When former president Jimmy Carter traveled to Havana in May 2002, he attended a Cuban all-star baseball game. Over the objections of his Secret Service agents, Carter joined Fidel Castro on the mound, sans security, to throw out the first pitch. By benching his security detail, Carter publicly demonstrated respect for his hosts and confidence in just how normal US-Cuban relations could become.
President Obama may have a similar opportunity this month, when he becomes the first US president in 88 years to visit Cuba. As part of behind-the-scenes preparations for his trip, Major League Baseball has scheduled an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team on March 22—perfectly timed for the president to attend. “We are very excited,” tweeted Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, “to…strengthen ties between our countries through our love & passion for the game of baseball.”
Since the beginning of the 20th century, when US occupation forces distributed bats, balls, and gloves to win the hearts and minds of Cuban kids, baseball has been a national pastime in Cuba, much as it is here. The media image of Obama tossing the first pitch—if his security detail permits him to go on the field—will send a clear message to sports aficionados from Middle America that our common ground with Cuba includes the baseball diamond. It will also send a message to Cuban fans that competition on the playing field will be a great bonus of normalized relations. Just as Ping-Pong paved the way for Richard Nixon’s opening to China, “béisbol diplomacy” should help smooth the political road for Obama’s historic trip to Cuba.
The original proposal to use baseball to advance engagement with Cuba dates back 41 years, to a series of exhibition games planned for March 1975 by then–MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Kuhn first approached Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with the idea at a Christmas Eve soiree in December 1974; he followed up with a formal letter in January 1975 and, after a meeting with Cuban sports officials, a phone call to Kissinger’s office in February. The Cubans want to play ball, Kuhn told Kissinger’s top aide for Latin America, William Rogers.
In a Secret/Eyes Only memorandum to Kissinger, Rogers passed along Kuhn’s hopes that the secretary of state would approve the game because “major league baseball has a magic value in projecting a positive image of the United States.” Rogers noted that an exhibition game in Cuba “would have a symbolic significance not limited to the sports pages” and “would also reawaken memories of your China moves.”
At the time, as William LeoGrande and I record in our book Back Channel to Cuba, Kissinger was secretly attempting to negotiate normalized relations with Cuba; his aides thought baseball diplomacy could play a positive role in advancing those talks and set the public stage for a new policy of engagement. “Pre-Castro Cuba was considered the most ‘Americanized’ of any Latin American country in terms of baseball, hotdogs and coca-cola,” they argued in another secret memo titled “Additional Talking Points on Sending a Baseball Team to Cuba.” Baseball “is still the most popular spectator and corner lot sport.” In Cuba, an exhibition game between US and Cuban teams would “undercut the demonology in Cuban propaganda about the United States.” In the United States, the game would help bridge “the gap between the Bay of Pigs and a new relationship with Castro.” And “picking a game we are likely to win,” they presumptuously suggested, “would go a long way with Americans who are depressed by the regimented victories of the Communists in [the] Olympic games.”