The path to the Major Leagues for Latino Legends involves fascinating journeys from throughout the Americas to the Major Leagues. That journey for Cuban-born players like Atanasio “Tony” Pérez resulted in separation from family and those who helped teach them baseball. Additionally, the end of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations in 1961, which was restored in 2015, meant Pérez and other Cubans like Orestes Miñoso, Tony Oliva, and Luis Tiant would not be able to return to the land of their forebears.
In this interview, Pérez shares about his journey, what inspired him to become a ballplayer, and the challenges encountered along the way on and off the baseball diamond.
How did you first learn to play baseball?
Well, I’m from a small town in Cuba. One of those places we make sugar, you know sugar cane… and what people normally do there is work and play baseball. And since I was a kid I, I found a baseball, a bat… That was the only thing after school, what we do when we get out of school.
Who were the major league ballplayers that served as an inspiration to you?
In Cuba, when I was growing up, we didn’t have too much information about Major League Baseball. We didn’t see too many [games, but] we would listen. My father was a baseball fan and he listened to the games in Cuba. We followed winter ball, where four teams play in Havana, and we heard the games on the radio.
I followed one of my heroes from Cuba, Minnie Miñoso. [He] was one of the big names over there [in the States] and everybody wanted to be like Minnie Miñoso.
Who were the scouts that first approached you about the possibility of playing pro ball here in the States?
Well when I was playing in Cuba, in a sugar cane league, Tony Pacheco was the guy who called me and he asked me to go to another league in Matanzas, called the Pedro Bronco League. I went there and played for the team there. We [played] on Sundays and after the game I went to Havana to the Cuban Sugar Kings. There were three players working together with the Cincinnati Reds in Havana.
Every Sunday after the game I would travel to Havana and practice [at] the academy… for the Cuban Sugar Kings. Then on Wednesday, I came back to that town to play and work in there until Sunday. But that was the way I got in touch with the Sugar Kings and Pacheco and [in] 1960 they signed me a contract.
The Cuban Revolution profoundly changed baseball and life in Cuba. How did it impact your career and family?
I was there in 1959. I hadn’t signed [to play professional baseball] yet but I was on my way up to sign. When [Castro] took over, most the people over there liked him… but after that it changed and we got problems with the United States and then everything broke down and baseball went down. When [Castro] didn’t want professional baseball, we left the country.
In 1961 a lot of the professional players left. I was one of them – because I wanted to keep playing baseball. And I couldn’t go back to Cuba because there was no more professional baseball.
The thing I most regret was I had to left my family behind me. I didn’t see my family for long time. That was hard to do… I left my mother, my father, my brothers and sisters there and it took ten years for me to see them again and that was hard. That was hard to do.
You were not able to return to Cuba until 1972, after you had fully established yourself professionally. The Reds started to have some success, as we witnessed the beginnings of the Big Red Machine. Tell us about the emotional homecoming you had that year.
I went back because my father got ill… The Cincinnati Reds helped me to get a visa to go back to Cuba from the [United States] government. Then I got permission from the Cuban government to go back.
[When I returned] there was a very good reception because I had family in Havana. I was there for about three days. They were calling to come to Central Violeta; that’s where I grew up. A lot of [my family] came from all the surrounding areas.
In the town, everybody knew me and wanted to see me and welcome me back, being a professional ball player coming off a World Series with the Reds and all that. Because the only thing they did there was listen on the radio. They got a radio station – they called it “The Voice of America” – they would listen to [the game broadcast] every night. That’s the only way they knew how I was doing.
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