually led to a spot in the Liga Azucarera (Sugar Mill League). There he made his debut in 1958 for a club sponsored by the Central Manuelita (Manuelita Sugar Mill). By 1960 he was working for the Cienfuegos Province Hanabanilla hydroelectric plant and pitching weekend games for the local Cumanayagua ball club in the island’s popular Amateur Athletic Union League.

Aquino never played pro ball (though he later claimed to have received some offers from abroad). Amid U.S. concerns about player safety, Cuba’s franchise in the Triple-A International League, the Havana Sugar Kings, was transferred overnight to Jersey City in July 1960. In the aftermath of this uprooting, the final season of Cuba’s professional winter league took place in Havana in 1960-1961. Only native players (including such recognized local big leaguers as Pedro Ramos, Camilio Pascual and Julio Moreno) participated, amid an ongoing exodus of the nation’s best baseball talent. Immediately before or shortly after Castro’s forces seized government control in January 1959,
established big-leaguers (Ramos, Pascual, Moreno, José Valdivielso) and top pro prospects (Tony Oliva, Zoilo Versalles, Luis Tiant, Jr., Bert Campaneris, Cookie Rojas, José Tartabull, and Tany Pérez, among others) all departed for the States. The Sugar Kings’ roster in 1960 still included such present or future big-leaguers as Leo Cárdenas, Miguel Cuéllar, and Orlando Peña, but they also were soon refugees from their homeland. Most of those Cubans (including already established big leaguers like 1961 Cuban League MVP Ramos and his Washington teammates Pascual and Julio Bécquer) returned to their North American clubs in the spring of 1961 and almost none returned after tensions escalated between the governments in Havana and Washington.9

Fidel Castro rapidly overhauled Cuban society in the early 1960s, seeking to launch a “fairer and more just” societal order (one founded upon Soviet-style socialist principles). This effort involved totally revamping the island-wide organized sports system. Sports and recreation – like education and health care – would now become a genuine “right of the people” and not an enterprise for profit-oriented commercial business. A revamped government agency labeled INDER (Institute for Sports, Education and Recreation) was founded in February 1961. Under its direction, all professional sports were outlawed across the country (with the famous National Decree 936) by the middle of the same year. There would now be no admissions charges for attending such public events as ball games and concerts; attending matches and ballgames would become a popular celebration aimed at entertaining and building community spirit. Baseball would now involve only native Cubans (no more imported foreign talent) in a new kind of national league with a prime focus on developing strong homegrown and patriotic national squads.

A seven-decade-long tradition of professional winter play in Cuba was suddenly over, but a new type of baseball would soon enough emerge. It would be rebuilt on the backs of a considerable army of “lesser” talents who had remained at home on their native island. The opening decade of a new post-revolution brand of national baseball was full of pomp and circumstance – with a strong dose of patriotism and politics thrown in for good measure – even if the quality of play did not always quite measure up to the earlier professional standards.

The new “National Series” league opened play in January 1962, with only four clubs that recruited their talent from the popular amateur leagues of the previous decade. Amateur leagues (especially the Amateur Athletic Union league and the various sugar mill circuits) had always been highly popular. Now they would no longer take a back seat to a pro league operating only in the metropolis of Havana and featuring many visiting North American professionals. The first few seasons would be played with just a handful of teams – but by the end of the first decade there would be a dozen squads, and they would be spread across the island.10 For the first time Cuba could enjoy not only a purely indigenous brand of baseball but also a genuinely “national” sport that was staged in all of the island’s (at the time) six provinces.

One motive for the new league was to supply and train players for a national team that could carry the Cuban banner into the international arena and thus display the imagined strengths of the socialist (non-commercial) brand of baseball. Whether Fidel (an acknowledged fan) had been deeply stung by the loss of the AAA-level Sugar Kings remains conjecture. But after 1962 President Castro seemed bent on launching a novel system designed to beat the Americans at their own “national game” in international tournament venues. At the very time the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion was unfolding some of the top amateur Cuban players (soon to be showcased in the new league) were already winning a first proud victory in nearby Costa Rica. The surprisingly robust Cuban amateur squad went undefeated en route to capturing a cherished gold medal during that spring’s 15th edition of what was then called the Amateur Baseball World Series.11

Early “revolutionary” baseball was also highlighted to a notable extent by staged political displays of yet another flavor. Castro himself would regularly make much celebrated appearances at the first several “opening day” league festivities. It was arranged for El Comandante himself to slug out the first “official base hit” of the inaugural league game on January 14, 1962 (he tapped a fat delivery from Azucareros starter Jorge Santín through a cooperative infield). This staged ritual was subsequently carried on for the next several seasons.

Against this new “revolutionary baseball” backdrop, Aquino Abreu emerged during the first National Series of winter and spring 1962. Performing for the Azucareros (Sugar Harvesters) under manager Antonio Castaño, Abreu was the pitcher of record in all six of his starts that season, with two defeats and three complete games. The diminutive but nonetheless talented righty logged his first league victory on February 8, 1962 in Havana’s Latin American Stadium. It was a complete-game six-hit 5-0 shutout of rival Habana, the eventual league cellar-dweller. Abreu earned four of his second-place ball club’s 13 wins. If that total seems small, the schedule was short (27 games) – even the most successful league pitchers won only a half-dozen games.

Aquino’s physical stature on the mound was less than imposing – he stood a shade less than six feet and weighed in at a fraction less than 150 pounds at the height of his career. His successes resulted more from carefully honed craftsmanship than from any element of raw power or exceptional talent. Years later he commented to Padura and Arce that he had an adequate fastball and tricky curve at the outset of his career – but the tutoring of 1940s-era amateur league great Pedro “Natilla” Jiménez (then the manager of a rival National Series club, Orientales) opened the door. Jiménez painstakingly instructed Abreu on how to mix speeds and stressed the need to concentrate on the specific weaknesses of each batter.

Despite early promise and his developing command, Abreu entered his fifth league season with a lackluster total of 10 wins and 16 losses. He was seen as just a run-of-the mill league pitcher until his rare masterpieces unfolded at the midpoint of that breakout winter. By late-January 1966 he was overnight christened a celebrity hurler, even though he would log only one other win that season outside of his two no-hitters. With a 3-2 won-lost mark but only nine earned runs permitted, he ranked second that year in individual ERA at 1.50, the closest he ever came to leading the league (1961 World Cup hero Alfredo Street was first at 1.09). And he accomplished this even though his Centrales club finished dead last in the six-team circuit at 23-40.

Perhaps Abreu’s greatest outing was actually the one that preceded his pair of no-hitters. That was the marathon game on December 28, 1965 – at the time, it was the longest in Cuban League history. At the Sports City Park in Santiago, Abreu took the hill against Orientales and shut them down for 19 innings. The four opposing pitchers were just as effective, though, and the scoreless contest stretched on for more than four nail-biting hours. Abreu struck out 13, while allowing 12 hits and walking seven. But he gave up the game’s lone run with one out in the home half of the 20th. Elpidio Mancebo doubled, and after an intentional walk to set up a possible double play, Aquino faced his 76th batter, Gerardo Olivares. Olivares finally ended the affair by slapping a single to right.

This marathon feat of Abreu’s was likely even more difficult than his no-hitters. In the big leagues, there have been nearly 300 no-hitters, but only three men have thrown 20 or more consecutive scoreless innings in a single game. The record of 21 belongs to Joe Oeschger, who did it on May 1, 1920 in his 26-inning battle with Leon Cadore, who also finished with 20 of his own. The only other man to do it in the big time was Joe Harris on September 1, 1906 (he gave up a run in the third and then lost in the 24th).12 In Venezuela, on June 5, 1938, Dominican pitcher Andrés Julio Báez went all the way in a 20-inning shutout, scoring the game’s only run himself.

Abreu may well have paid a steep price for his singular show of strength. Arm problems plagued him in his next two historic outings and then lasted until the end of his career. Abreu told Padura and Arce that his arm woes actually could be traced back to the 1963 season (his second National Series) and lingered after that. He claimed that he could hardly throw in 1964, but a year later, surprise improvement allowed him to last as long as he did in the marathon contest. He remarked that he felt “borracho” (drunk) by the end of that game – it is most likely that the recurring pain he felt during his no-hitters came from a re-aggravation during the 20-inning grind less than a month before.13

The first no-hit gem came on Sunday afternoon, January 16, 1966. It was the opener of a doubleheader; Centrales was hosting Occidentales in Santa Clara’s venerable Augusto César Sandino ballpark (named for Nicaragua’s revolutionary hero, and now the home stadium of the
current league powerhouse Villa Clara Orangemen). Most of the visitors hailed from Pinar del Río Province, including outfielder Fidel Linares, a solid early league performer in his own right but also the father of future league star Omar Linares, whom many followers of the international game view as the best third baseman never to play in the North American major leagues.

The game was one-sided from the start and regrettably sloppy. The home team jumped ahead with four runs in the first and six more in the third, coasting easily from there to the final 10-0 score. The outclassed losers not only went hitless but also committed six errors. With a substantial lead, Abreu struck out four and walked three. Another base runner reached on an error (second baseman Mariano Alvarez booted an infield roller by the game’s third batter, Fidel Linares). If not artistic, the game was nonetheless a milestone: the first no-hitter in league history.

A quarter-century later, Abreu spoke wistfully to Padura and Arce about the first no-hitter – and about the sore arm that didn’t stop him. Also, he apparently was not aware of what he had going until catcher Jesús Oviedo pointed it out in the eighth. But this violation of baseball superstition was not nearly as troubling as increasing arm pain. By game’s end, Aquino was unable to lift the sore limb above his shoulder. It continued to throb and ache for the full nine days until his next scheduled start (league teams then played only four or five times a week, not on a daily basis).

On the evening of January 25, in Havana’s cavernous Latin American Stadium, Abreu faced the eventual league champion, the Habana Industriales, already the island’s most beloved team. This contest was far cleaner, with the losers only making two errors, but it was also equally one-sided on the scoreboard. Again Abreu benefited from the comfort of an early lead (a pair of runs in the first and a 7-0 cushion after five) and coasted home despite struggling a bit with his control. He struck out seven while also walking six. His pitching arm still pained him severely, though. According to the pitcher’s own later report, he felt sound during pre-game warm-ups, and he remained pain-free until the game’s midpoint. But from the fifth inning on he had to abandon his more effective fastball and rely on a prayer and soft breaking balls. In addition, a pair of remarkable late-inning fielding plays – by second sacker Alvarez and shortstop Ramón Fernández – both saved likely base hits.

The final out was a tame roller to second by outfielder Eulogio Osorio. Abreu had duplicated Johnny Vander Meer’s feat from 28 years earlier. And as was the case for Vander Meer (who had walked the bases full before getting the last out at Ebbets Field), the Cuban’s second no-hitter had been anything but clean or easy.

It is perhaps a curiosity that a flood of 11 no-hitters followed Aquino’s over the next four National Series – with five in NS VII (two on the same day) and three more the following year. And it should also be noted here that no-hit games are far less frequent in Cuba than in the majors.14 This has held true both throughout early league history, when pitchers were dominant, and in latter decades (especially the aluminum bat era), when hitters tended to rule.

Aquino’s pair remained a lofty peak in what was otherwise a chain of often nondescript seasons. With the renamed Las Villas club one season later, “Mr. No-Hit” was just 3-6, and he went 6-8 after returning to the Azucareros club a year after that. But in 1968-69 (National Series #8), Abreu enjoyed a sudden upswing and a surprising return to prominence. His 10-1 mark was one of the league’s best and his ERA again dipped below 2.00 (as it would four more times before his career finally wrapped up). In terms of consistency, 1968-69 was definitely a “career” season for Abreu. He also posted good records in the two following National Series for Azucareros (6-3 and 6-1). But in 1974 (back with Las Villas), he lost a career-high ten (versus five wins). He then quickly faded over his final two seasons, pitching just 38 and 22 1/3 innings.

In addition to his 55-59 record in 14 National Series, Abreu was 1-2 in one Selective Series and 6-4 in one Special Series. His victory total of 62 averages out to less than five per season; his career 2.26 ERA is only impressive if taken out of his era’s context. A half-dozen Cuban League mound stars boast sub-2.00 lifetime marks. A full dozen – some from later, more hitter-friendly decades – are under 2.20 for a full ten-year-plus career. There were far greater pitchers during the same pioneering era, even if none of the others enjoyed three individual outings that were quite so brilliant. In the end, the best that can be said is that Abreu’s overall mound record is somewhat blunted since it came during an era of remarkable pitching that marked the Cuban League’s own “dead-ball” epoch.

Abreu also made a brief mark on the world tournament scene as Cuba was first establishing its international dominance. His first such outing – on the heels of his National Series debut season – came at the August 1962 Central American Games in Kingston, Jamaica. The Cubans were returning to these Games after a 12-year absence; the young and inexperienced club was managed by former big leaguer Gilberto Torres. They lost three heart-breakers to the Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans, sandwiched around victories over Colombia and Venezuela. Abreu appeared twice in relief, giving up one earned run in six innings, striking out one batter while walking four, with no game decisions. When asked in 1989 about his fondest baseball memory, he did not cite either of his no-hitters – without hesitation, he said it was in Jamaica, the first time he heard the Cuban national anthem while wearing a national team jersey.

During the April 1963 Pan American Games in Brazil, both the Cuban team and Abreu himself performed far better. Seven victories against a lone defeat brought home a gold medal, and Abreu had two complete-game wins against the hosts: an 11-2 five-hitter, and a 17-3 laugher. A more impressive triumph against stronger competition came after his double no-hit season. In June 1966, at the Tenth Central American Games, he was again part of a Cuban championship squad. This tournament was held in Puerto Rico against a backdrop of severe political tension. The Cuban delegation was purposely detained after its ship arrived at San Juan harbor, long enough to miss the event’s official opening ceremonies. During the baseball matches anti-Castro exiles heaved stones at Cuban players on the diamond, interrupting action on several occasions. Abreu earned a complete-game 5-2 victory over the hosts in the opener (he made one other brief appearance in relief). Cuba took gold again after a second victory over Puerto Rico in the finals.

Abreu recalled being enticed during the 1966 stay in San Juan to leave his homeland and join North American professional ball clubs. As Abreu remembered it, “there was a great effort to buy a number of our players and I got several offers, including 30,000 pesos to sign with Pittsburgh. They even put in the paper that I had signed for 50,000 pesos, but it wasn’t true and in the end none of us on the team stayed in Puerto Rico.”15

After retiring from pitching, Aquino continued working as a baseball instructor and pitching teacher at the lower levels of Cuba’s highly organized and community-based athletic training system. In 1974 (during his final National Series season with the Las Villas ball club) he opened the Manicaragua Baseball Academy, based at the local “Escambray” ballpark in his hometown (a rural outpost in central Las Villas Province about 25 miles east of his birthplace in neighboring Cienfuegos Province).

Immediately after his playing days ended, Abreu also served briefly as a coach for the Azucareros, his team in seven different National Series. He also managed the Arroceros team for a single winter, National Series XVI (1976-77), guiding them to a ninth-place finish (20-19) in the 14-team circuit. That season was also notable as the first in which the Cuban League used aluminum rather than wooden bats (a practice that would last until 1999).

Settled in Manicaragua, the quiet and unassuming ex-ballplayer remained entirely out of the limelight for the next three and a half decades. The hoopla surrounding the Golden Anniversary of the National Series in 2010-11 brought little media attention to Abreu’s achievements. Still, he did reemerge in public for a lengthy Havana national television interview in April 2012 during a pre-game broadcast before the second game of an Industriales-Ciego de Avila championship playoff series. The still-hearty 76-year old veteran spoke eloquently about his skills in combating early-era league hitters, his own particular philosophy of pitching, and the vast differences between the athletes of his own time and the modern day.16

When Cuban League fans and enthusiasts today speak of the great hurlers of the past half-century, even the best-informed have little memory of Abreu. His reputation pales alongside these other luminaries:

  • Rogelio García: a 200-game winner in Pinar del Río and all-time National Series and Selective Series strikeout king;
  • Braudilio Vinent: Cuban League career leader in shutouts and author of numerous important international triumphs in the 1970s and 1980s;
  • José Ariel Contreras, owner of an unblemished
    13-0 mark in top-level international tournaments before abandoning Cuba in 2003 for a solid big league career;
  • Pedro Luis Lazo, whose 2006 stellar bullpen effort against celebrated Dominican big leaguers vaulted Cuba into the finals of the first World Baseball Classic;
  • José Antonio Huelga, decorated by President Castro after a heroic 1970 IBAF World Cup victory in Colombia over the Americans and future big-leaguer Burt Hooton.

