Newsman Morton Dean Recalls Meeting With Fidel Castro

By: Tim Wood

Morton Dean holds a microphone as he interviews Fidel Castro during a baseball game in Havana in 1969. COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM – In 1959, Morton Dean was a young reporter working for a radio station in Mount Kisco, N.Y. That summer, he decided to go someplace interesting on his vacation, someplace where news was happening so he could also file a report for his station. He flew to Miami and then got on a small plane for the short flight to Havana, Cuba.

“You could still do that then,” said Dean, an Emmy Award-winning newsman whose career eventually led him to stints at CBS and ABC news. The Nov. 25 death of Fidel Castro brought back memories of that first visit to Cuba, which Dean recalled in a interview last week.

Shortly after he arrived on the island, he found out that its notorious leader, the most prominent communist in the western hemisphere who had only recently overthrown Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, was scheduled to pitch at a baseball game.

Armed with his tape recorder and accompanied by a translator, Dean found his way to the packed stadium. Castro, who had played baseball in college, was indeed on the mound for a team whose name translated to “Bearded Ones,” recalled Dean, now a Chatham resident.

“It was a real celebration,” he said of the game. He remembers that Castro wasn't the best pitcher he'd ever seen, but no matter where the ball went, the umpire yelled “strike!” and the crowded roared and fired guns in the air.

A few innings into the game, Dean told his interpreter to stick close, and carrying his tape recorder, climbed down from the stands, scaled a small wall and went onto the field. It was between innings and he was determined to get an interview with the Cuban leader.

As he ran onto the field, men with guns began running toward Dean and surrounding Castro. As he was pushed away, Dean yelled out “Fidel! Fidel! The truth!”

That stopped the dictator. “The truth about what?” he replied.

“You!” Dean said.

Castro parted his bodyguards and began speaking to the young reporter.

“He went on and on, mostly in Spanish, but partly in English,” Dean said. Most of Castro's response was a history lesson about Cuba and the problems with democracy. “He just went on,” Dean recalled.

When the interview was over, Dean thanked Castro, turned to his translator and said, “Let's get out of here in a hurry.” He unwound the tape on his reel-to-reel recorder and put it in his pocket, climbed back over the wall and left the stadium, delighted that he'd scored an interview with one of the most controversial figures of the day.

The interview aired on WVIP, Dean's station in Mount Kisco, and attracted some attention from other news outlets. But a photographer present at that baseball game captured a black and white photograph which was to become the most lasting legacy of the moment. It occupied a prominent place Dean's on walls and desks over the years and became one of the touchstones of his long news career, which included covering the Vietnam War, the Iran hostage crisis, the Falklands War and the U.S. space program.

Dean maintained an interest in Cuba thereafter. He returned a year later and had what might arguably be an even more exciting adventure when he found himself spending a night in jail.

He was attending a speech by Che Guevara and recording it with his tape recorder when the person sitting next to him told him that men in suits along the side of the hall were pointing at him and motioning for him to come over. Dean ignored them until they came down the aisle and escorted him backstage, where there were other men carrying guns. He was taken to the lobby where a crowd had already gathered and was chanting “Cuba si! Yankee no!”

He was driven in a car with darkened windows to a large, palatial home whose two-car garage had been converted to a jail. His tape recorder was taken and he was put in the cell with 16 to 18 other men. He was questioned twice before being released the next morning. When he asked for his tape recorder back, the official who'd questioned him feigned ignorance of the machine, but when Dean insisted, it was returned to him.

The story of his arrest was picked up by news wire services, and upon his return he called his parents in Fall River to assure them that he was alright.

Dean didn't return to Cuba until 2000, when, while working for ABC News, he covered the story of Elián González, the Cuban boy who was the subject of a high-profile custody battle between his father, who wanted him returned to Cuba, and relatives in Miami, who wanted the boy to remain in the United States. Gonzalez eventually returned to Cuba.

While covering the story, Dean said he tried to get Castro to sign a copy of the photo taken at that baseball game in 1969, “but he wouldn't.”

Dean said he maintains a strong interest in Cuba, where, he said, he feels “strangely at home.” Castro's death rekindled his memories of that first trip and the photograph that documented it.

“It was a moment in a life,” he said, “but something I never forgot.”

A native of Fall River, Dean had a long career in TV news that included anchoring the weekend CBS Evening News and ABC's Good Morning America. For years he maintained a family home in Truro, and more recently moved to Chatham, where he now spends most of the year with his longtime partner Mary Miller. He continues to work as a freelance writer and recently completed a documentary, “American Medivac,” in which he tracks down three wounded soldiers whose medivac in Vietnam he covered in 1971, and reunites them with the helicopter crew who rescued them. The film will air next year on PBS, and he will be talking about the experience as part of the Eldredge Public Library's Learning Series on April 20 at the community center.