November 15, 1492: According to the Surgeon General

Rodrigo de Jerez secured his place in history as a trailblazer way back in 1492. He and a companion, Luis de Torres were crewmen who sailed to the Americas aboard the Santa Maria as part of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage.

While in Cuba, which members of the voyage assumed to be China (Columbus knew the world was round but thought it rather tiny), Rodrigo and Luis hoping to meet the great Khan of Cathay, ran into some native Cubans. Perhaps they had never actually seen a native of China or perhaps, to Spaniards, everyone else in the world looked alike. Nevertheless, they were columbus_tobaccobefriended by the Cubans, never realizing they might just as easily have been eaten.

The Cubans were taking a smoke break and they invited Rodrigo and Luis to join them. According to Rodrigo, they had wrapped some dried leaves in something that looked sort of like a paper musket. To the Spaniards’ surprise, they lit one end with a flame and pushed the thing into their mouths, “drinking the smoke” from the other end. Luis wanted nothing to do with it, finding it a filthy habit, most likely addictive, and socially repugnant. But Rodrigo being, as previously mentioned, a trailblazer, jumped right in, thereby becoming, right there on November 15, 1492, the first European to ever smoke tobacco.

The natives believed that tabacos, as they called it, was a gift from the Creator and that the exhaled tobacco smoke was capable of carrying one’s thoughts and prayers to heaven. Rodrigo just thought smoking was sophisticated and cool.  Almost immediately, he became a confirmed two-pack-a-day man.

Rodrigo brought the habit back to his hometown (despite signs posted all over the Santa Maria saying Thank you for not smoking), but the cloud of smoke billowing from his mouth and nose gave his neighbors such a fright that the holy inquisitors imprisoned him for seven years. By the time he left prison, smoking was de rigueur.




August 7, 1966: Cinco de Cugat

Francesc d’Asís Xavier Cugat Mingall de Bru i Deulofeu was born in Spain and emigrated to Cuba when when he was five. He was trained as a classical violinist and played with the Orchestra of the cugatTeatro Nacional in Havana before coming to the United States in 1915, where he rode the tango craze to stardom in movies and night clubs. Eventually Cugat and his orchestra became the resident musicians at New York’s Waldorf Astoria.

     On August 7, 1966, Cugat took his fifth stab at marriage with Charo, a Spanish guitarist and comic actress. One can only wonder why the 60-year-old Cugat would marry a 20-year-old who could barely speak English. It must have been her flamenco ability. Cugat’s previous wife, the sultry Abbe Lane, couldn’t play a lick.

     As a recording artist, Cugat followed dance trends carefully; his tango years were succeeded by  takes on the conga, the mambo, the cha-cha-cha, and the twist when each was in fashion. He had major hits with his recordings of “Pefidia” and “Brazil.”

     Cugat is the only band leader in the Conductors Who Hold Chihuahuas While Performing Hall of Fame.

“I would rather play Chiquita Banana and have my swimming pool than play Bach and starve.” ―Xavier Cugat

March 28, 1898: The Maine and Spain

On March 28, 1898, the United States Naval Court of Inquiry found that the American battleship Maine, which had been blown up in February while on an observation visit, was destroyed by a submerged mine.

William Randolph Hearst had already decided the Spanish were to blame and meant to do something about it. He ran a series of articles arousing antiSpanish public fervor and pushing for war with Spain. Headlines proclaimed “Spanish Treachery!” and “Destruction of the War Ship Maine Was the Work of an Enemy!” Hearst’s New York Journal offered a $50,000 award for the “detection of the Perpetrator of the Maine Outrage.”

Several months earlier, Hearst had sent Western artist Frederick Remington to get sketches of the brave Cuban insurgents fighting for independence. When Remington sent a report stating that everything was quiet — rum, conch fritters and siestas — that there would be no war, Hearst famously responded. “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I will furnish the war.” Conspiracy theorists have even suggested that Hearst was responsible for the explosion.

His hyperbolic and breathless accounts of “atrocities” committed by the Spanish in Cuba and his leading role in inciting the war, earned Hearst the nickname Father of Yellow Journalism (a title not really up there with  Father of Quantum Physics or Father of  the Bride), yellow journalism being the presentation of news of questionable legitimacy using exaggeration, sensationalism and eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers, a practice that fortunately no longer exists.


The margin of error in astrology is plus or minus one hundred percent. ~ Calvin Trillin

January 22, 1951: Cuban Holding a Grudge

Tiger Hoak was a major league third baseman who played for ten seasonscastro beginning in the mid-1950s; his baseball career followed a stint as a professional boxer that ended after being knocked out in seven straight matches. His biggest claim to fame may have been his writing about a game that took place on January 22, 1951.

Before signing on with the majors in the United States, Hoak played for one season in Cuba with the Winter Baseball League. Hoak described one of those Cuban games in an article “The Day I Batted Against Castro.”

According to Hoak, Castro and some friends commandeered the park where Hoak’s team was playing. Castro was a law student at the University of Havana at the time and a player on an intramural baseball team. Castro took the pitcher’s mound, and after some warmup pitches, turned to face batter Hoak. Castro shouted out something in Spanish that translated to “die, American imperialist pig” or perhaps “batter up.” Castro’s pitches were wild, and Hoak was no doubt thinking at the time “I hope this guy’s never in charge of missiles or anything.” Castro grazed Hoak’s head a couple of times, then beaned him. Hoak turned to the umpire and said, “Get that idiot out of the game!” The umpire spoke to some park policemen, who in turn marched Castro off the field.

Hoak went onto the U.S. majors, and Castro went on to the really big Cuban majors, taking over the government in 1959. In 1960, Castro had his revenge when he outlawed all professional sports, including the Cuban Winter Baseball League.