Yet even if what Abreu once accomplished has seemingly been relegated to the dustbin of Cuban League history, it can never be entirely erased. So far his signature feats have not been matched – and will most likely never be topped. And as the first (and only) to achieve the double no-hit rarity in his homeland, Aquino Abreu therefore holds a lasting place in the Cuban baseball annals.

This account was adapted from my more elaborate portrait of Aquino Abreu (including a career statistical table) found in the “Estrellas de Series Nacionales” section of my Cuban League website at www.BaseballdeCuba.com. I am indebted to Rory Costello for his skillful editing that helped condense and strengthen this version of the Abreu story. And also to Cuban journalist Martin Hacthoun in Havana for verifying several biographical details during his October 2012 telephone interview with Aquino Abreu.

 

Sources

Alfonso López, Felix Julio. Con las bases llenas: Béisbol, historia y revolución. Havana, Cuba: Editorial Cientifico-Técnica, 2008.

Barros, Sigfredo. “La hazaña de Aquino Abreu,” Granma 51 Serie Nacional Webpage (http://granma.cubaweb.cu/eventos/51serie/noticias/html)

Bjarkman, Peter C. A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company Publishers, 2007. See in particular Chapter 8: Cuba’s Revolutionary Baseball (1962-2005).

_____. “Vladimir Baños Provides First No-Hitter of Cuba’s Golden Anniversary Season,” internet column for www.BaseballdeCuba.com (December 28, 2010) (http://www.baseballdecuba.com/newsContainer.asp?id=2345)

_____. “Cuban League Witnesses Historical “Schiller Rule” Tandem No-Hitter,” internet column for www.BaseballdeCuba.com (March 14, 2012) (http://www.baseballdecuba.com/newsite/NewsContainer.asp?id=2763)

Garay, Osvaldo Rojas. “La inedita hombrada de Aquino Abreu,” Blog de Las Avispas de Santiago de Cuba (http://lasavispas-sc.blogspot.com/2011/01/la-inedita-hombrada-de-aquino-abreu.html)

Green, Ernest J. “Johnny Vander Meer’s Third No-Hitter,” The Baseball Research Journal, Volume 41:1 (Spring 2012), 37-41.

Guia Oficial de Béisbol Cubano 1966 (National Series VI). Havana: Editorial Deportes (INDER), 1966.

Guia Oficial de Béisbol Cubano 2010-2011 (National Series L). Havana: Editorial Deportes (INDER), 2012.

Johnson, Lloyd and Miles Wolff (editors). The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball. Second Edition. Durham, NC: Baseball America, 1997.

Padura, Leonardo and Raúl Arce. Estrellas del Béisbol. Havana: Editorial Abril, 1989. (Chapter 5: “Aquino Abreu … sin hits … ni carreras,” p. 74-83.)

Stang, Mark. “Matching Johnny Vander Meer ….. a pair of near misses,” Mark Stang Baseball Books, July 27, 2009 (http://markstangbaseballbooks.com/node/62)

Toledo Menéndez, Dagoberto Miguel. Béisbol Revolucionario Cubano, La Más Grande Hazaña – Aquino Abreu. Havana: Editorial Deportes, 2006.

