Eli B. Canel, a cheerful, beefy, sixtyish resident of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., leads a double life. At home in northern Westchester County or at work in Manhattan, he is largely unnoticed and unsung. He is, to all outward appearances, merely one of the thousands of faceless commuters who throng in and out of Grand Central Terminal.
But to millions upon millions of Latin Americans, Eli B. Canel, better known as Buck Canel, is one of the great figures of the age. In Spanish Harlem in New York, billboard posters featuring Canel exhort passersby to "pida Schaefer," ask for Schaefer, a brand of beer. Should Canel get a cab with a Cuban or Puerto Rican driver, the ride is on the house. Whenever any Latin baseball player or boxer sees Canel, he will throw his arms about him in warm embrace. "He ees tops," says Jose Pagan, the Giants' shortstop. "In Puerto Rico leetle keeds make believe they are Buck Canel." Buck Canel was the best man at Luis Aparicio's wedding. Canel introduced Manolete to Joe Louis. Canel, so a former U.S. Ambassador to Brazil once remarked when presenting him to John Foster Dulles, is "the best-known American in Latin America."
Canel is celebrated and venerated in Latin America for any number of reasons. He is a sort of one-man band of journalism and broadcasting. For almost 30 years now, he has been doing shortwave broadcasts in Spanish from the U.S. of La Serie Mundial (the World Series), El Juego de Estrellas (the All-Star Game), championship matches of el box and other sporting events. This month's Series between los Yanquis de Nueva York and los Esquivadores de Los Angeles was Canel's 27th, a record for a broadcaster, and fanaticos de beisbol could be depended upon to hang on every word, especially when Canel exclaims, "No se vayan, que esto se pone bueno!" Which means, "Don't go away, this is going to get good!" Throughout Latin America the saying is famous—politicians have been known to shout it at restive mobs—and Canel is hailed, to the amusement of his U.S. friends, as "el as de los locutores deportivos," the ace of sports broadcasters.
In addition to his status as el as, Canel is also noted for being a follow-me-if-you-dare journalist. He works in the New York bureau of Age nee France-Presse, the worldwide French wire service. He is their Latin American news editor, and whenever a big story breaks south of the border he is off with typewriter and trench coat. So far, Canel has covered half a dozen revolutions and emerged unscratched. Being el as, he is immune to bullets and bombs.
A couple of years ago, for example, when the Trujillo regime was overthrown in the Dominican Republic, Canel and a swarm of other correspondents entered the capital city of Santo Domingo in a caravan of cars. When the first car appeared, a mob formed and began throwing rocks and shouting at the imperialists to go home. Canel, who was in the middle of the caravan, had thoughtfully written his name on the side of his car. When he drove by, the members of the mob dropped their rocks and applauded wildly. When he had passed, the mob resumed stoning the caravan. A short while later, as if to demonstrate his hold over the public, Canel left his hotel for the cable office with copy. At once, street firing ceased, and a crowd fell into line behind Canel chanting, "Back Canel para presidente!" Asked recently what would have happened had he accepted the offer, Canel said, "I don't think they would have made me president—but I do think I could have led one helluva parade."
Even the high and the mighty are entranced by Canel. When Juan Peron heard that Canel was in Buenos Aires to cover the Pan American Games, he promptly invited him to his country estate, where he insisted that they spar with one another in the presidential gym. Later on, Evita presented Canel with a lovingly inscribed copy of her autobiography. "Peron was in pretty good shape," Canel says. "He was a sport. The last time I saw him he was in exile. He had some dame and a French poodle with him, and all he wanted to do was talk about boxing."
Until Fidel Castro became annoyed by stories dealing with Communism in Cuba, he was a great admirer of Canel. He listened to him regularly while holed up in the Sierra Maestra. The day Fidel took over, Canel and some British newsmen in Havana hired a car and drove 50 miles to find him as he advanced at the head of his army. They met up with Fidel in Matanzas at a wild celebration in the city hall, and when Castro saw Canel he rushed over, gave him a huge hug and babbled away in Spanish. "What's he saying? "the British reporters asked excitedly. "He wants to know," said Canel, "why Haney pitched Spahn instead of Burdette in the sixth game."
Canel learned his Spanish while growing up on New York's Staten Island. His father, an export-import man, had come to this country from Asturias in Spain. Canel's mother was American of Scotch-Irish extraction. They raised seven children, of whom Buck is the eldest. The nickname Buck comes from his middle name, Buxo. In high school Canel was a fair athlete, and in his spare time he worked as a correspondent for the
Staten Island Advance. He always felt a pull toward writing. His paternal grandmother, Eva Canel, who lived with the family from time to time, was a well-known playwright and novelist who had left Spain to go to South America and lecture against divorce. For these efforts she was decorated by the Roman Catholic Church.
During Canel's senior year in high school his father died, and upon graduation he went to live with his grandmother, then in Cuba. He worked briefly for a sugar company, and on the side he managed a winter league baseball team that had as one of its members Oscar Charleston, the great American Negro outfielder. "We beat everyone in sight," Canel says. In 1931 Canel went to work for the Associated Press in Havana. There he met his wife, the former Colleen Park, a Texas girl who was society editor for the English language
Canel had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances in Cuba, including an obscure stenographic sergeant in army general staff headquarters, Fulgencio Batista. The members of the general staff could not be bothered with coming to the office every day, so they would check in by telephone with Batista to find out what was going on in the army. It soon dawned upon the sergeant that he, in a manner of speaking, was really running the army, and that he did not need any advice by telephone. With the help of some other disgruntled noncommissioned officers, he overthrew the general staff and eventually made himself president.