14ymedio, Ernesto Santana, Havana, 4 January 2018 — Last year, while the national baseball team was finishing the World Classic with one of its most disastrous international performances, at the Havana Gallery there was an exhibition Cuba in Baseball, by Reynerio Tamayo, which was an inflamed artistic confession that got into the fiery debate about the crisis of this sport.
In addition to playing with the sense of stripping bare the national passion or the passionate nation, Tamayo’s title was a parody of Antonia Eiriz’s Death in Baseball, a 1966 painting that is among the most disturbing, and even enigmatic, that the great artist painted before being censored and marginalized.
In the midst of the colossal media campaign of these past months that tries to demonstrate that Fidel Castro is alive physically and chemically — as his grandson Fidel Antonio Castro Smirnov insists, as he visits every month “the rebellious stone [Fidel Castro’s mausoleum] that teaches and illuminates” — our attention is called to this painter’s picture.
The Senior Sportsman (one of Fidel Castro’s many monikers) practiced several athletic disciplines and, on taking power, tried to give sports to the masses and destroy professionalism, especially in baseball. Fifty-six years ago, in January 1962, he went down to what was then called the Latin American Stadium to hit the first ball and inaugurate the first National Baseball Series.
It was not unusual, at that time, that the One — as his friends called him — would occasionally join in some ball game that he ran across in his travels. He would step in and pitch for one of the teams, or both, and, of course, no one dared to contradict his decisions, regardless of the consequences for the game.
In an issue of the magazine Visual Arts: Art Experience New York City, of which he was then editor-in-chief, the critic Ernesto Menéndez-Conde published a short commentary about the article Fidel plays Baseball, which appeared in Cuba magazine in August of 1964 with photos by Lorenzo Rocamora.
Based on one of those photos, with some modifications, writes Menéndez-Conde, Antonia Eiriz painted her canvas. “She eliminated the figure of the photographer who appears at the back and approached the stands around home plate, so that the audience could also be seen.” It is possible to recognize the beard of the leader, even if the face of the batter was abruptly cut off and unfocused on the top margin of the canvas.”
The critic adds that “it was up to the spectator to decide which of the characters could be death: if it is the umpire, with his black uniform and protective mask, that appeared to be an allegorical representation, or the player at the plate who, with his hit, dazzled a crowd of blurred faces and expressions so exalted as to be monstrous.”
Although in Cuba the players don’t tend to wear a mustache or a slight goatee, it is not uncommon to see a bearded player in other leagues today, but in the early ’60’s it must have been very striking to see the bearded ruler spending his time in a baseball game.
In a way, we can see in Eiriz’s Death in Baseball as an augury of that later disaster. Those appearances of the bearded commander on the field — while hand out the maximum penalty for what he considered “slavery baseball” — marked the beginning of a new era whose death throes in the present seem interminable.
Many centuries ago, a ball game was practiced in Mesoamerica very different from the one played today in the continent and beyond, especially since it was, in fact, a complex ritual that sometimes culminated with the sacrifice of the participants. As it was symbolically related to the very cycle of life, the ball game was an important state issue.
That a ruler is involved in the nature of a simple sport, in our time, is the worst thing that can happen to it. In a picturesque way we could talk about the “curse of the beard,” but the fact is, from that time baseball began to stop being a popular entertainment and began to become a serious state issue. The title of the painting was a diagnosis. Death in Baseball, the death of the game.
The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.