Author Bjarkman chats with nonagenarian Conrado Marrero in Havana during a February 2001 visit. In a previous interview, the pixie-like former Washington Senator journeyman had assured this author that his actual birthdate was May 1, 1911, and not the May 1, 1915 date carried on old Topps bubblegum cards or listed in several authoritive baseball encyclopdias.
For Latino big leaguers to boast inaccurate birth years is hardly a rare phenomena. It is a practice indeed as old and venerated as the Latino big league presence itself. The practice has re-emerged with a vengeance in recent years, in connect with eager player agents who market defectors from the Cuban League and seek big-bucks contracts by establishing that their particular Cuban prospect is a good deal younger than Cuban League records might otherwise indicate. (Another ploy is to claim that just about every defector is, or was, a member of the Cuban national team, a distortion we will take up in some later report.) Mets and Yankees media guides for a number of years listed Rey Ordonez and El Duque Hernandez, respectively, as being several years "shorter in the tooth" than they actually were. The Yankees voided a contract with Cuban Andy Morales a few years back (after they decided he was not skilled enough to make the big time) by suddenly and conveniently discovering his fudged age given at the time of signing. In the early 2000s when the Texas Rangers signed a pair of journeyman Cuban Leaguers who had showed up on American shores, a (here to remain unnamed) Rangers PR director called me to verify the Cuban media guide age listings for both. I was surprised to find that when the signings were announced at a press conference a few days later the ballplayers turned out (according to the Rangers) to be four years younger than Cuban League records I had provided seemed to indicate. MLB clubs, especially in the early 2000s when Cuban defectors were hot items and such signings and made for good news stories, apparently didn’t want to field too many questions about why they were signing 28 or 29 year-old journeymen to hefty minor league contracts.
But the phenomena of Cuban ballplayers manipulating their true ages took on a new and slightly bizarre twist a week ago when news leaked out that Cuba’s cherished and venerable icon Conrado Marrero–a 96-year-old former Washington Senator still alive and well in Havana–had for some time been tweaking the record books by claiming to be older than he actually was. Marrero’s image, after all, has long been based on his advanced age and not his vibrant youth. He broke into the big leagues in 1950 as a 39-year-old rookie. He was still pitching in the Cuban League in his mid-forties. And in the past decade he has become something of a tourist attraction in his mid-nineties for American ballfans visiting Havana.
The story begins a couple of weeks back when the Cuban press staged an "early" birthday bash for Marrero at Latin American Stadium (photo to the left) on the occasion of birthday number 96, celebrated on April 25. The Cuban press still now uses the April 25, 1911 birthdate which Marrero himself adheres to, scrapping the various 1915 dates once favored by editors of Total Baseball or the Big Mac encyclopedias. I had used this date, as well, in my appendices on Cuban big leaguers in A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006. In my full chapter on Marrero’s career found earlier in the same book (p.65-66), however, I had stated that Marrero was apparently born on May 1, 1911, a date he had admitted to in an interview with me back in January 1999. Although my own book seemed to be somewhat inconsistent on the matter of Marrero’s birth, I knew at least that I was much more accurate than Jorge Figueredo’s Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball, 1878-1961, which still insists on the May 1, 1915 date (p.236) promoted on Marrero’s 1953 Topps gum card.
Controversy over the matter (of a mild sort of course, since this is the kind of mole-hill climbing that only diehard SABR-ities could love or even tolerate) arose when I received the same week a SABR Biography Committee newsletter from birth-records guru Bill Carle in which Carle failed to list Marrero among the surviving nonagenarians celebrating birthdays in May. I email Bill immediately about the matter and received a response that he listed Marrero in his own records as born on August 11, 1911. Now the issue seemed thoroughly confusing.
Fortunately SABR member and regular Cuba traveler Kit Krieger of Vancouver, Canada, was able to come to the rescue. Krieger befriended Marrero in the late 1990s, visits him regularly in Havana, and remains in email touch with Marrero’s grandson (who provided the birthday bash photo shown above). Krieger explains it this way. In his own most recent interview with the former big leaguer in March 2006 he pressed the issue of Connie’s actual age. Marrero restated an April 25, 1911 date (the one the Cuban press uses), which he now finds preferrable to the May 1, 1911 he had given me several years earlier.
Krieger goes on to explain the subsequent exchange as follows: "His grandson interrupted him and told him that this was incorrect and asserted that Marrero’s actual birthdate was August 11, 1911. My Cuban translator listened to a rather heated exchange and then explained to me that Marrero was, in fact, born on August 11. However, his father did not register his birth until the following April and he has used the registration date along with the actual birth year. Marrero was not very happy with the revelation that he is, in fact, 3 1/2 months younger than advertised, but eventually conceded that this was the case."
There we have it. Krieger had already passed the new August 11, 1911 date on to Bill Carle and the SABR committee. I remained in the dark by trusting to my own Spanish-language interview with Marrero who seems, like Satchel Paige, not only to be ageless but also to be enamored with throwing curves and sliders at inquisitive interviewers. The Cuban press and Figueredo’s book are in serious need of some updating. And Marrero (despite the smoke screen) is assuredly all of the following (whenever in 1911 he may actually have been born): the oldest living Washington Senator, the sixth oldest living major leaguer, and the oldest living Cuban League icon and former Cuban big leaguer. These are all facts, even if Marrero’s true age seems to have more twists and turns to it that even his famed dancing slider pitch once possessed.
A final note seems in order here. Marrero is most famed in Cuba not for his big league cup of coffee between 1950 and 1954, but for his legendary career in the 1930s and 1940s as one of the country’s most invincible and colorful pre-revolution amateur league moundsmen. The peak of his career came with a pair or legendary duels with Venezuelan ace Daniel Canonico in Havana during the 1941 and 1942 Amateur World Series matches. The full Marrero legend unfolds in Chapter 4 ("The Baseball Half-Century of Conrado Marrero") of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006.