On December 29, 1878, the first game is played between two teams of the first professional baseball league in Cuba, later known as the Cuban League. Representing the city of Havana, the Habana club faced off against their greatest rivals, a club from the neighboring suburb of Almendares. Habana, coached by Esteban Bellán, the first Cuban to play professional baseball in the United States, won that inaugural game 21-20.
Baseball had first been introduced in Cuba around 1864, when some students returned home from studying in the United States and introduced their fellow islanders to the bat and ball. The sport quickly gained in popularity, prompting the creation of the Cuban League in 1878. At a time when Cuba was struggling to win its independence from Spain, baseball became an important part of the Cuban national identity. Cubans also helped spread the sport throughout the Caribbean region and into Latin America, particularly the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.
The Cuban League slowly grew over the years from 1878 to 1959, evolving into a successful winter league that produced many great players. A number of them also played in the U.S. major leagues, although one of the island’s biggest stars, Martín Dihigo, was only allowed to play in the Negro leagues due to the color ban that existed in U.S. baseball until 1947. Things changed in 1959, when Fidel Castro took power in Cuba and abolished all professional sports. The Cuban League was replaced with the current national baseball system, all played at the amateur level. The level of talent remained high, however, and Cuba won the first two gold medals awarded in baseball at the Olympics, in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996. With the aging Castro still firmly entrenched in power, some 50 Cuban players defected to the United States to play baseball between 1991 and 2001, including the celebrated pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez.