The Ghosts of Baseball Hill
by Andrew McGilligan
Artwork by Lindsay Vautour
What happened when Cuba's greatest baseball team took on the players of Fredericton, New Brunswick, in the summer of 1976?
Andrew McGilligan investigates the inside story of one of the greatest amateur baseball games ever played in North America.
What do you know about the story of David and Goliath? Most likely, it’s the same basic narrative. The smaller David prevails against tremendous odds to defeat the giant Goliath. It’s the most famous underdog story, one that has repeated itself — in one form or another — for years. The sporting world is littered with Davids, from Seabiscuit to Rudy Ruettiger to Leicester City. No one can resist a good underdog story. And who can blame them? Watching the little guy triumph delivers a jolt of the unexpected to what can be an otherwise predictable sports landscape.
But this isn’t just a story about the underdog. This is a tale about the other guys. The guys no one stops to consider. The ones nobody remembers because their story didn’t fit the right narrative. This story is about Goliath. This is a story about the ghosts of Baseball Hill.
Like hockey in Canada, baseball is part of the cultural fabric of Cuba. A country of about 11 million, the island nation produces some of the best players in the world, many of whom are Major League Baseball All-Stars.
In the summer of 1976, the best Cuban players were on the national team. Players had not begun to defect to the United States, fleeing the communist regime of Fidel Castro. The players representing Cuba on a tour of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia that year were world-class. The legendary game on July 19, 1976, in Fredericton was one of a seven-game tour.
Why this tour took place was a mystery to Cuban baseball historian Peter Bjarkman, according to a 2013 interview. The Cuban squad would typically play international games as a warm-up for the Amateur World Series. The 1976 AWS was being held in Cartagena, Colombia, in December. “What were they doing in Canada so far in advance of the Amateur World Series?” Bjarkman asks. “I’ve never seen anything about these (Maritime games). This was a period of time where there were guides that came out that detailed the team’s international play. However, for a period of time in the mid to late 1970s, they weren’t published.”
No matter the reason for the visit, the team was as advertised — the personification of a wrecking ball in spikes. In the opening two games of the tour, the Cubans played in Glace Bay against a Nova Scotia squad. The Cubans posted wins of 27–3 and 33–2. Up next was a game in Moncton, another high-scoring affair with the island nation posting a 22–2 victory. Then it was on to Saint John and another lopsided win of 15–1. Heading into the game in Fredericton, there was little reason to think anything different would occur. Fredericton left-fielder Tom Reid was the only player on the roster with an inkling of what was coming to the city’s Royals Field, which sits atop Baseball Hill in Marysville.
“I played in 1972 on Team Canada in the International Cup,” Reid says, “so I knew how good they were. That game on Baseball Hill was definitely one of the best or greatest games I ever played in.”
The Cuban team included a dominant pitcher, a strikeout king, one of the era’s top sluggers and a man who would make history just a few years later. All told, the team contained five MVPs of the Serie Nacional (National Series, the premier Cuban league): first baseman Antonio Muñoz, centerfielder Fernando Sánchez, outfielder Eulogio Osorio and pitchers Omar Carrero and Rogelio Garcia.
“Muñoz, at that point in time, was one of the great home-run hitters [in Cuba],” says Bjarkman. “Sánchez is still in the top three all-time in hits. Osorio was an all-star for a number of years and later won championships as a manager.”
On a team loaded with stars, one in particular stood out. Omar Carrero, the man standing 60 feet six inches from home plate was nothing short of spectacular. He won the pitching Triple Crown in the Serie Nacional as he led the league in strikeouts (94) and earned-run average (0.46) and tied for the lead in wins with eight. The exclamation point on his year came in the form of one of the more unbelievable stats to grace the record books: he was more likely to throw a shutout than allow a run. Carrero posted five shutouts, one more than the four earned runs he allowed for the season.
The right-hander was not satisfied with simply dominating the Cuban league: he was every bit as masterful on the international stage. He was to lead the Cuban national squad to gold in the 1976 Amateur World Series in December, posting a 4-0 record and a 0.61 ERA.
