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    The Short Flight Of El Pájaro, The Cuban Legend Who Played His Only Game In The Major Leagues 100 Years Ago Today

    On May 16, 1913, revered shortstop Alfredo Cabrera played his one and only Major League Baseball game at Ebbets Field. Here's how a Canary Islander-turned-Cuban hero spent years earning his brief chance at American stardom — and what happened after it was over.

    No one knows anymore what the A in Alfredo A. Cabrera's name stands for. We do know he most likely sailed from the Canary Islands to Cuba around 1900, as a teenager, and almost immediately established himself as a gifted baseball player. He was of medium height, say 5'10" or so, and threw and hit right-handed. Cabrera was not considered a slugger, even in the era before home runs became common, but he had a good batting average and (especially in his younger days) flashed fleetness when needed. The reason Cabrera made any impact at all in baseball, though, was defense. Over a 20-year period, stadium crowds from Havana to Hartford were consistently awed by his fielding wizardry. He was the Ozzie Smith of his day.

    But Cabrera was not a superstar, nor even a notable personality, to American audiences. It was not until he was 32, after several seasons in the independent leagues of New England and well past his prime, that he finally got a chance to play Major League Baseball. On May 16, 1913, Cabrera made his debut as a shortstop for Ozzie Smith's eventual team, the St. Louis Cardinals. He went hitless in one at-bat, possibly two. Some of the fans in attendance at Ebbets Field to see Cabrera's team take on the Brooklyn Superbas that day might have known that they were seeing one of the outstanding Cuban players of that time, but of course the full significance of the moment would have been impossible for anyone to grasp — no one could have known the enormous role Spanish-speaking players and fans would come to play in the game of baseball, or understood the resonance of one of the first great Hispanic players making his only Major League appearance on the same legendary field where another color barrier would be broken 34 years later.

    Unlike some of his more fortunate Hispanic contemporaries, who were able to slide for a time around rules against dark-skinned players, Cabrera never got more than one chance in the league. The Cardinals released him, and he went back to Cuba. In baseball parlance, such a brief tenure in the majors is known as a cup of coffee, but Cabrera didn't even really get that. He had the mug knocked out of his hands mid-sip. He got a taste, sure, but that he never played another game in baseball's top tier (and that it took him so long to do so in the first place) can in part be attributed to the racism that ruled the day. Cabrera was born into an era where the darker color of his skin dictated where and when he'd be allowed to play ball, if at all. Less sinister, but equally foreign to modern fans used to the monolithic institution of Major League Baseball, was how decentralized and chaotic the game was at the time. Cabrera is not the only potential legend of early baseball who's been forgotten because it took him too long to find his way to the one league that's endured and come to define the sport.

    Cabrera has been forgotten in America, that is, where the newspapers referred to him as "Al," "Señor," or even the bastardized sur-nickname of "Cabbage." But in Cuba, where he was revered for decades, Cabrera was called something different, a name that, to the fans of the legendary Almendares squads for which he played and later managed, conveyed the fluidity and grace he brought to the sport: El Pájaro, The Bird. It became his identity, as a foreigner adopted and embraced by a new homeland thousands of miles from his ancestral birthplace across the Atlantic Ocean in the Canary Islands. He'd flown in from afar.

    When Cabrera was a young man, Cuba was grappling with newfound independence. As he grew old, the nation slipped into the throes of Communism. Through it all, Cabrera lived in baseball. He bore witness to a changing world, one he helped create, where Cuban ballplayers were recognized as equals with their American counterparts. Over the last century, men like Jose Canseco, Tony Perez, Luis Tiant, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, Aroldis Chapman, and more than 160 other native Cubans have followed Cabrera and his fellow pioneers to the big leagues, many of them with enduring success. But history has largely forgotten Cabrera, the adopted Cuban who played as well and did as much as any of his brethren to pave the path those future stars followed. He was a witness to history, a hero to many, and unfortunate proof that you can do and say all the right things yet never achieve the greatness commensurate with your talents.

    "Cabrera is a dark man, very brown, but has the most Irish face you ever saw. … He is not a Spaniard … nor a Portuguese ... This strange unit of a departed people is a guanche, or aborigine, of the Canary Islands." — Cincinnati Times-Star, Feb. 25, 1913

    The first official game of the Cuban League was played in Havana on Dec. 29, 1878. The Almendares Blues lost to the Habana Reds, 21-20, that day despite bursting out to an early 10-1 lead. Fifteen more seasons of losing followed before Almendares, in 1894, finally won its first championship. By that time, Almendares Park in Havana — despite the team's inconsistent performance — had become the central hub for all Cuban League games, and the club appeared poised for bigger glory.

