As we described in Part I of our series, Latino players have participated in major league baseball for over a century. Prior to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, many light-skinned Latinos who could “pass” for white were an integral part of the baseball landscape throughout the late 19th century & early to mid 20th century.
A classic example of the hypocrisy that ruled the day is the story of Hall of Fame pitcher Vernon “Lefty” Gomez. Born November 26, 1908 in California, his father, Francisco Gomez, had been born to a Spanish father and a Portuguese mother. Lefty’s mother was an American of Welsh-Irish descent. He would eventually become the 2nd Latino voted into Cooperstown in 1973. The Yankees purchased Gomez from his hometown San Francisco Seals in 1929 for $35,000. But being dropped into the Yankee clubhouse amidst the likes of Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Red Ruffing, Bill Dickey, Herb Pennock, Leo Durocher, Earle Combs, and Tony Lazzeri didn’t intimidate the young southpaw in the least. After posting a record of 189-102 with an ERA of 3.34 and 1,468 strikeouts, he would retire with the Washington Senators in 1943 having celebrated five Yankee pennants & World Series Championships. He also would have six wins versus no losses in the World Series and set a record for All-Star Game victories with three.
The point is any Latino could have competed in the majors but, sadly, the darkness of their skin determined whether they were given a chance to play or not. This disgrace kept at least one of the best ballplayers of that or any other era from showing his skills in the majors. His name: Martín Magdaleno Dihigo Llanos.
Born in the town of Cidra in Matanzas Province, Cuba, Hall of Famer Buck Leonard once said of Martin Dihigo, “He was the best ballplayer of all time, black or white.” Hence his nickname: El Maestro. Though much of what he achieved has been lost to history, those that witnessed this talented Cubano agree he was one of the greats. Combining his Dominican, American, Cuban and Mexican statistics results in a lifetime .302 career batting average with 130 home runs (eleven seasons worth of home run totals are missing) and a 252-132 pitching record. He would be inducted into Cooperstown by the Veteran’s Committee in 1977.
The 1950’s would be a decade that would introduce many young, talented Latinos to the masses, regardless of their skin color. The Chicago White Sox introduced one of the best of all time when shortstop Luis Aparicio debuted in 1956. Born April 29, 1934, in Maracaibo, Venezuela, the diminutive (5’9″ 160 pound) mighty mite would win the 1956 American League Rookie of the Year, marking the first of nine straight seasons where he would lead the American League in stolen bases. No other player has ever led his league in steals more than six years in a row. Aparicio led AL shortstops in fielding percentage from 1959-66, racked up nine Gold Glove Awards over the span of his career and go on to retire in 1973 the all-time leader in games (2,581), assists (8,016), chances accepted ( 12,564), and double plays (1,553) by a shortstop. It would gain him induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984, the Venezuelan to do so.
My father always told me that, before Roberto Clemente, no one got to see the greatest Puerto Rican ballplayer up to that time. He went by the name of Pedro Cepeda, a.k.a. “Perucho” and “The Bull.” Considered the “Babe Ruth of Puerto Rico,” he refused to play in the Negro Leagues due to the fact that he abhorred the racism endemic to American society during his playing days (1929-1950). Perucho was a hot-headed man who lacked the inclination to put up with racial segregation nor the temperament to endure racism. His nature was so volatile that he was known for regularly battling with hecklers in the stands into his 40s, for which he would be arrested and sent home with an admonishment by the authorities. But his influence in baseball history would not end there as he sired a son on September 17, 1937 who came to be known as “Baby Bull,” but is most commonly referred to on the island as “Peruchin.” Future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda would debut for the now-San Francisco Giants and unanimously win the 1958 Rookie of the Year Award, becoming only the second man to do so (Frank Robinson). He would go on to have an illustrious career which included being named the 1967 NL MVP while leading the St. Louis Cardinals to victory in the World Series. An 11-time All-Star, Cepeda was an NL home run champion (1961) and two-time NL r.b.i. champion as well. He would also become the first Puerto Rican to start in an All-Star game.
Apparently the San Francisco Giants had an excellent pipeline to the Caribbean due to the fact that they introduced another future Latino Hall of Famer in 1960. He would come from the Dominican Republic, discovered by Ramfis Trujillo, the son of the late Dominican dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. He’d be known throughout his career as the “Dominican Dandy.” Born on October 20, 1937, Juan Antonio (Sanchez) Marichal was unique in that he had what was probably the highest leg kick of any pitching motion ever seen up to that point. But he got results due to his seemingly endless assortment of pitches, pinpoint control and an ability to keep batters at bay by pitching high and tight. Juan Marichal made his major league debut for the Giants against the Phillies on July 19, 1960. He retired the first 19 batters, and carried a no-hitter two outs into the eighth inning, limiting the Phils to one hit en route to a 2-0, complete game victory with 12 strikeouts and just one walk. Although overshadowed by other pitchers such as Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax during his era, Marichal was as good as anyone who’s ever pitched. In a 16-year career he amassed a 243-142 won-loss record (.631 win percentage) with an ERA of 2.89 and 52 shutouts. Between 1963 and 1969, he won 20 games every season except one. Two games in particular during Marichal’s career provide a glimpse into the greatness and the dark side of his pitching acumen.
One regular-season game in Marichal’s career deserves mention, involving him and Milwaukee Braves’ Hall of Famer Warren Spahn in a night contest played July 2, 1963, before almost 16,000 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The two great pitchers matched scoreless innings until Giants outfielder Willie Mays homered off Spahn to win the game 1–0 in the 16th inning. Both Spahn and Marichal tossed 16-inning complete games, something that almost certainly will never happen again in the big leagues. Marichal allowed eight hits in the 16 innings, striking out 10, and saddling eventual career home run king Hank Aaron with an 0-for-6 collar. Spahn permitted nine hits in 151⁄3 innings, walking just one (Mays intentionally, in the 14th, after Harvey Kuenn‘s leadoff double) and striking out two. The game, almost the innings-duration of two contests, lasted only 4 hours, 10 minutes. By coincidence, future Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig attended the game as a fan.
The low point of Juan Marichal’s career also earns a mention due to its infamy. The gruesome incident occurred on August 22, 1965, in a game played against the Giants’ arch-rival, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Twice in the first three innings, Marichal had thrown near the head of Dodger leadoff batter Maury Wills. As Marichal was batting against Sandy Koufax in the last of the third inning, Dodger catcher Johnny Roseboro‘s return throws to the mound flew too close to his head and one grazed his ear. Words were exchanged, and Roseboro, throwing off his catcher’s helmet and mask, rose to continue the argument. Marichal responded by twice hitting Roseboro’s unprotected head with his bat. The benches cleared into a 14-minute brawl, while Giants captain Willie Mays escorted the bleeding Roseboro (who would require 14 stitches) back to the clubhouse. Despite the Roseboro incident, Cooperstown could not deny his greatness and Marichal was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983.
The 60’s and beyond would see an explosion of Latino ballplayers. According to SABR.org, the number of Hispanics in MLB would grow from 5.1% in Luis Aparicio’s rookie season (1954) to 10.7% by 1967 (Cepeda’s MVP season) and 20.4% by the mid 90’s. There would be more great Latinos to come, which we’ll tackle in Part III. Hasta próxima vez…