How can it be that Tony Pérez, the glue that held the immortal Big Red Machine together, has never had a book written about him? Pérez — who played for the Cincinnati Reds from 1964 to 1976 and from 1984 until his retirement in 1986 — is also the only Major League player from the baseball-mad country of Cuba enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Yet multiple generations of Cubans have never even heard of the guy known in these parts as “The Big Dog.”
John Erardi’s incisive and impressively researched new book, Tony Pérez: From Cuba To Cooperstown (Orange Frazer Press), aims to right this wrong and shed light on a player known as much for his qualities as a person as for his skills as a baseball player.
“Tony is so modest and humble,” Erardi says in a recent phone interview. “What made him a great teammate is also what made him a reluctant book subject: He just doesn’t have an ego, doesn’t want to beat his chest. He feels like he’s better off operating underneath the radar, which is why (Reds Manager) Sparky Anderson always felt he could go to Tony to get control of the clubhouse, because Tony could move among all the factions. Whether it be the Latinos, the Caucasians or the African-Americans, Tony had the mutual respect of everybody because of that lack of ego, lack of an agenda. I think that’s largely why there is no biography of him until now — he didn’t want one.”
Erardi, who covered Pérez for more than three decades as a staff writer at The Cincinnati Enquirer, wasn’t surprised when his invitation to collaborate with him on a biography was turned down.
Erardi’s first order of business was to visit Pérez’s native Cuba. He was determined to uncover how Pérez’s roots influenced who he became as a member of the Cincinnati Reds, and that meant researching a topic his subject has rarely addressed publicly — the political situation in Cuba under Fidel Castro during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
At age 17 in 1960, Pérez reported to the Reds’ rookie league franchise in Geneva, N.Y., where he was joined by another future Hall of Famer, Pete Rose. Pérez would return to his family in Cuba during off-seasons, but that would change following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 — he barely made it back to the U.S. for the 1963 season, after which his father told him to stay in America until things calmed down. It would be 10 years before Pérez returned to Cuba, where his exploits as an All Star with the Reds were barely known due to Castro’s restriction on all things American, especially “defectors” like Pérez.
Erardi opens the book with a telling anecdote about his trip to Cuba in 2015 and an encounter he had with a cab driver who, despite being a massive baseball fan, had never heard of Pérez.
“It’s almost incomprehensible to me that somebody could know about the Big Red Machine, know about Pete Rose and Johnny Bench, and not know about Tony Pérez,” Erardi says of the cab driver. “To somehow grow up in Cuba as a big baseball fan and not know Tony Pérez? That explains the difference between a free society and a Communist one — they just don’t let the news through.”
Erardi was also determined to relay the impact Pérez’s wife, Pituka, had on his life and career as a Cuban in America who initially spoke little English and was exiled from his homeland.
It’s not a stretch to say that The Big Red Machine remains Cincinnati’s best-known export, a collection of diverse, uniquely talented men who transcended sports. It’s also not a surprise that many Reds fans claim Pérez as their favorite player.
“I still hear it from people to this day — that Tony was their favorite Red,” Erardi says. “I kind of wrote the book not just for people that were of that era but also for those that came along after, those who didn’t know who he was and wanted to know why he exceeded his statistics.”
John Erardi will discuss Tony Pérez: From Cuba To Cooperstown at 7 p.m. April 11 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers (2692 Madison Road, Norwood). More info: josephbeth.com. On Saturday (April 14), he will be at College Hill Coffee Co., 6128 Hamilton Ave., from 3-6 p.m. for a book signing. More info: collegehillcoffeeco.com.