    Almendares didn't get the chance to repeat as champion, as the Cuban War for Independence broke out the following year. On May 19, 1895, the game between Almendares and Habana, the only clubs that were left playing in a strife-filled season, had to be stopped in the fourth inning on account of rain, and the locals were not pleased. That same day, a 42-year-old Cuban poet-turned-revolutionary named Jose Martí was shot and killed by Spanish forces in the Battle of Dos Rios, out on the southeast portion of the island. The fan riots that followed the rainout, coupled with the escalating military conflict after Martí's death, compelled league honchos to end the season for good, and no champion was declared. Nearly four years would pass before organized baseball returned to Havana. Two years after that, a 19-year-old Alfredo Cabrera made his debut for Almendares.

    Cuba's increasing (and increasingly ambitious) population was one of the triggers of its insurrection against the Spanish. And the biggest reason for Cuba's growth was the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa. Its inhabitants were called guanches, and by 1859, nearly 40,000 of them had already immigrated to Cuba. Those numbers continued to rise each year, with roughly two-thirds of the immigrants being young men looking for work on plantations. This is most likely why Cabrera would've sailed to Cuba when he did.

    Another cause of the Cuban Revolution, of course, was the lurking influence of the United States. The explosion and subsequent sinking of the U.S.S. Maine off Cuban waters in early 1898 led to American military intervention, effectively finishing the conflict by year's end. Though neither the Spanish government nor loyalists in Cuba had any involvement in the Maine's demise, American jingoism and the strategic irritant of having a Spanish colony 90 miles away from the U.S. coast made involvement all but mandatory. The Treaty of Paris eventually formalized Cuba's national independence, and baseball (under the eye of provisional American forces) returned to Almendares Park two months after it was signed. The two countries were connected by geopolitics, but also by a mutual national sport.

    In fact, in February 1901, Cabrera would make his Cuban debut under the eye of an American. Manager Billy Earle was a 33-year-old former catcher from Philadelphia who'd played for five American teams in the 1890s before leaving the majors at 26. (He didn't exactly retire so much as he was excommunicated for acting like a weirdo. A self-proclaimed spiritual healer, Earle was forced out of MLB, as one account later described it, because of "the belief that he was a hypnotist with the power of 'the evil eye.'" Broke — he also had a gambling habit — and unable to hold a job as a college coach, he was hired to manage the Almendares Blues.) Cabrera played in all 18 games that season and was a fan favorite from the beginning. Midway through the 1903 season, the Cuban cultural magazine El Figaro asked thousands of fans who they considered Cuba's best baseball player. The overwhelming choice was Cabrera, who'd already become a regular on a team of national stars that played exhibitions with visiting American teams during the winter offseason.

    By 1905, Cabrera was playing shortstop — a move to better leverage his innate gift for fielding — and Almendares claimed its second-ever championship despite fielding a roster of only 12 men. The team also adopted a new nickname: Alacranes (Scorpions). Having solely been known as the Blues theretofore, this was an immediate upgrade, and a complementary slogan soon became a common refrain rising from the Almendares Park stands, especially once Cabrera led the team to four more titles over the next six seasons:

    ¡El que le gane al Almendares se muere! "He who defeats Almendares, dies." The Scorpions were at the pinnacle of Cuban baseball, Alfredo Cabrera was the Scorpions' star, and the Americans had their eyes on him.

    "These two men [Alfredo Cabrera and Armando Marsans] are the stars of the Almendares team, the Cuban champions, and there is little doubt they will make good in fast company in the States." — La Lucha, Dec. 2, 1906

    In the fall of 1906, H.D. "Hank" Ramsey decided to bring Alfredo Cabrera to America. As the promoter traveling with the "All-Americans," a ragtag bunch of adequate-if-unimpressive pros, Ramsey saw firsthand what baseball gifts the 25-year-old shortstop possessed. The All-Americans played 14 games against a series of Cuban teams and finished with a 7-7 record — but lost to Almendares in five of six games. It was Cabrera and one of his teammates, outfielder Armando Marsans, who piqued Ramsey's attention.

    On Dec. 26, before sailing back to New York, Ramsey signed both men to contracts that would pay them $125 a month once they arrived in America the following May. The agreement was soon complicated, though, when Ramsey revealed they would be playing for a team he would be managing in the Atlantic League, which was outside the purview of organized American baseball. Playing for such an unaccredited "outlaw" club could risk whatever future Cabrera and Marsans had in Major League Baseball — akin to a union worker crossing a picket line — so they instead signed a second set of contracts with the Holyoke (Massachusetts) Paperweights, a club in the accredited Connecticut League.

