Red Sox Great Luis Tiant on Reuniting with His Father After 14 Years
By a Stroke of Luck Luis Sr. is Allowed by Castro to Leave Cuba
On August 12, 1961, Maria del Refugio Navarro and I were married in Mexico City. It was just me and her and her family, since my parents and the rest of my relatives were back in Cuba. We planned to go there in September so she could meet them. We’d celebrate with my family, and then honeymoon off the southern coast on Island de Pinos. Another winter season pitching for the Havana Sugar Kings was also in my plans.
Then my father sent me a letter.
“Don’t come home,” he wrote. “Castro is not going to allow any more professional sports here—no baseball or boxing. If you do come home, I don’t think you’ll be able to get out again. They are not letting many people leave the island, especially young men of military age. Just make a life in Mexico for you and your family. I’ll let you know when you can come home.”
I showed the letter to Maria, and she didn’t know what to say. I wanted to go home, but what could we do? Like my dad said, there was no guarantee we’d ever be able to get back out; it had been hard enough for me to get out that spring. Baseball was what I loved, and at home there was no longer the opportunity to make a living at it. Castro had shut the Cuban Winter League down, and starting in 1962 all teams on the island would be amateur clubs funded and overseen by the government year-round.
Thinking back now, as a father and grandfather, I realize how hard it must have been for my dad to write that letter. I was his only son, his only child, and by telling me these things he was taking the chance that he might never see me again. You have to love that about parents. All they want is what’s best for you, no matter how much it hurts them. Your happiness is their happiness; your dreams are their dreams. He knew how much baseball meant to me, as it had to him, and he wanted me to reach the top—no matter what.
In the end, I respected my father’s wishes. That winter, instead of having our honeymoon in Cuba, Maria and I went to Puerto Rico and I pitched there. It broke my heart just to think about home, but I believed then, as I have always believed, that God was looking out for me. He had a plan. I never found out whether the Dodgers or Cubs tried to sign me, but it turns out that a Cuban League executive who also scouted for the Cleveland Indians, Julio “Monchy” de Arcos, had been at the Pan-American All-Star game in San Antonio when I struck all those guys out in relief. He told his bosses about me, and Cleveland purchased my contract from Mexico City for $35,000. That was a lot of money then, but I didn’t get one Mexican penny—not one cent!
It was another slight, but I really didn’t care. This was the chance I had been waiting for, and I was determined to get to the big leagues and make some real money. Then I would find a way to bring my whole family together.
From 1961 through 1975, Luis Tiant pitched his way through the minor leagues in the Deep South up to the Majors with the Cleveland Indians, the Minnesota Twins, and then the Boston Red Sox. As a young man with black skin and limited English in the early 1960s, he experienced racism and isolation on a grand scale. His father had encountered the same challenges while traveling the dusty Jim Crow roads of the Negro Leagues a generation before, which is why he attempted to dissuade his son from following in his footsteps. In 1975, on a Red Sox team that would find its way to the World Series, Tiant became a role model and inspiration to fans, who were learning more about the years of forced separation between the pitcher and his aging parents in Cuba. Diplomatic intervention in ’75 opened the possibility of the family being reunited, and progress in the situation began sharing headlines with public school desegregation and the ballclub. Through the dog days of July and August, as Red Sox die-hards hoped for that elusive AL East title, and a resolution to the racial conflicts besetting their neighborhoods, they also yearned for Boston’s best pitcher to be together again with his mother and father.My father’s 70 now, and he’s not well. Yet he still works in a garage down there, and here I am, living like this, and I can’t even send him a dime for a cup of coffee.
The 1975 season was one of ups and downs for me. I was 2-3 in April with a real bad ERA, and for once I had a hard time separating the game from the other things going on in my life. My parents were not getting any younger, and more than anything I wanted them to finally get the chance to visit me in the United States. I had tried to make arrangements for them to come in 1972 and in ’74 when it looked like we might make the World Series. But Fidel Castro was still not letting anybody out of Cuba, even just for a few weeks, no matter how old they were.
“How much longer?” I asked Boston Herald sportswriter Joe Fitzgerald during a 1975 interview at my new house. “It’s been 15 years [actually 14] since I’ve seen them. All my life they gave me the best they could, and all they ever wanted was what was good for me. My father’s 70 now, and he’s not well. Yet he still works in a garage down there, and here I am, living like this, and I can’t even send him a dime for a cup of coffee. He doesn’t know my wife. He doesn’t know my children.”