Photo Credits

Author’s Collection

 

Notes

1 Abreu threw the first two no-hitters of any type in the history of Cuba’s National Series. Vander Meer was the first big-leaguer to throw two in a single season. Vander Meer’s second came in the first night game ever at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field (the first in New York City as a whole). Abreu’s second (also a night game) was the first ever in Havana’s venerable Latin American Stadium. Over the years, this park has hosted 13 of Cuba’s 51 no-hitters. The Cuban park with the next most (six) is Santa Clara’s Augusto César Sandino Stadium, the site of Abreu’s first gem). Both pitchers struggled with control during their second no-hitters, but Vander Meer walked just three (against four strikeouts) in his first, versus Boston on June 11, 1938. But against Brooklyn, the Cincinnati southpaw almost didn’t survive the ninth inning. He walked the bases full before Leo Durocher’s final fly ball to short center. Vander Meer walked eight Dodgers, also benefiting from the fielding of third baseman Lew Riggs (on two grounders) and left fielder Wally Berger. Abreu had an identical three walks and four strikeouts in his first no-hitter; like Vander Meer, he struggled with wildness in the second (six walks) and also benefited from fine fielding behind him.

2 Vander Meer was also below .500 (119-121) in the majors, but he enjoyed the “big stage” there too. He pitched in the All-Star Game in 1938 (getting the win), 1942, and 1943. He also appeared in the 1940 World Series). Abreu was on three different occasions one of the aces of the Cuban national team in international tournament play, essentially the Cuban version of pitching in a genuine “World Series.”

3 During the half-century of modern-era Cuban League play, numerous calendar years (especially during the 1970s and 1980s) have contained more than one “season” of league play. The winter National Series has frequently been followed by such additional late spring or summer campaigns as the Selective Series (1975-1995), the Revolutionary Cup (1996-1997), the Super League (2001-2005), the All-Star Series (1968-1975, 1979), the Special Series (1974-1975), and the Series of Ten Million (1970). These extra campaigns on occasion have been longer in duration (more games) than the National Series itself. Still, the latter has traditionally been considered the true Cuban League “season” since it has been staged every year without interruption since 1962. A full explanation of the Cuban League structure and the variations in length of seasons is found in my SABR BioProject entry on “The Cuban League”.

4 During Aquino’s 14-year career, the league ERA leaders posted ERAs under 1.00 seven different times. Between 1970 and 1980, only once did the league leader post a mark of 1.00 or above. The highest league-leading figure in the first 26 seasons was 1.67, by Camagüey’s Andrés Luis in 1985 (135 innings pitched). The first league leader to go above 2.00 was Rogelio García in 1988. Admittedly, shorter seasons may work to the advantage of Cuban League pitchers. But clearly the period spanning Abreu’s career fell within Cuba’s own “dead ball” era in which the pitchers consistently dominated league hitters (and this remained the case for more than a decade after aluminum bats were first introduced for league play in 1976).

5 For detail, see Mark Stang, “Matching Johnny Vander Meer.... a pair of near misses” (http://www.markstangbaseballbooks.com/node/62), July 29, 2009. Stang’s accounts of the games pitched by Ehmke and Blackwell are highly relevant here as solid illustrations of just how much luck and rare circumstance is involved in achieving what so far only Vander Meer and Abreu have managed at high levels.

6 In his article on Johnny Vander Meer in the Spring 2012 edition of SABR’s Baseball Research Journal, Ernest Greene acknowledges Bell’s Appalachian League accomplishment and observes that it was “thought to be the first such feat in the minors since 1908.” (Bell’s games came on May 22 against Kingsport and May 26 versus Bluefield.) But the evidence is not at all clear here. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (Second Edition, Johnson and Wolff) records that Walter Justus – pitching for Lancaster in the Class D Ohio State – threw four no-hit games in 1908 (likely itself some kind of record). These fell on July 19, August 2, September 8, and September 13 (the final two only five days apart). But Johnson and Wolff do not indicate consecutive starts in their 1908 no-hit listings as they do for Bell’s games in 1952. And at any rate, the Class D Ohio State League of 1908 was probably in no way comparable to Vander Meer’s, Bell’s and Abreu’s leagues. It is also to be noted
that Vancouver’s Tom Drees threw consecutive hitless games (May 1989) in the Pacific Coast League in the late-eighties, but since the first of those two games was a 7-inning affair (first game of a doubleheader) it does not qualify as an “official” legitimate no-hitter by the standards now recognized throughout Major League Baseball and Organized Baseball.

