It’s no secret that the popularity of baseball, or specifically Major League baseball, has taken a hit in this country over the past 30 years or so. It’s gone from being this country’s most popular & profitable major sport during the first 75 years of the 20th century, to now being perhaps the third most popular major sport, currently behind the monolithic NFL and the NBA. Ironically enough, the decline of baseball in the USA has also seen an explosion in the sport’s popularity in the Caribbean and South America. Come to think of it, I probably had no choice but to be a baseball fan when it comes right down to it. My parents were natives of Puerto Rico, and I, being born in the baseball mecca of New York and residing in the Bronx not five miles from baseball’s shrine Yankee Stadium, could not resist the allure of the greatest sport of all. In this series we want to bring to light some of the struggles and to note many of the triumphs accomplished by Hispanics in the game of baseball. But, most importantly, how their presence has helped make it a truly global sport and a more inclusive experience for all of us who love the game.
Apparently kids overseas felt the same way I did about the game as it grew exponentially in Latin America over the past century or so. According to articlesbase.com, for Latin America and the Caribbean, the love for baseball began in the late 19th century when two Cuban students returned home from an American school with a bat and a ball. The Cubans then brought the game to the Dominican Republic and, along with the help from Venezuelans that migrated to the United States, brought the game to Venezuela. As for Mexico and Puerto Rico, baseball was spread by both Cubans and people from the United States. For Mexico, it was a combination of Cubans who fled from the island during its struggles for independence, along with U.S. merchant marines and railroad workers. Puerto Ricans were likely introduced to baseball when the United States gained control over the island in 1898. The Cubans would play a huge role in the spread of baseball throughout Latin America not only “back in the day,” but in the present also, as we’ll delve into in the next two parts of this series.
The history of Latinos can be broken up into two parts of the same story. Light-skinned Latinos, who could pass for white, were allowed in the major leagues for decades prior to Jackie Robinson’s debut. Estaban Bellan from Cuba became the first Hispanic player to play professionally when he joined the Troy Haymakers of the National Association (predecessor to the National League) in 1871. The first Latino in the modern era of baseball was Colombian Luis Castro, who played for the Philadelphia Athletics beginning in 1902. Dark-skinned Latinos were not so fortunate, relegated to playing exclusively in the Negro Leagues. They would have to wait for the color barrier to be broken by Robinson in 1947 in order to play major league baseball. Cuban Minnie Minoso was the first Afro-Latino to perform in the majors, signing with the Chicago White Sox in 1949. Once they were allowed to participate, the Hispanic population in baseball would multiply in droves, dotting the landscape of MLB throughout the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. But those Latinos were mostly Puerto Rican, Dominican, with the odd Venezuelan, Mexican, or Cuban thrown in. And they were almost exclusively in the National League, where integration was adopted much more enthusiastically than in the rival American League.
The first “star” Latino baseball player was Cuban Adolfo Luque, who won 27 games for the Cincinnati Reds in 1923 and played for 20 years from the late 1910’s through the 1930’s. But the most famous of all the Latinos who have played major league baseball would be signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers on February 19th, 1954 from the tiny island of Puerto Rico. Roberto Clemente Walker would never get a chance to suit up and play at Ebbets Field – as a Dodger.
The Pirates acquired their Hall of Fame right fielder from the Brooklyn Dodgers on November 22,1954 in the Rule V draft. Clemente had spent all of 1954 playing in Montreal for the Brooklyn minor league affiliate. Although Brooklyn had spent a great deal of time and energy in 1954 trying to hide Clemente from any teams that would try to pluck him from their roster, their effort was futile. The Pittsburgh Pirates had lost 101 games that season, giving them the 1st pick in the Rule V draft. And, unfortunately for the Dodgers, they could not keep Clemente from playing Winter Ball in Puerto Rico. He was hitting .380 at the time of his selection as the top pick by Pittsburgh. The general manager of the Pirates was Branch Rickey, the same man who signed Jackie Robinson in 1947 for the Dodgers. Eighteen years, one team, two World Championships, four batting titles, 12 Gold Gloves, 15 All-Star appearances, the 1966 MVP award, one World Series MVP, and 3,000 hits later, Roberto Clemente would earn his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973. Tragically that last accomplishment was granted posthumously as Clemente perished in a plane crash on December 31, 1972, just off the island of Puerto Rico attempting to transport aid to earthquake stricken Nicaragua. A great humanitarian and beloved sports idol to his countrymen was gone in a flash. He remains the only Hall of Famer besides Lou Gehrig to have the five year wait to be inducted waived.
Clemente and all of the foreign-born Latino players of the mid to late 20th century not only had to contend with the issues of skin color, but also the seemingly insurmountable language barrier. Most of these players were from underprivileged communities and had never been exposed to English back home. Now in the states, they would endure all kinds of indignities at the hands of their hosts trying to adapt to a foreign culture alone and with minimum, if any, help from their team or their teammates. They were portrayed by the exclusively white media as brooding, sullen savages when many players were simply uneducated and homesick. This was an element of the struggle to succeed that African-American players never had to deal with. But the Latino ballplayer not only survived – he thrived. The product of this influx of talent would resonate throughout the subsequent decades and that will be the subject of the second part of this series. Si Dios está dispuesto.