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A studio photograph of Conrado Marrero when he pitched for the amateur Cienfuegos team, circa 1938. (Globe files/Globe files)
A studio photograph of Conrado Marrero when he pitched for the amateur Cienfuegos team, circa 1938. (Globe files/Globe files)

Tom Hawthorn

Going to bat for the Slow-Ball Señor Add to ...

On the first day of his second century, Conrado Marrero indulged his passion for Cuban tobacco.

A steady stream of visitors dropped by a small but tidy apartment in Havana on Monday to pay tribute to an old baseball player on his birthday. Among the gifts was a humidor containing 100 cigars, one for each year since he was born on his father's modest sugar-cane plantation in the Cuban countryside.

Mr. Marrero is known at home as El Guajiro (The Hillbilly) for his rural roots and as El Premier (Number One) for his skill on the mound. He learned to throw as a boy by tossing ripened oranges against trees. After being discovered pitching for a local industrial team, he became the most popular player in a land in which baseball has long been a religion. His status as a national hero was confirmed by hurling Cuba to an amateur world championship in 1942, setting off wild celebrations throughout the Caribbean island.

He made his major-league debut with the old Washington Senators in 1950 just four days before his 39th birthday, making him ancient by professional sports standards. He spent five seasons with the sad-sack Senators, compiling a record of 39 wins and 40 losses, admirable enough given the quality of his teammates, his own advanced age and a repertoire relying on a slider and an array of junk pitches.

The fans loved Connie, as did sportswriters, for the stubby pitcher (5-foot-5, 158 pounds) smoked stogies and cracked wise, his words invariably recorded in a cartoon Spanglish. He was profiled by the major magazines. Life dubbed him the "Slow-Ball Señor."

After retiring from the field, he returned to his native land to scout and to coach. He remained after the Fidel Castro-led revolution in 1959 and, in time, became estranged from the fraternity of baseball players.

Today, he is the oldest living former major leaguer. Among those sending birthday greetings on his birthday was Ernest (Kit) Krieger, a Vancouver man who has spent a decade trying to reconnect Mr. Marrero with former rivals and teammates.

As well, Mr. Krieger has campaigned for Mr. Marrero to get a baseball pension.

"There's nobody older," Mr. Krieger said. "There's nobody who needs it more."

A lifelong baseball fan, Mr. Krieger was visiting Cuba on a teachers' exchange when he decided on a whim to look up Mr. Marrero, whose name was in the Havana telephone book.

The two men struck a friendship. They shared a baseball connection of their own in Mickey Vernon. The Gentleman First Baseman, as he was known, had played with Mr. Marrero on the Senators. As a youth of 19, Mr. Krieger subsidized his university studies by working as a clubhouse attendant at Capilano (now Nat Bailey) Stadium, where the manager of the home team was Mr. Vernon. The skipper was talked into allowing his young employee to pitch the final game of the 1968 season for the Vancouver Mounties. The rookie lefty held his own, surrendering just one run in three innings. Mr. Krieger's pro career lasted just the one game.

Mr. Krieger started a group called Cubaball Tours in which he escorts fans to the island to watch baseball games. A highlight of the trip is a pilgrimage to Mr. Marrero's second-floor apartment in a building just a long fly ball away from Havana's largest baseball park.

On those visits, the two men partake of a shtick in which Mr. Krieger describes a game played more than a half-century earlier and Mr. Marrero shows off his phenomenal recall. Ten weeks ago, two dozen baseball fans from the north crowded into the apartment. Mr. Krieger prompted the old player by citing a 1951 game against the New York Yankees in which the underdog Senators prevailed, 7-3. He asked what the great Joe DiMaggio did in the game.

"Pinch-hitter," Mr. Marrero replied without hesitation. "Struck out."

Over the years, Mr. Krieger has solicited more than 50 letters from contemporaries of Mr. Marrero in which they acknowledge his skill and salute his longevity.

The centenarian lives with his grandson's family in tightened economic circumstances not unfamiliar in Cuba.

The Cuban government recently raised Mr. Marrero's monthly pension to 150 convertible pesos (about $142). For many years, he got just $7.62, a paltry sum for someone regarded as a national hero.

Mr. Krieger, 62, who is the registrar of the British Columbia College of Teachers, has had less success in his indefatigable effort to gain Mr. Marrero a baseball pension. His attempts have been thwarted by an uninterested baseball establishment.

That might finally change.

Last week, baseball announced a $10,000 (U.S.) annual payment for former players in Mr. Marrero's circumstance. The compensation was arranged after a campaign by retired player Eddie Robinson.

Mr. Krieger immediately contacted Mr. Robinson, who promised to get the money to Mr. Marrero, the slow-ball señor who had once been his teammate.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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