Roberto Barbón: The first Cuban star in Japan

Quite a few Cuban players were stars in Japan. They owe their success to Roberto Barbon, the first Cuban to play in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Many Cuban ballplayers have starred in the Land of the Rising Sun, but before there was Alfredo Despaigne, Orestes Destrade, and Dayan Viciedo, we had a Roberto Barbon.

In 1954, Barbón was a farmhand for the Brooklyn Dodger’s Class C team, but the infielder was soon given his release. Then Minoru Murakami came calling, he was in need for a negro player for the Hankyu Braves of the Nippon League and Barbón fit the bill. With a little help from the Harlem Globetrotters owner at the time Abe Saperstein, the infielder was on his way to Japan via a three day flight, which was an odyssey in itself.

When the native of Matanzas arrived in Tokyo to his surprise it was snowing, ”When I got to the ballpark it was snowing and everyone was practicing. The Japanese were practicing in the snow. I thought, no, it couldn’t be. I never seen snow in my life. Man, it was cold out there. I wanted to go back to Cuba already, “ said Barbón to the Japan Times in 2010.

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When he did get on the field, he was spectacular. In his first season with Hankyu, he tripled 13 times, doubled 23 times and stole 49 bases. What Barbón thought would be a short stint in the NPB turned into a career for the Cuban.

During his 11 seasons in Japan he hit only .241 but was the first Latino to reach 1,000 hits and stole 308 bases. He was also the last foreigner to steal 50 bases in the Nippon circuit and stole more than 30 bases six times during his career. Barbón also led the league in steals three times.

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In 1965 the second baseman retired and today he works for the Orix Buffaloes, he also runs clinics for Japanese youth. What was thought to be a pit stop for Barbón turned out to be a lifetime of memories and a dignified career.

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