This Day in Baseball: Garbey Paves the Way for Cuban Defectors

On this day in 1984, Barbaro Garbey made his debut for the Detroit Tigers on Opening Day against the Minnesota Twins. The 27-year-old utility man entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning and then stayed in the game at first base. The Tigers downed the Twins 8-1.

“I was so nervous. I could not believe it. I just could not believe my dream had come true,” Garbey said.

The debut of a 27-year-old utility player would not normally warrant a page in baseball history, but Garbey is different. He was the first Cuban defector to play Major League Baseball. When dictator Fidel Castro temporarily lifted his no-exit edict in 1980, Garbey was among 125,000 Cubans who hopped on the first boat off the island. In baseball-mad Cuba, Garbey had to obtain a friend’s paperwork to have any hopes of getting past the authorities. Even with falsified identification documents, it took him four tries to work his way onto a boat destined for Florida.

Garbey’s career batting line is fairly pedestrian. His rookie season was his best season — he played in 110 games and drove in 52 runs while helping the Tigers to a World Series title. For his career, he slashed .267/.309/.371 and hit 11 home runs in 226 games, but his impact is still felt today. Garbey is viewed as a hero to many of the game’s current Cuban stars. Jose Contreras said, “Everyone knows who he is in Cuba. Everyone knows that he’s the first one.”

Before Garbey arrived in the Majors, Cubans had held a prominent place in baseball history, but their impact was greatly reduced upon Castro’s rise to power. When Garbey took the field in 1984, there were only two other Cubans on Major League rosters, 42-year old Tony Perez and reserve catcher Bobby Ramos. Perez was one of the last players to freely leave Cuba and Ramos had been raised in the USA.

Garbey’s arrival did not signal an opening of the floodgates for Cuban players. In fact, the next Cuban defector did not arrive until 1991, when pitcher Rene Arocha was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals. Now, Cuban defectors dot the farm system of nearly every big league team, and ten have played in the All-Star game. Barbaro Garbey signed with the Tigers for a modest $10,000 bonus, a far cry from the $31.5 million bonus received by prospect Yoan Moncada or the $62.5 million contract signed by Hector Olivera.

Cubans have risen to prominence in the game of baseball, and rightfully so. Their exuberance for the game of baseball is unmatched. All-Stars like Aroldis Chapman, Yasiel Puig, and Jose Abreu have one man to thank for their opportunity to play baseball in the States — Barbaro Garbey.

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