A short, stocky man rarely without a cigar, Conrado (Connie) Marrero built an improbable professional baseball career by perfecting trick pitches designed to baffle hitters.
In his native Cuba, where he was a legend, Mr. Marrero was known as El Premier (Number One), El Curveador (The Curveballer) and El Guajiro (The Hillbilly), a reference to his farm roots. When he came north late in his playing career to pitch for the Washington Senators of the American League, he was celebrated in national magazines such as Life, which called him the “slow-ball senor.”
Mr. Marrero died on Wednesday at his Havana apartment, just two days before what would have been his 103rd birthday.
His death led to a rare accord between Washington and Havana, as a baseball character was saluted in the pages of both the Washington Post and Granma, the official Cuban Communist newspaper.
The long-simmering tensions between the two countries left the old pitcher isolated from the baseball fraternity. Over the past dozen years, E.J. (Kit) Krieger of Vancouver made it his mission to reacquaint Mr. Marrero with the baseball world, soliciting letters from old rivals and teammates, which he personally delivered to the Havana apartment on annual pilgrimages.
Mr. Krieger also successfully negotiated with Major League Baseball to ensure Mr. Marrero received a pension. An annual $10,000 (U.S.) remittance, a modest sum by modern baseball standards, ensured the pitcher’s final years were not spent in deprivation.
Mr. Marrero, an unlikely looking athlete even in his prime, had a biography as elusive as his curveball. Like many in baseball, he shaved years from his birthdate to appear more employable. A 1952 article by the Saturday Evening Post noted he was “positively 35, absolutely 37, indisputably 43, and definitely 42.” Even the month (April, May or August) and date (the 1st, 11th or 25th) of his birth were unclear. Reporters pressed him to give his age. “Me old enough,” the pitcher replied, “but me not too old.”
Even his height was in dispute. He was listed as standing between 5 foot 5 and 5 foot 8, though if it was the latter he probably would have been on tippytoes while wearing baseball cleats. The scales might have been accurate in weighing him at 165 pounds, for his bulk seemed to hang low on hips which rested atop legs too stubby for a barrel-chested torso. Batters thought he looked like he’d been buried to his knees on the pitching mound.
As if the comical sight of a chunky hurler in a baggy flannel uniform was not enough of a distraction, Mr. Marrero employed one of the oddest pitching motions seen in the modern game. A ridiculous windmill windup was described as looking like “a cross between a windmill gone berserk and a mallard duck trying to fly backwards.” He delivered the ball stepping toward first base with his left foot, while propelling the ball forward with his right arm. Life magazine told its readers he resembled “an orangutan heaving a 16-pound shot.”
The Marrero repertoire included a devastating curve and a slippery slider, two deceptive pitches that made his ordinary fastball appear sneakily sharp. He also threw a changeup and an occasional knuckler to baffle the batter.
One of the anecdotes Mr. Marrero liked to share with visitors was about a game in which the great Ted Williams hit two home runs off him. After the game on Aug. 11, 1954, a 10-1 victory for Boston over the visiting Senators, the hitter known as the Splendid Splinter put an arm on the pitcher’s shoulder, saying, “Connie, today was my day.” The pitcher replied, “What do you mean? Every day is your day.”
Conrado Eugenio Marrero Ramos was born on April 25, 1911, at Sagua la Grande on Cuba’s north coast, about 320 kilometres east of Havana. He was the fourth of eight children (five boys, three girls) born to Gumersinda Ramos and Leopoldo Marrero, known as Gume and Polo, according to a biography prepared by Peter Bjarkman, an American professor who is an expert on Cuban baseball.