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View Full Version : Adventures in Autographs, The Cuban Connection Part II


JimStinson
06-24-2012, 09:57 AM
The plane arrived at Jose Marti International airport where a waiting bus shuttled me and the other passengers to the terminal and customs , the 10 minute ride was bumpy , uncomfortable and oppressively hot. The airport itself is an ultra modern facility completed with the help of the Canadian government. For some reason which I can't quite understand passengers leaving the island depart through the new terminal which is air conditioned and spotlessly clean. Arriving passengers however are brought into what used to be the old airport , which is not air conditioned. The checkpoints at customs went well. I was met by various customs officers dressed in green military fatigues. They asked if it was my first trip to Cuba, Where I would be staying, the purpose of my visit. After a brief conversation in spanish they eyed my computer suspiciously and said "Journalist?" I told them no and after an uncomfortable silence was told to "Have a good time"
There were several things I wanted to accomplish on this trip among them I wanted to meet one of the island's foremost baseball historians regarding the player they call "El Inmortal" Martin Dihigo, the only baseball player in history to be enshrined in the American, Cuban, Mexican, Dominican & Venezuelan Halls of Fame. Visit the town where DiHigo lived out his life after baseball and to meet the greatest olympic boxer of all time three time gold medal winner Teofilio Stevenson. Most collectors had never even seen Stevenson's autograph and I was told that although he would not accept money that he would consider signing a specific number of items in exchange for "gifts" for his family that included name brand athletic gear nearly impossible to find on the island.
After the revolution in 1959 Fidel Castro embraced communism and created an alliance with Russia. In the years that followed this would create a lopsided and confusing social and economic system. Fewer than 1 out of 150 Cubans own cars, 1 in 75 own telephones and a doctor who typically drives to work on a bicycle or walks earns the equivalent of $40.00 per month. The average Cuban earns much less. Despite this Cuba is one of the safest and most crime free countries I have ever visited. The penalties for even petty crime especially against tourists are severe. A simple crime like stealing a watch would be met with a two year prison sentence. Violent crimes are dealt with swiftly and severely and for the most part are extremely rare.
Teofilio Stevenson was the star of Cuba's amateur boxing team for over 15 years, generally regarded as one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time he won gold medals in the 1972, 1976 and 1980 Olympics to futher underscore his amazing accomplishments he won gold medals in the world amateur championships in 1974 and 1978. What is not reflected in the cold hard facts was his sheer dominance and awesome knockout power. Few of his opponents ever came close to beating him.
At the height of his career American promoters offered him a mega-million dollar deal to fight then heavyweight champion of the World Muhammad Ali. It was not enough to lure Stevenson into a pro career leaving boxing fans to forever ponder the question "What might have been"?
At the time he lived in an unpretentious home in Havana with his fourth wife a criminal attorney who is 20 years younger than him and his son who was then 5 years old. Teofilio or "Teo" as his friends call him is heavily involved with Cuba's athletic programs. He stands 6 ft 5" but looks taller and weighs a fit 238 pounds. He is muscular with arms that seem too long for his body. His hands are massive. He speaks in a deep baritone that commands and is given respect. Stevenson's is a tough autograph to find he has been barred from entering the United States after assaulting a Miami airport employee. Weeks prior to my arrival Cuban police had stopped his car. It was dark and the officer in charge made the mistake of not immediately recognizng who he was and asked for identification. Stevenson reached out one of his huge hands and ripped the police officer's badge along with his shirt off of his body. A scuffle ensued back up was called and when the arriving army of police recognized him he was released.
One of his neighbors had arranged a meeting and I was to visit his house on my 2nd day in Havana. he likes to drink rum and easily consumes a bottle or more a day. For that reason our mutual friend informed me that it was best to arrive "early" in the day. At close to 10 am we entered the gate to his home. His house was full of visitors who eyed us suspiciously. Stevenson emerged from the kitchen and greeted us. He has a way of standing back erect and not moving his head to look at you but instead just moving his eyes making this 5 ft 10 inch writer feel a bit like Eddie Gaedel. Although he speaks a little English we conversed in Spanish or at least I conversed he just grunted. My friend guessed he was already on his second bottle. I presented him with the Nikes and gifts for his family that I had brought and he agreed to sign the 300 or so 8x10's I had brought along. After signing about 50 photos he stopped abruptly and told me he was "tired" of signing and that I should leave the rest of the photos and stop by to pick them up later. He got up and walked away absorbed in a conversation in another room. Baffeled I decieded it was not a good idea to leave the unsigned photos as I might never see them again or worse, someone in the house would take on the uncompleted task and just sign "Teo's" name. So we packed up and left.
When we returned about two hours later there was a strange silence in the house , I had brought back the photos which were tucked under my arm. Stevenson was in the back part of the house by the pool area. Fear hung in the air like a fog. When he saw me he stood straight up , his eyes as red as tail lights, YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOUUUUU!!!! his voice boomed. I was to learn later that after we had left Stevenson had begun to look for the photos I was told to leave with him to sign in my absence. Being unable to find them he accused everyone in the house of having stolen them. His tirade had continued unabated the two hours we had been gone. Now aware of the culprit he was furious ! I was in the unenviable position of standing on the third step down from the patio deck while he stood on the top step staring down at me. This made the already tall fighter seem like a three story building. I noticed he was balancing himself on the balls of his feet. It was then I realized he was going to hit me. I wondered if I would actually see the punch coming. I stammered that I had misunderstood him and blamed the problem on my spanish. "SO SPEAK @#%$& ENGLISH !!!!" he shouted. I looked to the neighbor that had accompanied me for assistance and saw that he was slowly moving backwards towards the exit. It was then that I thought of my plan of action should I actually get a chance to see the punch coming. Maybe I should try and fight back I thought, No that would only make him more angry. Maybe I should just run ! No there were too many witnesses and I could never live that down. I finally decieded the most intelligent plan of action would be to just take the punch fall down very quickly being careful not to move and be prepared to lay there all day and night if necessary until he went away.
I figured I had time for maybe one question and at that point asked what was probably the most ridiculous question of my life "So does this mean your not going to sign the rest of the photos ?" he looked at me stunned by the audacity of the question. One of his guests suggested I come back tomorrow when he was in a better mood. That was the exit I had been praying for.
I returned early the next morning and as I had expected he remembered little or nothing of the previous days events. He was a different man. He smiled and showed us around his house even stopping to relive some of the Olympic moments that had made him famous and proudly showing me photos of he and Fidel Castro. He was actually pleasant. he signed the rest of the photos and was finished in less than an hour. He insisted I join him with a glass of rum which he poured for me in a large glass tumbler filled to the top, straight no chaser.
My next adventure would be the search for the legacy of Martin DiHigo. In the 3rd and final installment. That part of the trip would prove even more bizarre.
_____________________________________
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travrosty
06-24-2012, 10:30 AM
Jim, you look like a munchkin compared to that guy.

