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'Connie' Marrero: 102 and counting

Even at 102 years young, Conrado 'Connie' Marrero still has a grip on a cigar and a baseball. AP Photo/Franklin Reyes

Editor's note: This story can be found in Spanish here.

HAVANA, Cuba -- The guajirito (peasant) boy, about 10 or 11 years old, watched, spellbound, as the pickup games developed. He saw in the players that rare Latin quality of always wanting to win. He was small, but when his chores allowed it, he crossed the border of the farm, El Laberinto, to watch those games.

In time, a man named Delfín López, alias Cucho Polaina, came up with the idea of organizing the farm's own team, and named it Los Tigres. Almost all the local youth quickly came to play, including the boy, Conrado Marrero, who wore shorts and had an incipient moustache and wanted to play the game himself, whenever and wherever he could find it. He tried his luck at shortstop with Los Tigres, and challenged the uneven diamond, made by farm workers themselves with pure guatacazos (heavy blows to the ground). There, barehanded, Marrero learned to play the field.

Polaina had proclaimed himself the star pitcher and was an immovable object in that role … until the day came that he gave up too many hits and, in desperation, Los Tigres turned to the shortstop -- and his mastery of a rare pitch that twisted in the air, a pitch he had learned by throwing oranges -- to either save or sink them. The experiment worked. He withstood the rivals' onslaught that day; and from there on, he monopolized the mound.

Thus, Conrado Marrero's reputation was forged. And today, he is the oldest living man to have played Major League Baseball. On Thursday, April 25, 'Connie' Marrero, as he was known when he played for the Washington Senators, turned 102.

He still listens to the games of Cuba's National Series on the radio. He still asks his grandson, who takes care of him, about Major League Baseball, in which he left his mark. He still remembers, above all, that he helped clear the way for hundreds of Latino players who followed him.

It serves the new generation well to know the story of Marrero, the patriarch who arrived in the big leagues in 1950, four days after he turned 39, and played five seasons for the Senators, creating his place in baseball history. From 1950 to 1954, Marrero pitched in 118 games for Washington, compiling a 39-40 record with a career ERA of 3.47 and 297 strikeouts.

In a recent interview at Marrero's home in Havana, he told the story of an encounter with a particular slugger, and a meeting on the mound about how to pitch to him. This is how Marrero recounts the conversation with Senators manager Bucky Harris:

"Pitch Robinson high, to the chin," Harris suggested.

"Oh! If I do, then you have to tell the outfielders to be ready because he will get a big hit," Marrero said.

Harris: "So how are you going to pitch to him?"

Marrero: "Low, about knee high."

Harris: "Nooo! If you do, then he surely will kill one out there."

Marrero: "If the ball is low and hard, he is likely to connect with it strong because he swings the bat well. But if it is low, at half-speed, he will hurry the swing. He will get under it and pop it up. Several times in practice, I noticed this weakness."

That dialogue led to a peculiar bet.

"I bet a 'tabaco' [cigar] that, like this, I can get him out!" Marrero said.

"I accept!" Harris said.

Harris hadn't even settled on the bench when Marrero induced a pop fly to the infield. He faced the hitter twice more that day with the same result, and after the game, Washington's manager gave his pitcher a box full of cigars.

Those who were fortunate enough to see Marrero pitch say that his strengths were his intelligence, his slider -- at the time, it was called an outward curve -- and his fine control of the strike zone. This from a man whose physical qualities were not those typical of a great athlete. He was only 5-foot-5 and weighed 158 pounds in his playing days, and his throwing arm, the right, was smaller than the left.

Catcher Andres Fleitas, his battery mate in three Amateur World Series and with the Almendares club in the National Series, said Marrero could pitch a complete game and throw only 10 or 12 fastballs. Some venerable baseball experts claim he was one of the best control pitchers of all time.

For a long time, a story has circulated involving Marrero and the legendary Ted Williams.

"What people say is that I struck him out and gave him the ball for him to sign," Marrero said. "And then he hit a home run against me and said, 'Go get the other one and sign it, too.' That's a tale.

"A good friend of mine, Enrique Nunez Rodriguez, tells that story, but it is not true. Williams always joked with me, but he didn't dislike me. Sometimes, he surprised me from behind and picked me up and carried me."

Nunez Rodriguez chronicled the story about Marrero and Williams back in the 1950s. Hearing what Marrero said, Núñez Rodríguez, with the humor and wit that characterize him, said, "The story is so nice that it deserves to be true, and I published it … Some people have approached me to tell me that Marrero denies it, as if trying to suggest that I should be upset about that.

"Quite the contrary! His statement is music to my ears," Nunez Rodriguez said.