There isn't any mention of the Great Frozen Daiquiri Derby in all those file cabinets full of records they have in Cooperstown. That's a pretty big oversight, because the derby lasted for six baseball seasons in and around Havana.
I bring this up now because it looks like the U.S. State Department and Bowie Kuhn are going to do Cuba a big favor and send an All-Star team of major-leaguers down there. Some favor; actually, it'll only be partial payment of a tab long overdue.
The derby was fiercely contested by a hearty assortment of players, coaches, managers, club officials and writers. The major league Scotch or gin or bourbon drinker may sneer at the frozen daiquiri, but that just wasn't so in Cuba, where tourist bureau officials met teams deplaning from Miami with courtesy jars of the loaded snow cones. As a reporter who covered the Rochester Red Wings, I was a frequent recipient of these freebies.
The derby started in 1954, when International League officials begged Havana to join up. Before the league finished strip-mining Havana in the middle of the 1960 season—at which time the Sugar Kings were transplanted to Jersey City—a bunch of baseball people had sucked up a lot of paid vacations on the island. When it was all over, an honorable and once-wealthy Cuban named Bobby Maduro wound up holding the sack. He lost everything and defected to the U.S. (This wasn't the first time Maduro got zapped by his colleagues from the north. The league's directors once boosted his per diem ante for visiting teams from $200 to $800. A lot of this was, of course, used to buy frozen daiquiris.)
While it lasted, baseball in Havana was colorful and exciting. The Cubans were shy on power, so they perfected the whisper rally: walk, infield hit, stolen base, sacrifice fly. And woe to the player—on either side—who failed to hustle. The fans in Havana were not only emotional, but they also loved to gamble on every pitch. With both their hearts and their pesos riding on each delivery, it was no wonder that they whistled up ear-splitting criticism for players who dogged it.
Certainly very few visiting players let up off the field. Sunshine and salt water and glittering casinos made Havana a composite of Miami Beach and Las Vegas. But you were better off sticking your fingers in an electric fan than buying chips in the bust-out casinos run by U.S. mechanics. They could break both the pass and don't pass shooters within the same hour. The operators all became lamsters shortly after Fidel Castro replaced their silent partner, that bandit-murderer Fulgencio Batista.
Other diversions in Havana included buying hot watches and jewels at super-bargain prices. A guy from down on the docks known only as China would say, "Take it home. Have it appraised. Pay me next trip."
Whether they were watching a game or taking part in Havana's other pastimes, the Americans who came to Cuba for baseball were hardly ever seen without daiquiris in their hands. We kept cumulative records on the walls of the iron-lung press box. They were impressive, because something about the climate permitted massive consumption without too much damage.
Herewith are the results from the six-year Great Frozen Daiquiri Derby:
Out of respect for his survivors, the winner shall be identified only as a veteran scribe out of Buffalo. His winning score was 56 daiquiris from noon until dawn. He was abetted, however, by a rain-out.
Montreal's press corps won the team title, eased up. Les Canadiens had a definite edge, because they traveled with as many as five writers at a crack, two-platooning in French and English. After one muddled visit, two Montreal writers missed a plane back home and wound up in New York City, from where they took a cab to Montreal and handed the tab to the Montreal GM.
A special Sportsmanship Award went to Dixie Walker, the Rochester manager in 1955-58 and former "People's Cherce" of Brooklyn. Walker copped the coveted citation even though he consumed only 18 of the frosty devils one night. But that was a good performance for Dixie, because he was usually a non-drinker and, by derby standards, strictly an amateur.
The Great Frozen Daiquiri Derby ended in July of 1960 at a Rochester-Havana doubleheader. Machete-wielding farmers and then-undisciplined Castro troops roamed the city, still fighting anti-revolutionary elements. An explosion behind Gran Stadium killed at least two Cuban college students and provoked a panicky exodus of wealthy Americans, wealthy Cubans, the Red Wings and Havana Sugar Kings. Castro saw the International League's defection as another act of American aggression, and U.S.-Cu-ban relations—not to mention the Daiquiri Derby—went down the drain.
Castro was personally involved in an earlier incident that had made the league nervous about playing in Cuba. On the night of July 25, 1959 he pitched one inning of an exhibition that helped fill the ball park before a Rochester-Havana game. Castro got the side out, with the assistance of the plate umpire and the opposing team.
The regularly scheduled game that night ran until midnight, which made it July 26, the birthday of Castro's revolution. So some of the fans and troops decided to play Cuban Fourth of July with .45 pistols, submachine guns and M-1 rifles. They fired away at the fences and the roof. They even caused some of us in the press box to drop our daiquiris. And they shot Rochester Third Base Coach Frank Verdi in the head. Verdi's metal batting-helmet liner saved his skull. He wobbled, but never fell. The Red Wings got the hell out of Havana without playing the next day. Apologies from Castro's government persuaded league officials that it was a frivolous matter, and the International League decided to return to the land of guns, sunshine and frozen daiquiris.
A year later the curfews and censorship and bombings convinced the league and the State Department that Cuba was no longer safe for U.S. baseball. But dwindling attendance and frightening nights had doomed baseball before that. The game was a sport and a religion to Cubans, but who needed the Americans to play it?
So it was goodby to the International League. Goodby .45s and M-1s. Hello Russians. Hello Jersey City.
It is nice to know that all that hysteria is over. The International League doesn't seem likely to get back to Havana, but I'd sure like to—provided that the frozen daiquiri hasn't been one of the casualties of the revolution.