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Industrial All Stars Visit Cuba, 1993

October 2003

From stickball games to street parties, the young kids followed the team around like rock stars.  There are many things that spring to mind when remembering the fall of 1993 and the Industrial League’s trek to Cuba to play in the Third, World Club Championships. The three that come to mind the most are the trip preparation, the games (winning the Bronze Medal) and the cultural experiences.  Charlie Blackburn, the Commissioner of the league from the mid-1950's through the mid-1990's moved mountains to help facilitate this team and its travel.  At the time we had no official diplomatic contact with Cuba. * “[The United States had] no embassy in Cuba, therefore the Swiss government was designated to handle any and all communications and travel arrangements into and out of Cuba. We obtained special travel visas through the Swiss Embassy in D.C. as a sports team representing the USA through my connections with the United States Baseball Federation (now USA BASEBALL INC.).”

This USA team was a group of Washington area All Stars from the Industrial League that plays 30 to 40 games per year. Now in Cuba they were playing against National Teams that had been together for 8 to 10 years and regularly played 140+ games per year.  When you’ve been playing in the Industrial League and you’re used to crowds numbering in the teens, playing in front of 25,000 to 35,000 people on national television (Cuba) can be a daunting experience. Woody Edwards, in talking about his playing time in Cuba, pointed out as the lead off hitter for the USA team that he felt very quickly he was able to zone out the crowd noise and pick up his game.

Terry “OX” Oxendine, one of the legendary hitters for Fairfax Furniture in the Industrial League said, ** “I remember in one of our games in Cuba, we were in a tight spot, close game, and we needed to change our pitcher. Well, it was a last second decision on George’s (George Beck) part to do that. We were at bat with two outs; we needed time for our pitcher to warm up. So George says, ‘OX, grab a bat, your hitting, nobody can stall as long as you can’. The pitcher runs out and starts warming up. I took my time getting loose and the umpire says, ‘Let’s go’. I take a pitch, back out and call time out, walk slowly to talk with the third base coach. The umpire rushes me...again. Well, if anyone has ever seen me play knows that I will back out on every pitch and take a few swings and then start digging in again. I took the count to full before I even thought about swinging. I looked back at the umpire getting ready to call time out again, but he gave one of those looks that said, ‘Don’t do it’. The next pitch, well, I flied out. I gave the pitcher plenty of time to warm up. When I walked in the dugout, George shook my hand and said, ‘Good job’.”

George Beck, the Manager of this USA Team, marveled at how they came together.  The first game this team EVER PLAYED was on Cuban soil...against the Cubans, and we won 9 to 2 against the defending National Champions in front of a crowd of 35,000.  Tony Long, the winning pitcher gave up two runs before his catcher even knew what it was like to catch a pitch in Cuba. The Cuban team was an aggressive lot and tried to put the game on ice early with a double steal.  The hitter at the plate scorched a line drive to the outstretching arms of Tony Riggs. After that, a triple play was turned, started by Riggs, and the blowout was on!  By the end of the game you could hear chants of..*** ”USA!  USA!  USA!”  That, my friends, would make even the hardest of hearts weep with joy and pride.  "I couldn't believe we were so well received by the Cuban people.  They loved us.  To beat Cuba (Orientales, defending National Champions) and to hear them cheering U-S-A was unbelievable."

The U.S. players had more trouble overcoming the excessive heat and terribly poor sanitation situation.

**** "So many things you take for granted: soap, shampoo, toilet paper, even toilet seats weren't always available," said Beck.  "Air conditioning was inferior to [that of the United States] if not, non-working. Temperatures were in the 90s every day."

From a cultural perspective this trip represented much more than just toilet and heat issues.  It was the chance of a lifetime for all who participated. The cultural experience as well as the baseball playing (Bronze Medal) was an eye opener that all who were there will remember. Dave Gillum for one, found the trip an experience he will always cherish.  ***** "For me, as someone who enjoys history, different cultures and the like, just the fact that we were going to Cuba was amazing in itself.  As one of the very few countries that was still a known communist nation, and the fact that no American amateur team had played there in so long, it certainly was intriguing to be playing in the home of Fidel Castro."

Trips into the city were a treat. Navigating the streets was an adventure all in and of itself.  The players rode their bus through the city to a mix of walkers, bicyclists, goats, and 1950 Russian automobiles that simultaneously bustled through the busy city streets.  Stickball games were casual affairs using whatever equipment was available. Most of the time the balls were so beat up and taped together that they resembled old socks as they fluttered through the breeze. Very often the tournament players from various teams dropped in to lend a hand. They played during their free time just like when they were children playing anywhere from the sandlot to the busy streets. There were other examples of cross cultural unity with the tournament players regardless of the language barrier. Often the power would go out in and around the compounds that the players were staying in. On one occasion the power went off in the evening. It was oppressively hot and humid and with nothing better to do one of the USA players started barking like a dog. This barking went on for several minutes. Some of his teammates became a little annoyed and wanted to know what the heck he was doing. This player, who shall remain nameless, said he was just cutting the tension and monotony of the evening. Soon players from the Venezuelan team and the El Salvadorian team started to add to the dog sounds with barnyard sounds of cows mooing and chickens clucking. After that, every time the power went out this barrage of sounds would erupt from the compound punctuated by laughter throughout.

This trip was not immune from its darker, more somber moments.  Dave Gillum said, ****** "After one game, someone put our extra sandwiches out for townspeople to take, and a fairly chaotic frenzy broke right in front of our bus.  That incident certainly reinforced how poor and relatively underprivileged they were, but, moreover, watching them fight over simple sandwiches left me with feelings of guilt, empathy, and maybe most of all, embarrassment.  How could other human beings, just like us, live such a radically different existence??"

The trip to Cuba, the games for the World Club Championships and the sense of cross cultural camaraderie should have been covered in a way they were not. This entire event slipped under our local and national baseball radar screen.  The Washington Post and Journal Newspapers did cover it to some small degree, but for the most part it came and went without notice.  A second win by Beck’s club over the Orientales late in the tournament marked the first time a US team beat a Cuban team twice in an amateur tournament, according to Beck. ******* “Our team was patched together in about three weeks. When we left, we left with a lot of apprehensions and anxieties, but we had a great trip”.

NOTE: George Beck died tragically this past spring in an auto accident in Florida. All who knew him will miss him. What more can I say, George…thank you.

Bob Schnebly


* (1) Charlie Blackburn, email, 10/1/03

** (2) Terry “OX” Oxendine, email, 9/29/03

*** (3) George Beck, Washington Post Sports, 10/2/93

**** (4) George Beck, Fairfax Journal (The Journal Newspapers), 10/5/93

***** (5) David Gillum, Jr., email, 9/25/03

****** (6) David Gillum, Jr., emal, 9/25/03

******* (7) George Beck, Fairfax Journal, 10/5/93