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Remembering A Baseball Legend, Conrado Marrero

NBC's Mary Murray looks back on her remarkable five-hour interview with former MLB player Conrado Marrero, who died Wednesday in Havana at 102.
Image: Conrado Marrero
The urn containing the ashes of Conrado Marrero, who was the world's oldest former Major League Baseball player, sits on a table surrounded by memorabilia and flowers in his home in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, April 24, 2014. Marrero, the diminutive Cuban right-hander who pitched for the Senators in the 1950s and in 2011 became the oldest living former Major League Baseball player, died in Havana on Wednesday. He was 102, just two days short of his 103rd birthday. Franklin Reyes / AP

HAVANA, CUBA -- The oldest former Major League baseball player in the world died on Wednesday. Conrado Marrero was 102 years old and he lived here in Havana.

The day I met Marrero, he did not look like a legend. He was blind and frail, cantankerous and sulking. We arrived during the sort of family argument that takes place in lots of multi-generational homes.

His grandson and primary caretaker, Rogelio, had miraculously managed to get his hands on a brand-new wheelchair, not an easy feat those days in Cuba when even the basics were in short supply. His grandfather, then 96, didn’t appreciate the effort and wanted it out of the house.

Promising to come back at a better time, I turned to leave when his grandson spotted the box of hand-made Cohibas in my hands. I had brought the cigars as a calling card, a gesture of thanks for an interview with the Hall of Famer. I had done my research and found out that the former right-hander with an enviable curveball for the 1950 Washington Senators had smoked on and off the pitcher’s mound.

With a quick nod to me, his grandson took the box and put it in Marrero’s hand while he smoothly seated the legend in the hated chair and deftly turned the conversation to baseball.

That began a five-hour visit and the story of his life.

“My father wanted me to be a farmer. I never wanted to work that hard,” he said, tongue-in-cheek. “So instead I became a baseball player.”

Born in 1911, he never finished high school but worked on his family’s small sugarcane plantation. Baseball was his pastime obsession and he played third base as well as pitched a mean ball.

“My father wanted me to be a farmer. I never wanted to work that hard,” Marrero said, tongue-in-cheek. “So instead I became a baseball player.”

By the time he entered Cuba’s amateur baseball circuit he was 27 years old. Quickly rising to star fame, Marrero pitched Cuban pro ball in the Florida International League before the Washington Senators hired him in 1950 just before turning 39 years of age. In his second season with the Senators, the Cuban pitcher was named an All-Star.

“I had a wicked curve ball,” he laughed remembering.

And, at 96, he claimed he still did.

“Marero is someone who never stopped thinking like a ball player,” is how Ismael Sene, Cuba’s foremost baseball expert, described the Cuban legend. He remembers bringing a group of American baseball aficionados to meet him.

Speaking about his twilight years, Marrero commented, “There are lots of my body parts that have stopped working but the pitching arm remains intact.”

He even offered to show me his pitching technique until his grandson apologetically took the ball from his hand, explaining the difficulty he’s had in replacing broken windows.

Cuban veteran baseball player Conrado Marrero (L) stands next to Humberto Rodriguez, president of the Cuban Sports Federation, after receiving the Hero of the Cuban Republic medal during the opening ceremony of the XXXV Baseball World Cup in Havana, in this October 12, 2003 file picture. Conrado Marrero, at 102 the oldest former Major League Baseball player and a patriarch of Cuban baseball known for his quick wit and goofy pitching delivery, died on April 23, 2014 at his home in Havana.CLAUDIA DAUT / Reuters

That warm afternoon, sitting in the sparsely furnished two-bedroom apartment where Marrero lived with his extended family, he talked fondly about the American chapter in his long career, about the greats he struck out like Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. He even boasted about beating the New York Yankees.

His favorite stories also included the time he spent coaching young players on this island, even when he was at an age when most men would have been long retired.

But I also remember how poor he was, how his rich memories and sharp mind contrasted darkly with the poverty of his old age. His home was sparsely furnished. The refrigerator had little food. I wondered how someone who had played baseball in the limelight could be so forgotten.

After he retired from the U.S. club, Marrero returned home to Cuba and stayed after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. When he turned 62 years old, in 1973, he should have started drawing a pension from the MLB. But by then, the U.S. embargo on Cuba was in place and Marrero kissed that money goodbye.

Rogelio mentioned that there were friends in the U.S. who were helping his grandfather apply for a Major League Baseball pension but so far the application had been turned down because someone said Marrero didn’t have enough service time in the club. The fight though, would continue.

His favorite stories also included the time he spent coaching young players on this island, even when he was at an age when most men would have been long retired.

And it did. He won.

Four years later, after he turned 100 years old, Connie Marrero finally started to pull a small MLB pension. While I’m told he was never compensated for the missing 38 years, he did feel like part of the team when that pension finally came through. In addition to the money, it gave a great ballplayer the credit he was due.

His grandson expects Cuba to do the same. Connie Marrero's remains have been cremated and his family has asked to place his ashes at a special pantheon for members of Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame in Havana’s Colon Cemetery.