    The situation became even more bizarre and convoluted when Ramsey informed the two ballplayers that he had accepted a job managing a more legit team in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and wanted them to honor the first contract. Cabrera and Marsans considered their initial contracts invalid since Ramsey was not with this sanctioned team when they signed. The Holyoke club fought on the Cubans' behalf with U.S. baseball organizations, and the ensuing battle went through three levels of hearings. In June 1907, The New York Times reported the final decision of the National Baseball Commission in Cincinnati: Cabrera and Marsans had to play for Ramsey's team in Scranton. But the two men never reported, and Scranton management released them from any contractual obligations after the season. While all these shenanigans were happening stateside, Cabrera was leading Almendares to yet another Cuban championship.

    His stock rose even further in 1908, as Almendares completed the greatest single season in Cuban League history, going 37-8 and winning another title. Cabrera and Marsans signed with the New Britain club of the Connecticut League in early April, shortly after the Cuban League season had wrapped. New Britain also signed two more Cuban stars, Luis Padron and Rafael Almeida, and the quartet went to the States to became the first group of Cuban League players to play sanctioned minor league baseball in the northeast.

    Fans in New Britain were downright giddy over the new imports. One newspaper trumpeted Cabrera as a "whirlwind player," and his arrival was reported as imminent in early May. The other players came over in short order, but Cabrera would be the last of the four to arrive in America. He was extremely wary, given the earlier troubles he'd gone through to sign with an American team, but also because of some pushback his compatriots endured upon their arrival. "These men are strictly white and must not be confounded with the colored players," the New Britain Herald felt it necessary to say. "If it were not so, they would not be allowed to play in the league and the manager has been very careful to inquire into this before signing them. They are really Spaniards in sense of blood descent."

    Some managers and owners in the Connecticut League were not so assuaged and talked openly of banning the players. A special league meeting in mid-July was to settle the matter for good, but on July 24, 1908, The Springfield Republican reported that the issue had been permanently tabled and that no restrictions would be placed on the players. Apparently league organizers were simply too embarrassed to talk about race. "It is ticklish business to bring up racial talk — a fact which the directors recognize," the article read. "Of course, there is an understanding that negroes will not be hired to play in organized leagues, and sentiment is strongly against the black man in league baseball."

    With this quiet capitulation, the four players soon became a smash sensation. Though Cabrera did not arrive until July, and only after numerous personal pleas from the club's owner, his impact was immediate. On July 6, 1908, he suited up as New Britain's newest infielder and "played a smashing game at short and pulled off one stop that earned his salary right there," according to the next day's New Britain Herald. "He has a smooth-working wing and at the bat he was not a bit timid." The following day, Cabrera scored on a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth by Luis Padron. Fans stormed the field in delirium.

    Cabrera officially attained hero status on August 3. New Britain was playing at home against league rival Meriden, and the game was tied at 1-1 in the bottom of the 13th inning. The game was about to be stopped due to darkness when Cabrera stepped up to bat. "He slammed the ball between second and third," according to the Hartford Courant. The ball then "took a vicious bound" as it caromed past one defender and onto the left field grass. Cabrera raced around first and headed for second base, at which point the Meriden shortstop "made a wild throw of the horsehide." The ball sailed clear to the other side of the field and into the crowd. Cabrera raced home with the winning score, and the fans "threw up their hats and filed out on the field." It was, the newspaper declared, "the best exhibition of the national sport seen on the local diamond."

    While some competing owners kept filing protests, charging that the players' ethnicity made them ineligible, the umpires were a more immediate concern. Barely two weeks after Cabrera's arrival, the Herald ran a screed lambasting the league's umpiring crew and accusing them of willful malpractice. "It is charged that the umpires, aided and abetted, secretly, by some of the misguided owners and managers, are following a well-laid plot to deprive the Cubans of their superior batting averages," the article said. "Shame on the managers who countenance these tactics. There are no words too contemptuous to apply to the umpires who are their willing tools."

    Nonetheless, Cabrera finished out the season, playing 65 games in New Britain and fighting through "a bad attack of charley horse" in September, according to The New London Day. He returned to Cuba in time for the annual exhibition series against the Americans, some of which was played in Key West for the first time. But not even South Florida, with its growing Hispanic population and geographical proximity to Cuba, was immune to gross displays of racism. One player was allegedly denied admission into the country when the immigration officer took his features to be Chinese, and if another account is to be believed, the mayor of Key West himself, one Dr. Joseph Fogarty, threw rocks at and heckled a Cuban pitcher.

