For decades baseball teams have held their spring training camps in either Florida or Arizona, but it used to be that teams would venture to all sorts of warm-weather locales, from the Carolinas to Texas. Some even took their act abroad, as the Brooklyn Dodgers did in 1942, when they set up camp in Havana.
They were not the first team to prepare for the upcoming season in Cuba—the New York Giants did so first in 1937. So LIFE’s story in its March 23, 1942 issue, “They Practice and Play Hard at Spring Training in Havana” was less about the location and more of a convention preview of what their editors saw as an up-and-coming team.
But the photos of the Dodgers’ Cuban venture let you know right away that you are in the tropics. Many players and coaches go through the practice shirtless. At night players slept under mosquito nets.
The main characters in these photos are the Brooklyn manager, Leo Durocher, and two of the team’s stars, Pee Wee Reese and Pete Reiser. Durocher and Reese, both Hall of Famers, are familiar to most baseball fans. Reiser is more obscure today, and that is a tale of hard luck. Reiser won the NL batting title in 1941 but his career career was derailed by his all-out playing style, especially when he was chasing fly balls. In the ’42 season he fractured his skull after running into an outfield wall and was said to never be quite the same. In 1947 he was knocked out by another horrific wall collision. (It’s no surprise that Brooklyn was the first team to pad its outfield walls). In later years Durocher swore that Reiser had as much talent as Willie Mays.
After 1942, the Dodgers stayed out of Havana for several years, owing to World War II travel restrictions, but they would return one more time, in 1947, with rookie Jackie Robinson. Dodgers leadership thought that Cuba, with passionate fans who had been cheering on Black players for years, was the right place to ease Robinson into his history-making season.
And that was Brooklyn’s last dance in Cuba. The next year, 1948, the Dodgers established a regular spring training home in Vero Beach, Florida that become known as Dodgertown, and the team stayed there for decades, before relocating in 2009 to hot spot of the moment, Arizona.
The Brooklyn Dodgers infield (left to right) of 1B Dolph Camilli, 2B Billy Herman, SS Pee Wee Reese and 3B Arky Vaughan posed outside Tropical Stadium in Havana during spring training, 1942.