mighty bombjack
06-24-2012, 11:32 AM
Good stuff. Show us one of those signed photos!

D. Bergin
06-24-2012, 11:48 AM
Thanks for that Jim. It had been quite awhile since I read that story.

mschwade
06-24-2012, 12:02 PM
After a brief conversation in spanish they eyed my computer suspiciously and said "Journalist?" I told them no and after an uncomfortable silence was told to "Have a good time"

I beg to differ, that was a nice read!

Deertick
06-24-2012, 12:04 PM
Those hands look like something out of a Dali painting!

JimStinson
06-24-2012, 01:02 PM
Yea Right ! I look at that picture and I have to remind myself I'm of normal height and was not standing in a hole. The guy looked 9 feet tall ! I found a copy of one of the pictures he signed , hope it comes out. I never kept one of the originals for myself, I was pretty sure I'd do another signing with him but the next time I tried he wanted me to bring the entire WALMART store as a "gift"

JimStinson
06-24-2012, 01:52 PM
Oh and this too, Kid Chocolate's son told me the day after his father died the Cuban government showed up to claim his memorabilia of Boxing Robes, trunks, trophies etc. as "national treasures" for their museum. None of the stuff has been seen since

Exhibitman
06-24-2012, 08:54 PM
That's so sad. Do you suppose the pieces were sold or merely taken by officials for themselves?

Here are a few pieces of Chocolate [sorry, bad puns are 2nd nature to me]:

http://photos.imageevent.com/exhibitman/boxingmatchbooks/websize/__KGrHqNHJDEE7BcvgwkOBO3E6K4fOex__60_3.JPG

http://photos.imageevent.com/exhibitman/boxingpostcards/websize/Chocolate_%20Kid%201938%20autographed%20PC.jpg

Leon
06-24-2012, 11:56 PM
Great stories Jim.....thanks for sharing.

mighty bombjack
07-01-2012, 09:02 AM
Eagerly awaiting part III

Scott Garner
07-01-2012, 10:25 AM
Jim,

I really have enjoyed hearing some of your stories you've shared since you joined net54. I'm sure that I'm one of many that are happy to have you as part of the community. :)