Goldman: Jose Abreu and the baseball ghosts of Cuba

From SABR member Steven Goldman at SB Nation on October 18, 2013:

If you spend any time at all with the history of the game, pouring over the records of past players, you will experience a curious phenomenon: Players you have never seen become vivid to you, as real and alive as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper even though they have long since retired or even died. You will become a fan of someone you never saw, that perhaps no one now living has seen play, and for whom you have no visual evidence of how they hit, ran, and fielded  beyond a few grainy black and white photos and some numbers on a page. These ghosts will haunt you, because the desire to appreciate them, to see them as they were, can never be satiated.

If there is such a thing as an afterlife then it’s possible that that desire is reciprocated by the ghosts themselves. Today, even the most sparsely-attended team might average close to 20,000 fans per game, but until about 30 years ago it was commonplace for the league’s lesser lights to average well under 10,000, and to sometimes play before only a few hundred fans. In the days before radio and television, when a game was only witnessed by those in the park, entire careers passed almost entirely unobserved. That goes for many of the all-time greats as well. The day Lou Gehrig hit four home runs in a game against the Philadelphia A’s? The reported attendance was only 5,000.

What went for them goes double for those players who spent their careers under a different kinds of shadow, their obscurity a monument to America’s obsession with race. Center fielder Cristóbal Torriente was one of those players who left just enough evidence of his passing to evoke unresolvable feelings of loss in those who came later for not having seen him play. Torriente was a stocky guy with a square jaw, officially 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds. Pictures suggest a hint of Hack Wilson about him, though he was a little taller and better proportioned than Hack. Born in Cienfuegos, Cuba in 1893, he first appeared in the Cuban National League in 1912, when he was 18 years old. He played regularly until he was 34. Given that kind of career span, a major leaguer of the period might have left behind a track-record of over 10,000 plate appearances. Instead, Christobal, who was limited to the Negro Leagues because of an objection to a single genetic trait, has left us only 3,381 PAs by which we might try to imagine him.

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Originally published: October 18, 2013. Last Updated: October 18, 2013.