There is a persistent myth that Fidel Castro, the Communist guerrilla fighter turned Revolutionary leader, Cuban Prime Minister, and President, was, as a student, scouted as a prospect for U.S. Major League baseball teams. This is not true. But it is true is that Castro, in common with a very high number of his fellow Cubans, adored the sport.
For Castro, to succeed at baseball— massively popular across Cuba since its introduction in the 1860s, and tantamount to the country’s national sport—represented the opportunity to beat America at its own game. Literally.
Baseball had been widely taken up in Cuba as a replacement for Spanish colonial sports. Indeed, Cuba’s Spanish rulers had even banned it after the First Cuban War of Independence in 1869.
Shortly after he came to power in 1959, Castro formed and played in an exhibition baseball team called Los Barbudos (The Bearded Ones), its number drawn exclusively his revolutionary comrades. Los Barbudos regularly played in exhibition games during Cuba’s professional seasons. As far as Castro was concerned, seeing Castro in baseball regalia showed Cubans that their leader was just like them—he too loved their game.
A year later, in 1960, Castro banned professional sports outright, on the grounds that it was in direct opposition the ideals of the Revolution. Sports in general, and baseball itself, was repositioned as a way for men to maintain fitness in order to contribute to the building of the nation, and to prepare for military service.
Yet the end of professional sports did not undermine Cuba’s international achievements on the diamond. Far from it. Even today, the Cuban national team is the most successful team to have competed in the Olympic Games.