7 This village lies less than 20 kilometers due south of the equally quaint crossroads town of Cruces, site of an obscure family tomb containing the remains of Cooperstown Hall of Famer Martín Dihigo.

8 Dagoberto Miguel Toledo Menéndez’s single sketchy biography published in Cuba in 2006 contains virtually nothing of Abreu’s personal life story. The only lengthy published Abreu interview is Padura’s and Arce’s, and the ex-pitcher speaks mainly of his baseball pedigree and of amateur league feats in his early youth. Only one segment of that interview refers to Abreu’s three sons and there is no mention at all of his parents or any siblings.

9 A handful of active professionals opted to remain in Cuba after termination of the MLB-affiliated winter professional circuit. The most notable were Fermín (Mike) Guerra (nine-year veteran big league catcher whose career ended in 1951 with the Washington Senators) and Tony Castaño (14-year winter league veteran outfielder/infielder who had been the manager of the 1960 Sugar Kings up to the time of their removal from the island on July 13, 1960). Both Guerra (Occidentales) and Castaño (Azucareros) would serve as managers in the 1962 inaugural National Series season.

10 The four-team National Series was expanded for the first time to six teams in 1965 (fifth season), then to a true island-wide dozen in 1967 (seventh season). The number of league teams reached as many as 18 in the mid-1980s. The rule for all of the past quarter-century has been 16 teams, with the single exception 2011-12, with 17.

11 Cuba dominated Amateur Baseball World Series events for most of the 1940s and early 1950s (with seven titles, one silver medal, one third-place finish, and four non-appearances). But during (and largely because of) the island’s political upheaval as the Castro revolution brewed in the late fifties, the IBAF-sponsored tournament went on hiatus until the 1961 renewal in San José. Mass tryouts in Havana produced an exceptionally strong team (led by star amateur league pitcher Alfred Street) for the first international competition after the installation of the new Castro government. In a quirk of timing, the Cubans ran roughshod over their nine opponents right when Fidel’s army was repulsing a USA-backed home-front military invasion at the Bay of Pigs.

12 Three Cuban League hurlers have since tossed 20 complete innings in one outing: Mario Vélez (March 21, 1983 for Las Villas versus Orientales), Féliz Nuñez (for Orientales in the same game), and Roberto Dominguez (November 23, 1986 for Henequeneros versus Industriales). The effort by Domingüez was in relief. In the 1920 big league game Oeschger had allowed one run in the fifth inning and Cadore one in the sixth.

13 Padura and Arce, page 79 (translated by this author).

14 Cuba has celebrated 51 no-hit games in an identical number of National Series seasons (including three multiple-pitcher efforts but only a single “perfect” game outing by Maels Rodríguez in 1999). In the dozen seasons of the new millennium (since 2000), there have been ten such games in Cuba. By contrast, the big leagues have provided 31 no-hitters (and seven perfect games) over the same limited span, seven in 2012 alone (three perfect games) and six in 2010 (two perfect games). The 279 “official” nine-inning gems in the majors since 1903 average out to more than 2.5 per MLB season, compared to a 1:1 ratio for the Cuban League. Granted, Cuban League seasons over the years have been on average only about half as long as MLB’s, but the ratio still tilts slightly in favor of the majors when it comes to the frequency of no-hitters. I discuss this comparison of no-hit games in the two leagues at length in my articles (both cited above) of December 28, 2010 and March 14, 2012, published online at www.BaseballdeCuba.com.

15 Padura and Arce, page 80 (translated by this author).

16 In Abreu’s words from 1989 (translated here from the Spanish): “Our own era was very poor technically speaking. We didn’t have the resources available today and we also didn’t have players equal to the level of those active today. We also didn’t train scientifically. At the same time our baseball (in the 1960s) was more heated and action-packed. And I also think the matter of interest is crucial and it is here that something has been lost. I believe that many of today’s players just don’t give one hundred per cent on the field. We started off playing with used uniforms handed down from the Marianao and Almendares clubs of the former pro league and two of our teams – Azucareros and Habana – had totally improvised uniforms at first. We didn’t have any equipment bags or any other luxuries, but when we lost a game we didn’t even care to eat afterwards and many of the players would shed tears after losing … Things have changed from our era in many different senses.”

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