Before Steve Bellán became the first Latin American player in professional baseball, he had to learn how to play the game. When he was growing up in Havana, Cuban children did not play baseball, and may never have heard of the game at all.
Bellán's introduction to the sport came in New York, where, like many Cuban children, he wa sent for schooling. He arrived in 1863, age fourteen, to study at the preparatory school of St. John's University, now known as Fordham. He was called Esteban Bellán then. Among his classmates there were surely American boys who had grown up playing pick-up baseball on fields in their home towns. The game dates to the early nineteenth century. When Bellán arrived in America, it was not yet a well-organized major sport. But the game's rules had been formalized, and Fordham even had a school team called the Rose Hill Baseball Club. This is where Bellán learned to play the game.
Clearly, he loved baseball, and he was a talented player When he left Fordham in 1869, he joined the Haymakers, an amateur team in Troy, New York. (The team borrowed its name from boxing, where a "haymaker" meant a good solid punch.) Baseball teams, then and now, were associated with towns and cities. When Bellán began playing for Troy, there were already teams in Chicago, New York, and Cincinnati. And there were already fans rooting for the local boys, whipped up by regular sports coverage in the New York Times and other newspapers.
Bellán was nineteen years old when he joined the Haymakers, and by then he had Americanized his name, and was "Steve." The U. S. Census for 1870 shows him living in Troy with Domingo Belan, age 20, Rossa Belan, age 21, and Hart Belan, age 50. (The name was usually spelled Bellán.) The family relationships were not identified in the census, though it seems likely that he was living with his brother, sister, and mother. If so, Steve Bellán was half-Irish, since Hart Bellán was born in Ireland. The family may have been among the exodus who left Cuba for New York in the late 1860s, as the Ten Years' War began. They do not appear in the census records again, so they may have returned to Cuba in the 1870s, as did many other refugees of the war.
In the years when Bellán was playing in America, baseball went from an amateur to a professional sport. The Chicago White Stockings began the move in 1869, when they decided to pay every player. The promise of a salary made all the best ball players in the country clamor to join the team, which soon fielded the strongest lineup in the game. So other teams began to pay their players, and they organized into a professional league called the National Association (later renamed the National League). When the Troy Haymakers joined the National Association in 1871, Steve Bellán became the first Latin American to play professional baseball in the United States, but this historic detail was ignored by newspaper reporters writing about the games.
When the New York Times covered baseball, the articles were usually long and detailed. But the paper also ran a regular column called "Telegraphic Brevities," which included short news reports wired from around the country, everything from farmers who died in freak accidents to speeches by politicians. Included in the August 4, 1871 column was this sports update: The Red Stockings, of Boston, and the Haymakers, of Troy, played a championship match in Troy yesterday. The game was closely contested, each club having its full nine out, and resulted in favor of the Haymakers by a score of 13 to 12. Runs earned, 4 each.
Bellán had many good games during his career, but the contest summarized by the Times was his best known outing as an American baseball player. He had five hits, five RBIs, two runs, and a stolen base. Half of the Haymakers' runs can be credited to Steve Bellán.
Struggling with financial troubles, the Troy team folded in 1873. Bellán spent part of the next season with the New York Mutuals, who played at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. His last game with the Mutuals, and in American baseball, was June 9, 1873. At that point he returned to Cuba and brought baseball with him. He organized the first formal game on the island on December 27, 1874. Showcasing what he had learned in the States, Bellán's team, Club Habana, defeated its rival, Club Matanzas, by an astounding score of 51-9. Bellán himself had three homers. In the late 1870s he became a manager and player for the Havana team, and led them to three championships in their first five seasons.
During the long fight for independence, baseball gave Cubans a way to reject the hated Spanish, and their bullfights, in favor of a new sport from another country. Baseball frenzy was born and spread throughout the Caribbean. Many future stars of major league teams in the United States learned to love and play the game as children at home in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and elsewhere in Latin America.
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