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.
As a boy, Mr. Marrero threw ripened oranges against tree trunks to improve his aim. At age 12, he ended his education to work in the fields of El Labertino, his father's small plantation, driving ox carts filled with freshly cut stalks of sugarcane from the fields to the mill.
Mr. Marrero played on a local industrial team for a decade as a young man, moving from the infield to the pitching mound after an errant ground ball caught him flush in the face, blacking an eye. He resolved then to become a pitcher, where he could get out of the way of such batted balls. He had also determined pitchers worked fewer games and earned more money than fielders.
He did not sign with an established team in Cuba until age 27, an age by which time most players already have established careers. His semi-professional sandlot exploits led to his being signed by Santiago, an ostensibly amateur club that ensured its new star pitcher was taken care of.
The local star became a national hero during the war years, when he pitched Cuba to the amateur world championship against Venezuela in 1942, revenge for having lost the title to the same opponent the previous year.
In 1947, Mr. Marrero signed with the Senators, who assigned him to play with the Havana Cubans of the Florida International League, a Class C circuit five rungs below the major leagues. In three seasons, the right-hander compiled a spectacular record of 70 wins against just 25 losses. His earned-run averages for those seasons: 1.66, 1.67, 1.53.
Such a performance led to his being catapulted into the parent club for the 1950 season. He made his debut in relief four days before his 39th birthday, making him one of the oldest rookies in the history of the major leagues.
In his second season with the Senators, Mr. Marrero reeled off five wins to open the season. His success would taper off as the season progressed.
During the winter, he moonlighted by throwing for the Almendares Alacranes (Scorpions) in Havana, returning to Griffith Stadium in Washington in April to face rusty batters with a slider in mid-season form.
On April 26, 1951, Mr. Marrero limited the Philadelphia Athletics to just one hit, a home run by Barney McCosky, as the Senators won 2-1 thanks to home runs by Mickey Vernon and Gil Coan. The pitcher issued only two bases on balls while striking out nine in the most dominant performance of his major-league career.
He was so effective that Athletics manager Jimmy Dykes complained about Cuban players benefiting from playing winter ball in their homeland.
The quirky pitcher was profiled in June by Life magazine, which portrayed him as a fun-loving, stogie-chomping naïf who had implausibly become a pro athlete who faced the most tense circumstances with a natural casualness. With bases loaded and none out, he was said to have summoned his catcher to the mound for a conference. As the crowd brayed, the pitcher said to his catcher, "The guy who runs this baseball makes good money, huh?" He then struck out the side.
The article, like most in the day, rendered Mr. Marrero's quotes in a comical pidgin English, playing to a stereotype of Latin players as semi-literate rubes. He was called Chico ("boy") and Connie by English-speaking teammates and the press, diminutives which the wily pitcher said tended to diminish his status. He had become accustomed to more respectful treatment during his long career in Cuba.
Mr. Marrero was named to the American League roster for the All-Star Game that summer at age 40. He did not pitch.
The colourful player spent five seasons in the majors, going 39-40 with an earned-run average of 3.67, mediocre statistics until one considers Mr. Marrero was at least a decade past his prime during his time with the sad-sack Senators, loveable losers who finished most seasons closer to the bottom of the standings than the top.
While in the American capital, Mr. Marrero also had the unusual assignment of joining the Secret Service in guarding members of the presidential party at Griffith Stadium. In 1952, he was assigned to protect Harry Truman's wife and daughter – Bess Truman and Margaret – from foul balls.
On opening day in 1953, manager Bucky Harris positioned the pitcher on the field next to the grandstand where sitting in the front row was Dwight Eisenhower, the new president (and retired general) who had thrown out the ceremonial first pitch.
Mr. Marrero did not retire after his release by the Senators, pitching two seasons for the Havana Sugar Kings of the International League, one rung below below the majors. He went 10-4 before pitching his final game in 1957 at age 46.
Mr. Marrero became a respected coach and scout in Cuba, working until his late 80s. He decided to remain in his homeland after the revolution in 1959. Later that year, the Boston Red Sox hired him as a scout on the island. He appeared in the team directory as living at an address near the Estadio Latinoamericano in the Cuban capital, the same apartment that would be his home for the next half-century, which he shared with his grandson's family, including a great-granddaughter, and in which he would die.
Up to his death, Mr. Marrero was baseball's oldest living former major-leaguer, a title to which all players aspire and all are reluctant to concede. "I am now the president of the living ones," Mr. Marrero had said on the death of Tony Malinosky in 2011. The title now passes to Mike Sandlock, 98, who made his big-league debut with the Boston Braves in 1942 and who later played two seasons with the Montreal Royals. Mr. Sandlock was also Mr. Marrero's catcher with the championship Almendares team in 1948-49.
Over decades, Cold War tensions kept Mr. Marrero at a distance from his playing contemporaries. Mr. Krieger, a teacher and union official, befriended the pitcher while on a visit to the island. He returned many times, on each visit accompanied by fellow Canadian and American aficionados who jammed into the small but tidy apartment to pay homage to the old ball player.
Mr. Krieger would then read aloud letters he had requested from the likes of Yogi Berra, Dom DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Bobby Doerr, Bobby Shantz, Harmon Killebrew and Minnie Minoso, among others.
Mr. Marrero, who eventually became blind and nearly deaf, regaled visitors with tales from his playing days, a cigar in his mouth and a ball in his right hand, for a few minutes the afflictions of age forgotten in the reverie of memory.
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