At the Plate: Baseball Diplomacy between Cuba and the United States

It’s National Hispanic Heritage Month. Visit the National Archives website for resources on related records and how we are commemorating the month. Today’s post comes from Callie Belback from the National Archives History Office.

Often referred to as the national pastime, the sport of baseball remains a central part of American culture. Passed down from generation to generation in many American families, the sport maintains its relevance in our personal histories.

But baseball is also very relevant in public history, from the U.S. Civil War to foreign relations today. Many times, the micro history of baseball reflects the larger macro history of the United States, showcasing its role in American public life. The United States federal government has even used baseball as a diplomacy tactic, most notably with the Republic of Cuba. 

Since the 1959 Cuban Revolution and the inception of a Communist government, the United States government has worked to promote a democratic transition. Some methods, such as the Kennedy administration’s Bay of Pigs invasion, were overt. Other methods, such as radio programming, economic embargo, or even baseball, have been more subtle. 

In 1999, the Clinton administration made a concerted effort to foster better relations with the Cuban government and the Cuban people. Clinton’s Cuba policy centered on the idea of promoting change, mainly through diplomatic measures and trade embargo. Alongside back-channel negotiations regarding money, immigration, and goods, baseball became a main topic.

According to the Clinton White House, “various humanitarian measures and people-to-people contacts are intended to provide direct benefit and support to the Cuban people. Amateur sports, in the context of both international events and bilateral exchanges, have been an important part of the people to people interaction.” 

This policy later changed to include professional sports as well. In 1999, Peter Angelos, owner of Maryland’s major league team, the Baltimore Orioles, visited Havana, Cuba, with the approval of the White House. Angelos met with Cuban officials to discuss the proposal of two exhibition games between the Orioles and the Cuban National Team. These two exhibition games would raise money for Cuban charities that operated across the island. 

The Clinton administration chose the Baltimore Orioles as the diplomatic envoy because there were no Cuban defectors on their roster, unlike other major league teams in the division. This ensured that the symbolism of the exchange remained unspoiled so that baseball diplomacy could foster better relations between the United States and Cuba. 

Some Clinton administration officials feared that Cuban expatriates, people who had fled the country after the 1959 Cuban Revolution and come to the United States, would express their disapproval for the effort by enacting backlash against the Orioles players. However, business groups that normally opposed the Clinton administration’s trade embargo applauded the effort. 

On March 28, 1999, the Orioles and the Cuban team entered the field together. On the sidelines, Angelos and Fidel Castro watched the game side by side. This was the first time a major league team had been in Cuba in 40 years, since the Cuban Revolution. Five weeks later, both teams played a rematch in Baltimore, Maryland.

While the baseball exchange between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban National Team did not induce any substantial diplomatic change, it did signal to the world that the U.S. Government and Cuba could get along. 

Seventeen years later, President Barack Obama engaged in baseball diplomacy with the Cuban government. On March 22, 2016, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team played in Havana. This was the first time a major league team had played in Cuba since the 1999 Orioles game. With First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters Sasha and Malia, President Obama sat beside Raul Castro, a momentous symbol for United States–Cuban relations. 

Like Clinton, the Obama administration saw baseball as an important component in their people-to-people diplomacy engagement strategy. The week before the baseball game, the Obama administration announced that it was removing the ban on U.S. companies employing Cuban nationals. This would allow major league teams to sign Cuban national players without requiring them to defect. Though this policy was eventually reversed by the Trump administration, it signified a growing goodwill between the United States and the island. 

As Presidential administrations come and go, United States–Cuban relations fluctuate. However, baseball diplomacy remains a consistent diplomatic strategy. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes summed up the feeling: “Baseball is obviously something that the United States and the Cuban people share a common love of and it’s a part of both of our heritages.”

You can learn more about the impact of sports in the exhibit All American: The Power of Sports, which runs in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery in Washington, DC, from September 16, 2022, through January 7, 2024.

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