HAVANA — Put another candle on the very crowded birthday cake of Conrado Marrero, the oldest living former major league player.
The Cuban pitcher celebrated his 102nd birthday Thursday at his modest Havana apartment surrounded by family and friends, an unlit Cuban cigar in his mouth and a baseball cap on his head.
He was given an enormous blue and white cake, and savored a glass of wine and a sip of Bucanero, Cuba’s domestic beer. Marrero smiled as his family applauded and smothered him in hugs.
In addition to his longevity, the former Washington Senator has much to celebrate this year. After a long wait, he finally received a $20,000 payout from Major League Baseball, granted to old-timers who played between 1947 and 1979.
The money had been held up since 2011 because of issues surrounding the 51-year-old U.S. embargo on Cuba, which prohibits most bank transfers to the Communist-run island. But the funds finally arrived in two parts, one at the end of last year, and the second a few months ago, according to Marrero’s family.
Steve Rogers, a former Expos pitcher who is now an official at the Major League Baseball Players Association, told The Associated Press on Thursday that the funds were delivered to Marrero by hand, and with Washington’s approval.
“Everything that he was entitled to has now been delivered to him. We found a way to get the funds to him,” he said. “It was personally delivered and it was all sanctioned by the Treasury Department.”
Rogers has followed Marrero’s case closely and says it was an honor to be a part of the effort to get him the money he deserved.
“The oldest living major leaguer,” Rogers marveled. “You tip your cap and say, you were from a different era but you played the same game. It is special to be a part of his life.”
Marrero’s family has used some of the money to buy him a new ventilator and bed, as well as wine, ham, cigars, juice and other delicacies that would be outside his budget, said Marrero’s grandson, Rogelio. Like most Cuban pensioners, Marrero receives less than $20 from the state each month.
“My grandfather was always very particular about what he would eat,” Rogelio said Wednesday as relatives prepared for the birthday. “Thanks to this we can buy him peach juice, which is his favorite.”
These days, Marrero is hard of hearing, blind and has considerable trouble speaking. He spends much of the day sleeping or listening to Cuban ballgames on the radio.
But he still perks up when asked about his glory days, demonstrating how to throw a slider and reminiscing about long-ago confrontations with Ted Williams and other big league legends.
“All the batters were the same to me,” Marrero said. “But I had more trouble with the lefties.”
When he heard the name Larry Doby — the Hall of Fame Cleveland Indians outfielder who was the first black player in the American League — Marrero’s face contorted in mock frustration.
“My grandfather has never forgotten how Doby hit three home runs against him in a single day,” Rogelio explained. “He always says Doby was the guy who hit the best against him.”
At 5-foot-5 and 158 pounds, Marrero relied on guile to get batters out, compiling a 39-40 record and a 3.67 ERA in five seasons with the Senators from 1950 to 1954.
“Connie Marrero had a windup that looked like a cross between a windmill gone berserk and a mallard duck trying to fly backwards,” former big league star Felipe Alou once said of the diminutive Cuban, according to a biography of Marrero by the Society for American Baseball Research.
Marrero was born on April 25, 1911 in the small town of Sagua la Grande in the central Cuban province of Villa Clara, and he took his time getting into organized ball.
He played in amateur and semi-pro events in the early 1930s, raising eyebrows with his vicious curve and slider. In 1938, he joined a Cienfuegos team that was sponsored by a local men’s clothing store, and which was about to become part of a budding Cuban league.
By the time he reached the big leagues, Marrero was already 39, an age when most players have long since retired. But he made the most of his opportunity, even being named to the 1951 All-Star team.
After his stint in the big leagues, Marrero came back to Cuba, ending his career with the Havana Sugar Kings in 1957. Two years later, Fidel Castro’s rebels swept into power. Marrero became a coach and roving instructor, working well into his 80s.
Even at 102, he continues to be interested in baseball and counts himself a fan of Cienfuegos, the team that is leading the Cuban league at the moment.
But Marrero’s true love is great-granddaughter Sandra. When the 12-year-old returned home from school Wednesday, the day before the birthday, Marrero reached out to take her hand and kiss it.
“Sandra, Sandra,” he repeated as she leaned down to embrace him.
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