When I heard the news that the United States and my home country, Cuba, were resuming diplomatic relations, I was so happy. I never thought this day would come in my lifetime. Though it took too long—I’m 90 years old—I’m thrilled to be here to see it. I’ve been an American citizen for 30 years. I have always loved living here. Playing major league baseball in America was my dream. But you always have a soft spot for the place where you were born.
I grew up on a sugar farm in Perico, a small town around 90 miles east of Havana. We were poor; we had no electricity, no radio. But I was raised in a loving family, and my parents taught me the values of hard work. Like my father, I worked in the sugar fields while growing up, but also knew I had baseball talent. Each sugar ranch had a baseball team, and I threw so hard—I was a pitcher back then—that other players were afraid of facing me. We didn’t have real gloves. To pay for our uniforms, we would buy empty sugar boxes and resell them for a dollar profit. We gave our money to a woman who made them out of cotton flour sacks.
In 1945, I left Cuba to play in the Negro Leagues in the U.S. Some people warned me not to go to America, because of racial discrimination and segregation. But although segregation wasn’t as formal as it was in the United States, Cuba was no racial paradise. It was very, very difficult for black ballplayers to play professionally in Cuba.
As my major league career took off in the 1950s, I went home to Cuba every offseason, to play winter ball and visit my family. It was a golden age. Tourists vacationed in Cuba. Havana nightlife was thriving. You can’t overstate how big baseball was in Cuba.
Things started to change once Fidel Castro came into power in 1959. I was a ballplayer, not a politician. To me, you don’t prop up the poor by taking away from the well-off. I feared the Cuban people would lose their freedom, their hard-earned property.
In 1961, I made the painful decision to leave Cuba for good. I saw where the country was headed, and did not agree with the Castro’s policies. I said goodbye to my two sisters, and my father. I never saw them again.
This brought great pain. But I like to look at the positive: We are entering a new era. If my doctor says I’m healthy enough to fly, I plan on traveling to Cuba soon, to be inducted into a hall of fame. Maybe I’ll see some of the same trees, the same sugar fields, I remembered as a boy.
We still don’t know what this new policy means for Cuban baseball players. Will they be able to go to the majors, and have the same opportunities I did? Will baseball teams construct academies in Cuba, like they’ve done in the Dominican Republic? If I get to talk to any young up-and-coming Cuban baseball players, I will tell them: don’t try to escape. Be legal. Don’t risk it. Everything is going to work out now. Everything is going to be happy. — as told to Sean Gregory
Minnie Minoso, a seven-time MLB All-Star, is the first black Cuban player to appear in the major leagues, and the only player to appear in a professional baseball game during seven different decades.