    By the 1909 season, Cabrera's second with New Britain, the owner protests had ceased and umpires were calling games with an increasing fairness. He played 115 games and batted .276 with seven home runs and a team-leading 22 stolen bases. Similarly solid seasons with New Britain in 1910 and 1911 — coupled with two more Cuban League titles with Almendares during the winter — made Cabrera a target of Major League Baseball scouts. The Connecticut League had the best independent minor league talent in the northeast. But though his raw speed, defensive flair, and occasional power kept fans wowed in two nations, Cabrera's age was starting to show. Years of hard travel had worn on him, and any chance he had to play Major League Baseball was fading fast.

    "The mayor was the official sponsor for the opening and received a hearty welcome, but Cabbage was the George Washington of the afternoon. He was first to hit, first to score, first to make a home run, and who will not say he was first in the hearts of the baseball men." — Hartford Courant, April 30, 1910

    When Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida, Cabrera's former teammates with Almendares, debuted as pinch-hitters for the Cincinnati Reds on July 4, 1911, it was not because Reds management wanted to be seen as trailblazers. It was business. Struggling near the bottom of the National League standings, Reds executives thought the novelty would help sell tickets. Cabrera continued to watch from afar, from Connecticut and Cuba, patiently waiting his own chance.

    Cabrera's prolonged exclusion from MLB was as sad as it was unsurprising. His skin was simply too dark to be considered acceptable by a majority of players and fans. The caricatures perpetuated against Hispanics at the time were breathtaking in both their offensiveness and openness. A front-page editorial cartoon in the May 9, 1912, edition of the Cincinnati Times-Star depicted Rafael Almeida wearing an exaggerated sombrero-style hat with a machete sheathed in a woven belt, a pipe dangling from his mouth, and a stalk of sugarcane slung over his left shoulder. If this was how players that were deemed "white enough" to play ball were treated, Cabrera, with his darker complexion, barely stood a chance.

    Of all the most frustrating aspects of baseball's stubborn refusal to integrate the worst might be the inherently arbitrary nature of the entire exercise. There was nothing officially written into any baseball rule that forbade non-whites from playing. Playing non-whites was just something that simply wasn't done, and determining who was "not white" was also up to each individual team executive and scout to decide on a case-by-case basis. And no one was required to tell a player why they hadn't been signed, of course. So they might never know whether they'd been excluded because of their ability or because of their genes.

    Cabrera's rights were sold in August 1911 to the Boston Rustlers, a dreadful MLB team with little to lose. One local paper started calling him "Boston Cabbage" and said if Cabrera made it to the Rustlers by season's end that "there is no doubt but what he will give [Al] Bridwell a strong run for the shortstop position." The Toledo News-Bee said a source regarded Cabrera as "a better player than Marsans or Almeida because he had brains" — but for whatever reason, maybe race, maybe not, Cabrera never played for Boston and his rights stayed with New Britain.

    In January 1912, the Hartford Courant reported that Philadelphia had also shown interest in the shortstop and that Brooklyn team owner Charles Ebbets "wanted to take Cabrera on the spring training trip." However, New Britain team owner James Murphy needed a star because he was angling to move the team to a new city. After a long squabble over New Britain's allegedly inferior ballpark — some things truly never change — Murphy relocated the squad to nearby Waterbury, not after but during the 1912 season.

    The result was a disaster. Waterbury became the embarrassment of the Connecticut League thanks to injuries, prolonged vacations by players, suspensions, and generally shoddy play. The nadir came during a loss to Hartford in August. WATERBURY TEAM IS SHOT TO PIECES, read a headline inside the Hartford Courant. "A few New Britain fans who came up to see the game … shook their heads sadly when they compared the team and the great organization that proudly wore the New Britain colors at the start of the season." Hartford won, 16-3, and the writer joked that "at one time it was thought that Jim Murphy would have to put on a uniform."

    Murphy sold the team after the season — but because of baseball's arcane rights clauses, Cabrera's player rights were somehow excluded from the sale. Under pressure from local baseball officials, Murphy sold El Pájaro to the minor league Indianapolis Indians in January 1913 for $1,500. The newspapers treated his sale as if a great civic leader were heading into retirement. "Cabrera was regarded as the best shortstop in the Connecticut League," said the Courant, which described the way bellhops at the Waterbury hotel in which he lived "waited upon him as if he was a monarch."

