Short-lived minor league Havana Sugar Kings still have a big impact

The Miami Marlins will take the field later today in “City Connect” uniforms inspired by a short-lived but influential minor league baseball team that played in Havana, Cuba, in the mid-20th century. The Havana Sugar Kings played an eventful six seasons as a Cincinnati Redlegs affiliate in the Triple-A International League from 1954 to 1959. The franchise originated as the Havana Cubans, who played in the Class C and Class B Florida International League from 1946 to 1953.

(Oddly, many media outlets reporting on this story have described the Sugar Kings as the first organized or professional baseball in Cuba, inexplicably disregarding the contributions of the Havana Stars and Cuban Stars, who played in the 1920s through ’40s, often competing against Negro Leagues teams in the US, because their rosters featured mixed races.)

Bobby Maduro, the Cuban-born baseball visionary who hoped to bring Major League Baseball to Havana, purchased the Havana Cubans shortly after Fidel Castro’s revolution began in 1953. He renamed the team the Sugar Kings, as sugar has historically been Cuba’s principal agricultural export, before the 1954 season. Maduro is so revered by baseball fans that a baseball stadium in Miami, Bobby Maduro Miami Stadium, was named in his honor in 1987. That stadium, which was home to the Triple-A Miami Marlins (not to be confused with today’s MLB team), was demolished in 2001.

The Sugar Kings did not have much success on the field or at the gate in its early days, but in 1959—a season during which Castro rose to power and a Sugar Kings game against the Rochester Red Wings was interrupted by bullets from a pro-Castro celebration raining down on the field—the Sugar Kings won the Junior World Series in a dramatic game 7 walkoff against the American Association’s Minneapolis Millers.

Though Castro supported the Sugar Kings—even playing against them in an exhibition game with his team called the Barbudos (Bearded Ones)—the team moved in 1960 under political pressure from the US, becoming the Jersey City Jerseys. The Jersey City team would fold quickly, ceasing operations in 1961 because of low attendance.

This weekend and for five other series this year, MLB’s Miami Marlins will wear uniforms inspired by the Sugar Kings—though it’s not a throwback per se, as the Marlins’ uniforms are red with white pinstripes, which is the inverse of the original Sugar Kings. Tonight’s first appearance of the Nike-designed City Connect uniforms comes one day after May 20, the date in 1902 on which Cuba gained formal independence from the USA, a noteworthy landmark in Miami, which is home to a substantial Cuban population. The uniforms feature a sleeve patch of the Sugar Kings’ logo, which has been adapted to include MM for the Miami Marlins.

“I believe it’s one of the greatest things for the fans right now to remember,” said Cookie Rojas, who played for the Sugar Kings and in the Majors for 16 seasons, quoted on ESPN. “You can very much dream on what could’ve happened.”

The Marlins will take the field against the Mets tonight at 7:10 eastern.