It was more of the same on Baseball Hill. Through eight and two-thirds innings he allowed just four hits and struck out five. Using an arsenal of pitches, Carrero kept the Fredericton hitters off-balance all night.
“He wasn’t overpowering, but he had superb control,” says Reid. “He had a curveball and slider, and while his fastball was only in the high 80s [miles per hour), he just didn’t give us many good pitches to hit.”
With Cuba leading 1–0 and with one out to go to get the win, one of the greatest amateur pitchers of his ear, Carrero, was pulled. On the surface it would seem a curious decision, until you considered that the man coming to the mound was one of the greatest relievers in Cuban history.
Armed with a blazing fastball, Rogelio Garcia was as dominant as they come in terms of a power pitcher. He remains the career leader in strikeouts in Cuban history and in the top 10 in career shutouts, complete games, winning percentage, wins and innings pitched. In the Serie Nacional, he led the league in strikeouts seven times, twice in ERA, twice in shutouts, twice in complete games and once in wins. Calling on him to get one out in a game was a bit like using a sledgehammer to kill an ant. The one-two punch of Carrero and Garcia was like facing former Atlanta Braves ace Greg Maddux followed by New York Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman.
Reid was the man facing Garcia. While Carrero moved in and out of the strike zone with a variety of pitches, Garcia dared you to hit his best pitch. For five straight pitches, Garcia challenged Reid to his fastball, which clocked in between 95 and 100 miles per hour.
“I worked him to a 3–2 count, but not much more,” Reid says.
On the sixth pitch, Garcia did what he came in to do — strike someone out — thus ending the instant classic on Baseball Hill.
After the drubbings handed out to other teams on the tour, the score of the Fredericton game stood out. Forty-three years later, it still seems odd, like a mistake in the record books no one bothered to correct. But it was no mistake. Fredericton’s Scott Harvey Jr. matched his counterparts on the mound with an unbelievable performance. Pitch-for-pitch, Harvey was the equal of Carrero and Garcia. His final line on the night was a complete game, allowing just one run while fanning seven.
Harvey was the David figure in this game. His performance against the mighty Cuban squad is what’s remembered. Despite winning, Goliath was forgotten, relegated to the dustbin of history. While most fans forgot about the opponent in the intervening years, Harvey did not.
“It was a curveball,” Harvey says.
It’s the one mistake Harvey can’t forget. The curveball in question was thrown in the top of the second inning with one out to Cuban designated hitter José Cabrera. After leaving Harvey’s hand, the pitch ended up beyond the fence of Royals Field for a home run and the lone scoring play of the classic contest.
Harvey cast the big shadow in Fredericton baseball at the time. For a generation of players growing up in the late 1970s and ‘80s, he was Goliath, the best player to ever call Fredericton home. One of those kids was Jody Peterson. He grew up in the shadow of Baseball Hill and is one of Harvey’s biggest fans.
“I grew up in the brick homes at the foot of the hill, second house from the field, so all we knew was Baseball Hill,” Peterson says. “Growing up I didn’t dream of playing at Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium. I wanted to play for the Royals — at Royals Field.”
Peterson wore his favourite player’s number — 33 — in honour of Harvey when he began playing as a Royal. He cites the night they retired the number as one of the most memorable moments of his career.
“Being able to take that jersey off my back and hand it to him was something I won’t forget — it was a special night for a special talent,” Peterson says. “I wore number 3 after that, hoping to be half as good as his 33.”
As for the Cuba game, it was the stuff of legend for those who witnessed it, and they passed on the tale to the younger generation.
“I don’t recall the names of the Cuban team. In fact, I’m not sure anyone in Marysville does, but I do know from the stories that the starting pitcher for Cuba was the best they had at the time — and if it was today, he would likely be an MLB superstar,” he says. “Scott Harvey will go down as the best player to ever play senior baseball, in my opinion, and this night, this story and visit from the Cuban national team will make sure his legend lives forever.”
In an odd coincidence, the most famous player involved with the contest never took the field but remained on the bench for the entire game. Approximately eight years after the 1976 tour, Bárbaro Garbey became the first Cuban player to suit up in a Major League Baseball game since Fidel Castro had become president. How he got to the majors is a winding road with pit stops for a gambling scandal, an assault on a fan and the Mariel Freedom Flotilla.
Two years after playing in Marysville, Garbey was implicated in a gambling scandal in the Serie Nacional in Cuba. No matter the league, gambling, is a sin for which there is no path to redemption in baseball — just ask Pete Rose. While he admitted to taking money to keep games close, Garbey insisted he had never thrown any games. His punishment was an indefinite ban from baseball in Cuba, be it the national team or a squad in the Serie Nacional.
Barred from playing the game in his home country, he decided to flee to the United States as part of the 125,000 refugees in the Mariel Freedom Flotilla. For a brief period in 1980, Cuban President Fidel Castro lifted his no-exit policy to allow what he described as undesirables — some had been incarcerated while other were political dissidents — to leave on boats for the United States. Using a friend’s immigration papers, Garbey tried to board a boat three times and was rejected. On his fourth try, he was granted access, leaving his wife and children behind.
In May 1980 he arrived in Florida, but like many others he was quickly moved to a holding centre at Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. It was there that a scout for the Detroit Tigers found Garbey and brought him into the organization. Signed in 1980, it took Garbey about four years to crack the major leagues. It didn’t help that he was suspended for allegedly hitting a heckling fan with a bat during a game in Louisville.
Despite his aggression towards the fan, he made the big club. April 3, 1984, marked the first time a Cuban player had taken the field in a Major League Baseball game since Castro’s reign began. Garbey and the Tigers would win the World Series that year. He played another year with the Tigers, spent some time in the Oakland Athletics system and played a few more games for the Texas Rangers. He would round out his playing career with stops in Mexico and Venezuela. He continues to coach at various levels with several different organizations, most recently as an instructor in the minor leagues.
After Garbey’s defection to the United States, several others followed. In this respect, he was a trailblazer, something former major leaguer José Contreras acknowledged in a 2005 interview with USA Today: “Everyone knows who he is in Cuba. Everyone knows that he's the first one.”
More than four decades have passed since the two teams took the field in Marysville. Despite all of the games that have taken place on Baseball Hill in the intervening years, not many would suggest there’s been a better game played inside the confines of the field.
“It was, without a doubt, the best game I ever played in,” Harvey says. “The crowd, the intensity. I think it was the best game ever played at Royals Field.”
“I think for anyone who played in it or watched it would rank it as one of the best,” Reid said.
Even those who never saw the game agree. They’ve heard how David stared down Goliath. It inspired an entire future generation of players to dream of playing on Baseball Hill. David doesn’t always beat Goliath, but history has shown time and again that it’s the underdog who is remembered.
Scott Harvey Jr.
Scott Harvey is synonymous with baseball in New Brunswick. He’s one of the most decorated players to ever step on the diamond. He was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1997 — one of the easiest decisions the provincial sports shrine has ever made. In addition to his brilliance against the Cuban national team, he was dominant when representing New Brunswick at both the junior and senior national championships, posting a9–1 record as a pitcher.
He also played professionally in the minor leagues with both the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals systems. While his pitching performances are legendary, he was equally impressive with the bat. Perhaps his finest hitting performance came in 1977 when he hit .552, setting the New Brunswick Senior Baseball League record.
Scott followed his father — Scott Harvey Sr.— in the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame. The senior Harvey was inducted as a builder in the baseball category, having coached and managed several teams including various iterations of Team NB and the Canadian Pan American Games squad in 1979. He also served in numerous positions, including vice-president of Baseball Canada, president of New Brunswick Amateur Baseball and director of the Canadian Federation of Amateur Baseball, among others.
This story originally appeared in [EDIT] magazine. To subscribe, please click here.