How Baseball Betrayed Cuba’s Covert Ops
American intel looked for telltale diamonds
April 5 is opening day for Major League Baseball. This season, there’s speculation that the recent thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations could lead to even more players from Cuba, home to some of the world’s best ballplayers and most enthusiastic fans, joining the big leagues here in the United States.
Maybe so, but it wasn’t too long ago that America and Cuba’s favorite pastime was also a battleground in Cold War espionage. On a few occasions, Cuba’s unique fondness for baseball betrayed its covert activities — at home and abroad — to American reconnaissance, thanks to the visible presence or absence of distinctive baseball diamonds.
The stories certainly have the whiff of the apocryphal about them — and they’ve since become minor pieces of intel lore. But there are kernels of truth in the tales.
Twice during the Cold War, Cuban troops’ penchant for building recreational baseball fields helped American reconnaissance learn some of Fidel Castro’s secrets.
The first story — dubbed “The Case of the Missing Diamond” in an article by legendary CIA photo analyst Dino Brugioni — begins in 1970. That year, Cuba began to build up the naval infrastructure on Cayo Alcatraz, an island in the port of Cienfuegos. The construction got underway just as a Soviet flotilla consisting of a nuclear submarine and guided-missile ships headed for the island.
The nearly world-ending showdown in 1962 over Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba had compelled U.S. president John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to reach an understanding — that the United States would refrain from invading Cuba in exchange for the Soviets removing the weapons from the island.
What, then, was the point of the new construction at Cienfuegos and who was it for? Were the Soviets going back on the agreement Kennedy and Khrushchev had hammered out over those fateful 13 days eight years prior? Was the USSR building a new base in Cuba?
In September 1970, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger burst into the office of H.R. Haldeman, Pres. Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, with what he believed were answers. In an episode that both Haldeman and Kissinger recounted in their memoirs, the presence of soccer fields at the new facility led U.S. analysts to conclude it was meant for the Soviets.
Haldeman writes that Kissinger slapped U-2 spy plane photos of Cayo Alcatraz on his desk and drew his attention to the soccer fields. “Those soccer fields could mean war, Bob,” Kissinger said. “Cubans play baseball. Russians play soccer.”
Then-CIA Director Richard Helms concurred. In a Congressional briefing recounted by Brugioni, Helms told congressmen that “clinching the case that all this was for Soviet — not Cuban — use, there are sports facilities for soccer, tennis and volleyball only, and we have yet to see a major Cuban military installation that does not provide for ‘beisbol.’”
“The ubiquitous baseball diamonds are an important part of the Cuban landscape, and photo interpreters often gauge the amount of activity by the number of diamonds present in an area,” Brugioni wrote. The practice dated back at least early as the Cuban missile crisis, according to Brugioni. During the crisis, analysts counted on soccer and baseball fields to distinguish Soviet from Cuban military encampments.
After a diplomatic huddling between the two superpowers and some stern words from the Nixon administration, the Cienfuegos crisis fizzled. Cuba left the naval base unfinished.
Cuba’s fondness for baseball captured the attention of America’s aerial spies on another occasion in 1975. When Angola achieved independence from Portugal during that year, Cuba sent military advisers to assist the leftist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola in its war against factions backed by the United States and the racist apartheid government in neighboring South Africa.
The Cuban advisers stayed well into the 1980s. Their bases were apparently identifiable to American satellites — because of the baseball diamonds the Cubans built. David C. Miller, Jr., American ambassador to Tanzania during the administration of Pres. Ronald Reagan, recalled that he used to pass images of the fields to Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere in order to convince him of Cuba’s role in Angola.
“You would show Julius [Nyerere] examples of satellite photography of Angola,” Miller told an interviewer in an oral history for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. “And then point out that the overhead photography keeps turning up baseball diamonds all over Angola. We know that they’re Cubans playing baseball.”
Revealing though the fields may have been in both Cienfuegos and Angola, however, the photos were only small pieces of a larger puzzle of intelligence sources.
At Cienfuegos, the U.S. had been tracking the Soviet flotilla well before it ever reached the port. According to Kissinger, the CIA had also published a study as early as June of 1970 — months before the U-2 caught a glimpse of the island’s soccer fields—claiming the Soviets might be looking to build a naval base at Cienfuegos.
In Angola, America was aware of Cuba’s movement into the African country long before Havana’s troops could carve out home plate. The CIA had noted the absence of senior Cuban military officials and was tracking ships en route to Angola from Castro’s island nation.
What’s more, Cuba’s lack of long-range transport planes meant that the troops headed by air to Angola in November 1975 had to refuel in Barbados and the Azores — where the U.S. State Department was already protesting accommodation of the flights.
Far from being bumbling fools who were clueless about American espionage tradecraft, Cuba’s intelligence service was — and is — world-class. The tiny island’s spies managed to penetrate America’s own intelligence apparatus and run a string of double agents for years.
And for whatever secrets Cuba’s baseball diamonds did spill, the Reagan administration’s attempt to use and abuse them also highlights the perils of analyzing intelligence through the lens of simplistic truism.
In the 1980s, Reagan’s National Security Council was hard at work orchestrating the illegal sale of arms to Iran and diverting the proceeds to fund “Contra” rebels fighting the leftist Sandanista government in Nicaragua.
After the scandal broke, NBC’s Tom Brokaw recalled a briefing he’d received in advance of a trip to Nicaragua by one of the maestros of Iran-Contra, U.S. Marine Corps colonel Oliver North. Writing in The New York Times, Brokaw said North excitedly pointed out baseball diamonds in grainy satellite footage of what he alleged was a Cuban training camp in Nicaragua.
“Nicaraguans don’t play baseball,” North told Brokow in an apparent attempt to cast himself as Kissinger at Cienfuegos. “Cubans play baseball!”
Of course, both the Cubans and Soviets supported the Sandanista government in Nicaragua. But as Brokaw quickly realized, North’s contention was astonishingly ignorant of the country’s long history of baseball fandom. “His declaration will come as a surprise to the Nicaraguans who have made it to the major leagues,” Brokaw wrote.
This article originally appeared on April 5, 2015.