Out of Left Field
The Cuban Baseball Days of Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway in his
beardless days--a robust
and athletic young man
Hemingway's best sports:
Shooting, drinking, fighting
By STAN ISAACS
The recent news about the Cuban government making the Hemingway papers available to scholars was greeted with delight by Hemingway fans. It reminded me that I have some Hemingway papers of a sort myself--mainly some conversations with baseball players who had Hemingway experiences.
First off, there was this excerpt from A.E. Hotchners book, Papa Hemingway. In it Hemingway says, You cant ask for better shoots than when the Dodgers are training and we have match-ups with Hugh Casey, Billy Herman, Augie Galan, Curt Davis and some of the others who are all crack shots.
Those lines are one of the many evidences of the novelists interest in and association with sports figures. There is also the notable passages in his Old Man and the Sea in which the old fisherman tells the boy about how great Joe DiMaggio and Dick Sisler were.
It surprised me that he mentioned Sisler because Sisler was a good ball player, but not an immortal like DiMaggio. I asked Sisler about this when he was a coach with the Mets, and he revealed that he had played ball in Cuba. You probably dont know it, he said, "but I was a national hero in Cuba at the time. I led the league in home runs. One day I hit three homers in a game. It was off Sal Maglie.
He met Hemingway some time around 1945. We were at a bar with some people, Sisler said, and we were introduced. He was quite a guy. He liked to trade punches with people, one for one. You hit him and he hit you. The fellow could drink, you know.
On another occasion I chatted about Hemingway with Billy Herman, the onetime Dodger who came into Yankee Stadium as manager of the Boston Red Sox. He recalled the spring of 1942 when the Brooklyn Dodgers were training in Havana:
Hemingway was a baseball fan. He used to come out to the park every day to watch us train. We got friendly and he invited us out to a gun club to shoot with him. They had live pigeons and clay pigeons. It was one of the few places where they had traps under ground.
He was a good shot, better than any of us. We shot with him every day for a week or 10 days until we had this safari to his house. We had dinner and we sat around and talked. He wanted to talk baseball. We were more interested in hunting. Larry French was an avid game hunter. He was interested in seeing pictures of a lion hunt--there were about a thousand of them--that Hemingway had been on.
He was one of the most interesting men I ever talked to, Herman said. This was in March, 1942, when the war was in Burma. He had covered that whole area as a newspaperman once, he said, and he told us what would happen. He said how far the Japanese would go and where they could be stopped. He was pretty much right as I recall.
At the time Hemingway had recently written For Whom the Bell Tolls. Herman said, It had just come out. He gave us each an autographed copy of the book. I guess Ive lost it with all the moving around Ive done since then.
His wife made us a nice meal. After dinner we talked about the war, and we drank and sat around. She went to bed. Hemingway was a pretty good drinker. He could hold more liquor than the average person.
He was a good guy, but he became a tough guy--real mean--when he was drunk. He wanted to fight. Anybody. He was a pretty good-sized man, about 6-feet-2, 235 pounds. Hugh Casey was the closest to his build so he challenged Casey to a fight. Casey wasnt anxious to fight but Hemingway insisted. So they put on the gloves. He went right after Hughey. He tried to hit him below the belt, anywhere. He tried to kick him in the groin. He was a dirty fighter.
Finally, Casey knocked him into the bookcase, knocking it over with a large crash on the terrazzo. It was like an explosion. It woke up his wife and she came downstairs. He told her, Oh, we are just playing. Go to bed, honey.
After that, Herman said, it seemed like a good idea to end the fight. We were getting a little uneasy and wanted to get out of there. He insisted we stay. He tried to persuade Casey to stay overnight. He said, Were drunk now, but tomorrow well be sober, and we can fight again. We can have a duel, any weapons you want.
Well, we got the hell out of there after that. He was the nicest guy in the world, sober, but when he was drunk he was like an animal. We didnt go back after that but we kept seeing him at the ball park.
Ten years later, when Herman was managing a team in the Cuban Winter League, he saw Hemingway again at the ball park. He came over and slapped me on the back, Herman said. By this time he was wearing the beard. He didnt have it back in 42.
In the Hotchner book Hemingway says about writer John OHara:
When I first read him, it looked like he could hit: Appointment in Samarra. Then, instead of swinging away, for no reason he started beating out bunts. He was fast and he had a pretty good ear but he had the terrible inferiority complex of the lace-curtain Irish and he never learned that it doesnt matter a damn where you come from socially; it is where you go. So he kept beating out bunts instead of trying to learn to hit, and I lost interest.
"Not unlike the super-star egos of the playing fields, Hemingway was driven to keep knocking them over the fence. When he couldnt write anymore, he committed suicide with a gun.
Thats the funny thing, Billy Herman said. Casey also shot himself to death.
© 2002 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is © 2001 by Jim Hummel.
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