Oh, the Stories He Could Tell


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Emilio Cordova, 85, known as Cuqui, working in his home office.

Credit
Tatiana Fern?ndez for The New York Times

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Ever since Pedro Martinez entered the Baseball Hall of Fame in July, Emilio Cordova, the Dominican Republic’s most celebrated baseball historian, has been carrying copies of stat sheets with him all over town. On one side of the pages are Martinez’s career numbers; on the other are those of Juan Marichal, the country’s other legendary pitcher.

“Everyone keeps asking me who was better,” said Cordova, who is known as Cuqui. “It’s driving me crazy!”

He reels off the statistics — complete games, shutouts, earned run average — as if they are an unshakable tic.

“People who never saw Marichal pitch are saying, ‘I like Pedro more; he was better,’ ” Cordova said. “Not true! Look at the numbers.”

He knows most of them by heart. In the Dominican Republic, Cordova, 85, is known as the “immortal sports historian,” a living, breathing archive of Dominican baseball. (His memorabilia-filled home is the related brick-and-mortar version.) Always impeccably dressed, in a blazer complete with a pocket square and suspenders, Cordova is as dapper as he is gentlemanly, an authentic caballero of the old school. But it is what is inside that natty package, the information he shares in his many books and newspaper columns, that makes him a national treasure.

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Cordova began writing about baseball in 1944.

Credit
Tatiana Fern?ndez for The New York Times

“I doubt there’s anybody anywhere who knows more about the history of baseball in a country than Cuqui Cordova does about baseball in the Dominican Republic,” said Rob Ruck, a sports historian at the University of Pittsburgh.

Cordova used to travel routinely to stadiums in Mexico, Cuba and the United States to interview players and document the game, wherever and whenever it was played. These days he largely stays put in Santo Domingo, a stately guardian of the past who gives talks at rotary clubs and local salons.

He has amassed tens of thousands of photographs, stat sheets and newspaper clippings, easily the most exhaustive collection of its kind. But he also has witnessed much of the lore himself and is a fountain of stories. Rafael Avila, a scout who became a vice president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, called him “the best-known and best-sourced historian of baseball in the Dominican Republic and all of Latin America.”

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Cordova began writing about baseball in 1944, when he had his first column published in a regional paper when he was only 15. His two current columns — called “The Baseball of Yesterday” and “The Tuesday Chronicle” — have been running since 1968 and 1982. “That’s 2,303 pieces,” he said. (He is zealous even about his own stats.)

These days, he writes two columns a week in the country’s paper of record, hosts two sports shows on television, and is editing his 22nd book. Twice a week, Cordova hand-delivers his articles, which he composes on a typewriter, to the offices of The Listín Diario. He provides his own photos, and he marks instructions for layout on lined paper in red ink.

“He’s a man who maintains his traditions,” said Roberto Weill, the head of the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame. “He comes from the era of Lou Gehrig and Whitey Ford and is true to that spirit.”

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Cordova shares his knowledge and stories in newspaper columns and books.

Credit
Tatiana Fern?ndez for The New York Times

Cordova is a special kind of historian, but something of a reluctant journalist. He speaks about players with a sense of wonder, and he says he abhors gossip (“I clip and collect everything, but I only print the truth”). He acknowledged that he would sooner not write about a player than write negatively about him.

This deferential air goes back to one of his first memories, when he was 8 and living in La Vega, a smaller city in the central part of the island, northwest of Santo Domingo. His father took him to see a now legendary national tournament called the Championship to Re-elect Rafael Trujillo — an event named after the country’s dictator at the time. Cordova called it “probably the best baseball ever played.”

Stars from the Negro Leagues like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell came to Santo Domingo to play for the city’s team, and all were paid handsomely for it. In the tournament, they faced the greatest Latin American players of the day, including the Hall of Famer Martín Dihigo and the Dominican star Tetelo Vargas. On Cordova’s television program last week, he recited statistics from the tournament from memory: Gibson’s average (.453); Dihigo’s home run totals (four in 25 games); Paige’s win-loss record (8-2).

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The layout for an article Emilio Cordova was writing.

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Tatiana Fern?ndez for The New York Times

A photo of the 1937 team hangs above Cordova’s desk at his home in an upscale neighborhood in Santo Domingo. Spacious and dimly lit, the apartment is a de facto museum of Dominican baseball. The front part is decorated with porcelain figurines and flowers, the handiwork of his wife of 58 years, Mercedes. The baseball shrine begins just beyond the kitchen. “Cuqui’s Museum and Office,” announces one signal plaque.

Inside, banks of shelves are neatly lined with baseball encyclopedias and almanacs and fringed with vintage caps, baseball bats and miniature batting helmets. Covering the walls are photographs of players posing with Cordova: Dave Winfield, Billy Martin, Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt. Mixed among them are personal photographs of Cordova’s family, and even a few with Dominican politicians he has befriended over the years.

One shelf is cluttered with baseballs autographed by stars like Joe DiMaggio (who addressed his to “Cookie”) and Alex Rodriguez. “This is how Sammy Sosa signed before he was famous,” Cordova said, pointing to two baseballs. “And here’s how signed after he became a star.”

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Cordova’s home office, which holds all sorts of baseball memorabilia, including encyclopedias, almanacs, photographs, autographed balls, caps and figurines.

Credit
Tatiana Fern?ndez for The New York Times

Two dozen file cabinets brim with meticulously cataloged folders that are indexed, alphabetically, by players’ last names and topics. “Ever since I was a boy, I collected things — cut stuff out of the newspaper, kept photographs,” Cordova said. “I didn’t know I was going to become a journalist.”

The folders bring together items casually collected since his childhood, like baseball cards and photographs, and materials fished patiently out of archives, including scorecards from bygone tournaments. The focus of the collection is the Dominican Republic and its towering list of renowned ballplayers, but because the country has long been an international baseball hub, Cordova also has extensive files on American, Cuban and Puerto Rican players who have come to the country to play or train. (Ask him about Paige, and he will tell the famous story from Paige’s barnstorming days about the time the pitcher had his outfielders sit down while he struck out the side.)

“He’s always been a Studs Terkel sort of historian, asking informed questions of generations of players and those connected to the game, and then sharing their stories,” Ruck said. “If not for Cuqui, much of the Dominican Republic’s sporting past would have vanished years ago.”

Sitting at his desk last week, Cordova was cutting out his latest column — the first in a series on Martinez — to put in a leather-bound scrapbook. He does not have a plan for his collection; while he has four children, the decision on the future of his trove will be his. Either private buyers will descend on the collection, or it will be absorbed into various public archives.

One possible home, he said, is the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame down the coast in La Romana. Wherever it goes, there is no question that without Cordova to narrate, color and explain, the photographs and statistics will lose some of their vitality.

“I’m 15 years shy of 100,” he said. “I’m older than some of the archives in this country.”

Then he told a favorite story, an old one about going the distance. It took place on July 2, 1963, in a pitchers’ duel between Marichal and Warren Spahn, two Hall of Famers who traded outs until another, Willie Mays, hit the winning home run in the bottom of the 16th inning.

“Juan told me that he went to the Giants’ manager and said, ‘As long as that old guy’ — referring to Spahn — ‘is in there, don’t take me out,’ ” Cordova said. “Later, Juan told me about it. Turns out Spahn had gone to his manager and said to him, ‘As long as that young kid’s in there, don’t take me out.’ Get a load of that! They said the same thing!”

Correction: August 20, 2015

An earlier version of this article misstated the date of a famous pitchers’ duel between Juan Marichal and Warren Spahn. The game was played on July 2, 1963, not June 2.



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