    Cabrera never made it to Indianapolis and instead ended up playing for a team in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he was when the big leagues finally came calling. In St. Louis, Miller Huggins' first year as St. Louis' player-manager was not going well. Huggins would famously go on to win three World Series, managing perhaps the most famous team in baseball history — the 1927 Yankees — but this was his first time in charge of a roster, and the Cardinals were near the bottom of the National League. A scout named Tom Connery, who'd been an assistant coach in the Connecticut League, probably recommended Cabrera, perhaps thinking he could help goose ticket sales for the slumping team. Connery would've had no problem getting Huggins' blessing, since Huggins had played for the Cincinnati Reds when they ventured to Cuba in late 1908 for an exhibition series. Huggins had even broke up an Almendares no-hitter in the ninth inning of one game with a slow-rolling infield single between first and second base.

    An account of Cabrera's sole MLB game only exists because he had the good fortune to play against the Brooklyn Superbas at Ebbets Field — and The New York Times was on it. Cabrera is not mentioned by name in the paper's recap of the game, and his inclusion in the box score is merely noted as "Cab'ra," a common casualty of the era's routine agate-type abbreviations. But he did play shortstop and bat at least once, making an out. While every other known secondary source lists Cabrera as having batted twice without a hit, he is listed in this box score as having batted just once, a fact that might indicate he was a late-game substitute and not a starter. Brooklyn won, 6-5. (Superbas owner Charles Ebbets, who had once sought to bring Cabrera to spring training, was in attendance that day to host 5,000 local school kids, prompting the Times to note that "juvenile enthusiasm proved the undoing of the Cardinals.")

    In an hour and 52 minutes, the big-league career of Alfredo Cabrera, Major League Baseball's first Spanish-born player, had come and gone.

    "The work of Cabrera at shortstop was one of the other bright features of the contest. He robbed the Finnegans of three hits, two of them line drives which looked good for safe bingos and few short stops in the business would have been able to knock them down." — Hartford Courant, Aug. 16, 1910

    There's no record of why the Cardinals cut Cabrera; perhaps they changed their mind about his potential PR value. He returned to the Springfield Ponies and finished out the 1913 season as their everyday second baseman. He played two more lackluster years there, sailing back for the Cuban League season in between, but was finished with American baseball after 1915. At that point, Cabrera returned to Cuba for good and was immediately installed as Almendares' player-manager. On the strength of some phenomenal pitching, Cabrera managed the team to the Cuban League title, winning by two and a half games over Habana, his old nemesis. He played three more uneventful years before retiring. His final season in 1920 was for a haphazard collection of players known as América. It was like Jordan playing for the Wizards, as Cabrera's old club Almendares earned yet another championship while América played 28 games and won only two.

    In retirement, Cabrera essentially became a goodwill ambassador for Almendares. He occasionally umpired games and even made a triumphant return as the Almendares manager for the 1925-26 season. (He won another championship, just beating out, once again, Habana.) He was 44 by then, but baseball cards from the era make him appear 20 years older, with forehead wrinkles more pronounced and a face worn by time. The thin mustache, so familiar in his younger days, is long gone, but his smile remains bright. He was elected to the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in 1942. But since this was before baseball's big-bucks era — and since Cuba was less prosperous than the United States in any case — simply hanging around as a revered old-timer wasn't a plausible way to make a living. So when Havana's Gran Estadio opened on Oct. 26, 1946, to much fanfare and a record crowd of some 31,000 people, Cabrera was there as head groundskeeper.

    That was how an entirely new generation of Cuban baseball fans regarded Cabrera in his later years: as the older gentleman who kept Cuba's most prestigious ballfield in tip-top condition and kept an eye on Mocho, the rascally stray dog who lived under the stadium stands and chased foul balls on occasion. The lasting image of Cabrera was, as described by one Cuban baseball historian, that of "a tallish, gaunt figure in a denim uniform, with a cigar stuck in the middle of his mouth and a rake in his gnarled hands. … Pájaro Cabrera was the true guardian of the sacred turf."

    "A slim, reddish brown man, with a face that bears the stamp of weariness of the ages — the face of a patient member of a conquered people." — Cincinnati Times-Star, Aug. 22, 1911

    On Feb. 8, 1961, Almendares lost the final game played in Cuban League history. A victory would've secured the 26th championship in team history, but the organization still finished with the best all-time winning percentage (.539) of any Cuban League team. Political pressure from the Castro regime had made baseball an untenable activity, and all professional league sports in Cuba were banned later that year. The Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame stopped electing new members and no longer exists in any official form.

    To this day, nearly 200 native Cubans have played Major League Baseball. Only three more Spaniards followed Cabrera to the big leagues, but 27% of all MLB players today are of Hispanic descent.

    In 1964, Alfredo A. Cabrera died at the age of 84 in Batabanó, a 35-mile drive down the Autopista La Habana from Cuba's capital city.

    The exact day of his death is not known.