3:01pm

Fri March 23, 2012
Sports

At 100, Cuban All-Star To Get A Pension At Last

The oldest living former major league baseball player doesn't live in the United States, but in Cuba.

His name is Conrado Marrero, but he was Connie Marrero when he pitched for the Washington Senators in the early 1950s. Today Marrero is blind and unable to walk, and next month he'll be 101 years old.

The man who once struck out Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle lives in a small, modest apartment in Havana with the family of his grandson, who is also his caretaker.

Marrero wears dark sunglasses and a red jersey and cap with the logo of the Cuban national baseball team.

Marrero broke his hip last year in a fall, and his hearing isn't so good anymore, so he shouts a bit when he talks. But the stories he tells are of the long-gone ghosts of baseball past, like the man he remembers as the best hitter he ever faced, Ted Williams.

"My favorite memory is the time he hit two home runs off me," Marrero says. "After the game, Williams put a hand on my shoulder and said, 'Connie, today was my day.' And I told him, 'What do you mean? Every day is your day, pal.' "

Meeting 'Baby' Ruth

Marrero was small at 5 feet 8 inches, and he was nearly 39 years old when he joined the Washington Senators in 1950 after a star career in Cuba.

He pitched five seasons in the big leagues, and with his windmill delivery, he won 39 games and lost 40, a mediocre record that can be partly to blame on the Senators' weak lineup. In 1951, Marrero was an all-star at age 40, and he remains one of the oldest players ever to be selected.

But the highlight of his life came a few years earlier in Havana, when Marrero got to meet a visiting baseball idol he remembers as "Baby Ruth."

"I stuck my hand out and shook [Babe] Ruth's hand and that's when I felt like I had made it. We were standing by the outfield fence. That's when I really became a ballplayer," he says.

Marrero went home to the island when his big league career ended and he stayed, even after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution sent many of Marrero's relatives fleeing.

He coached players in the Cuban leagues well into his 80s. A few years ago he finally gave up cigar smoking, but he still likes to keep an unlit one in his mouth. His formula for longevity also includes wine and large amounts of Cuban coffee, according to his grandson.

No Regrets About Return Home

If Marrero is mostly forgotten in the U.S., he's still known to fans in Cuba.

Angel Garcia is one of them. He is among the men who meet in a designated spot in Havana's Central Park to argue about baseball with anyone who happens to be there, sort of a pickup place for casual shouting and trash-talking about the island's national pastime.

Wearing a Chicago White Sox cap, Garcia says Marrero isn't thought of as one of Cuba's all-time best players, but living to be 100 has added to his legacy.

"To do what he did at age 39 is what makes him great, especially playing for a basement-dwelling team like Washington," Garcia says. "By the time he got to the big leagues, he was already an old man."

Those five seasons in Washington didn't make a lot of money for Marrero, and he never received a pension from Major League Baseball.

A new assistance program from the baseball players union has made him eligible for a $10,000 annual payment. The money has been held up by the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. But his grandson said the issue is finally being resolved.

Marrero, meanwhile, wishes the U.S. and Cuba could interact as they did back when he was a young man.

"I'm Cuban, and I came back to my homeland, to the place I was born," he says. "I wish our countries could be united again, just like the way they used to be."

Marrero describes living to 100 as if it were some kind of accident that has taken him by surprise. He still listens to Cuban baseball games on the radio every night, and if you put a ball in his hand, he proudly shows off his grip for a curveball.

"I'm ready to pitch again," he says, "but I don't have a catcher."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.