It looked like a hopeless situation. Then, in May of ’75, came a new opportunity.
I had known Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts for a long time, and a friend of mine, our family doctor Nathan Shapiro, was especially close with him. Dr. Shapiro found out that another senator, George McGovern of South Dakota, was going to Cuba to meet with Castro on a sort of unofficial diplomatic mission. So Dr. Shapiro talked to Senator Brooke about my situation, and he agreed to write this letter and give it Senator McGovern to share with Castro:
May 2, 1975
Prime Minister Fidel Castro
Republic of Cuba
Mr. Prime Minister:
I am hopeful that Senator McGovern’s visit to your country will prove beneficial to the efforts to normalize relations between our countries. While achievement of normalization will be difficult, it is an objective that merits the attention of both our governments.
My specific interest in writing you is to seek your assistance on a matter of deep concern to myself and one of my constituents, Mr. Luis Tiant. I am sure you know Luis as a star pitcher for the Boston Red Sox.
Luis’s parents, Luis Eleuterio Tiant and Isabel Rovina Vega Tiant, reside at Calle 30 3312, Apt. 9, Mariano, Havana, Cuba. He has not had the chance to spend any significant time with them for many years. Naturally, he has a great desire to do so.
Luis’s career as a major league pitcher is in its latter years. It is impossible to predict how much longer he will be able to pitch. Therefore, it is hopeful that his parents will be able to visit him in Boston during this current baseball season to see their son unembolden.
I have contacted the State Department and have been assured that the granting of visas to enter the United States will be no problem. Therefore, with your help, I am confident that a reunion of Luis and his parents is possible this summer. Such a reunion would be a significant indication that better understanding between our peoples is achievable.
I look forward to receiving your response.
Edward W. Brooke
It was a long shot, but I had a couple things working in my favor. Castro had been an amateur pitcher himself when he was younger, and I knew he loved the game. When I played in the Cuban winter league in 1960 and ’61, he used to come in the clubhouse to talk with all the players. Even if he didn’t remember me, I’m sure he knew about my father. What I didn’t know was if my family’s baseball background would be enough to get him to grant our request.
Senator McGovern took Senator Brooke’s letter to Cuba. He was going to give it to Castro at their first meeting, but Castro was not in a good mood. It turned out to actually be a positive sign because of what had made him upset.“I don’t know of any [other] time Castro personally intervened and said, ‘It’s OK for you to leave.’”
“He [Castro] was late for the meeting with my wife and me, and he apologized,” McGovern recalled later. “He said kind of sheepishly, ‘I’ve been to a baseball game. We’re having what is the counterpart to your World Series.’ Then he said with a real sadness, ‘My team lost, and I’ve been kind of down about that since.’ I knew the minute he talked with such sorrow that I was halfway home on anything pertaining to baseball.”
Later that night, as Castro’s mood improved, the senator took out the letter and handed it to him. Then he asked a question:
“Do you know who Luis Tiant is?”
“The father or the son?” Castro replied. “I know about them both.”
“The one pitching for Boston in the big leagues. He wants to bring his mother and father to Boston to see him pitch.”
Looking closely at the letter, and then putting it into his pocket, Castro said he would see what he could do about the request. And when McGovern came back the next day, he got the best news possible.
“Luis Tiant will be able to see his parents,” Castro told him. “They can go to Boston, and they don’t have to stay just for the games, or for the World Series if they are in the World Series. They can stay there as long as they wish.”
Decades later, McGovern called it “a remarkable feat,” adding that, “I don’t know of any [other] time Castro personally intervened and said, ‘It’s OK for you to leave.’”
Call it the magic of baseball.
I was in California with the Red Sox to face the Angels when a reporter called on May 8 and gave me the details. My parents, he said, were scheduled to come in August—flying from Havana to Mexico City and then on to Boston. It was still a long time away, and I kept hoping and praying they would be alright until then. But after 14 years, I could wait three months longer. My dream appeared to finally be coming true. In the meantime, I focused my energy on doing what I could to help the Red Sox achieve their dream of making the playoffs for the first time since 1967…
Tiant struggled on the mound in the summer of 1975, getting—as he put it—“lit up like a Christmas tree.” But the Red Sox were still in the hunt for the pennant.
While I was trying to work out my pitching problems, my parents were officially granted permission in mid-August to leave Havana and fly to Mexico City on the first leg of their journey to Boston. When it was confirmed that they were coming, Maria found out first and decided not to tell me right away because I was pitching that night. After she did tell me I almost hit the ceiling, I was so excited.
They wound up having to stay in Mexico City four or five days because my father didn’t feel too good; it’s so high above sea level there that he said he couldn’t breathe. I spoke to them every day during this time, and eventually his condition improved enough to travel. After they finally got their visa, they flew to Boston on Thursday, August 21. I was waiting for them at Logan Airport with Maria, our three kids, a few friends, and what seemed like every newspaper and television reporter in New England. There were cameras everywhere.
I thought I’d handle my emotions fine, but when my father caught my eye and smiled as he came toward the American Airlines gate, I broke down crying. Then I ran over and gave him a big bear hug.
“Why are you crying?” he said. “The cameras will see you!”
“I don’t care,” I told him. “This is how I feel. I thought I was never going to see you guys again.”
It was the first time my kids ever saw me cry—but what could be a better reason?
Someone asked Dad, through a translator, if he was ready to pitch for the Red Sox. He said he was, but then my mother stepped forward to set the record straight.
“It’s been a long time since he has thrown a ball,” she said. “He’d have to go into training.”It was the first time my kids ever saw me cry—but what could be a better reason?
Because we figured my parents would be very tired from their trip, we did not plan a big family celebration around their arrival. We drove home to Milton, watched ourselves on the news, talked for a bit, and then went to bed. The next day our photos were all over the newspapers, including one of all of us together on the front page of the Boston Globe and another of me and my father hugging on the front of the Boston Herald. Over the next week, there were many more stories, interviews, and TV reports.
Dad loved the attention.
“You know,” he said to me later, “that never happened to me in my life. All the years I played, people were never that nice to me.”
“Yeah, the people are nice here,” I agreed.
Then he gave me an example.
“You know what? I went to take a leak, and people came over and wanted me to sign an autograph while I did it!”
“I know. They do it to me too!”
At the time, even after what Castro told Senator McGovern, we were not sure if my parents would be allowed to stay in the United States indefinitely.
Castro could always change his mind, we knew, and their visa was only for three months. We wanted to make the most of our time together, so every game I started at Fenway, I made sure they drove into the ballpark with Maria and the kids to watch. Dad came to most of the other home games too, and he was no longer hiding behind posts, like back in Cuba.
By now there was a third generation making his way in the family business. Luis Jr. was a right-handed starter for the Milton Little League All-Star team and had a pair of four-hit wins—including a 6–0 shutout—in a playoff tournament right around the time my parents came. I was very proud of him, as I have always been of all our kids.
The first major league game I pitched with my parents in the stands, and the first time they ever saw me play at any level since high school, was against the Angels on August 26, 1975. As Sherm Feller announced over the public-address system, “Ladies and gentlemen . . . please welcome on the greatest pitchers from the New York Cubans…” my father came out to the mound with me to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. The crowd gave him a huge standing ovation, this time chanting “LOO-EEE! LOO-EEE!” for the first Luis Tiant to play there.
We had learned that in 1945, Dad had pitched at Fenway while with the Cubans of the Negro National League. He could not remember how he did back then, but neither of us would ever forget this moment. I’m sure he was feeling proud, like he had finally made it to the white man’s league after all these years, but he didn’t say anything.
It was very emotional for me and for my teammates watching on from the dugout.
“Something like this,” Rick Wise said, “it makes you realize what life is all about.”
Handing me his jacket, Señor Skinny took the ball. Then he went into his windup and threw a fastball in to backup catcher Tim Blackwell. Dad didn’t like where the ball went, a little low and outside, so he asked for it back. This time he threw a knuckler for a strike, right down the middle. The fans loved it.
As I handed him back his jacket, Dad whispered something in my ear:
“Go get ’em. Don’t worry about me being here.”
Then, in the dugout, one more thing—for me to pass on to the manager:
“Tell ’em I’m ready to go five.”
Excerpted from Son of Havana: A Baseball Journey from Cuba to the Big Leagues and Back by Luis Tiant with Saul Wisnia. Copyright ©2019. Available from Diversion Books.