Prior to the officially mandated segregation of the sport in 1878, American baseball, in its humble and loosely structured beginnings, featured on its rosters scores of Latino players who are now stirring the attention of contemporary researchers and historians.
This research is focused on the obsession with America’s pastime in Latin America and the generally unwritten history of the participation of Latinos in U.S. baseball.
Popular lore says that baseball came to Latin America during the many American occupations during the 19th century. But Lou Perez, history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says that in many instances baseball actually came to Latin America via the “elite” upper-economic class families pursuing studies in the United States.
Writing in the September issue of the Journal of American History, Perez says that baseball was introduced to Cuba in the 1860s by returning students. The sport was fully embraced by all Cubans, particularly because it became associated with modernity, progress and independence. In the struggle for independence, many Cuban baseball players “put their baseball bats down and picked up the machete,” says Perez.
By the time the United States arrived in Cuba in 1898 (during the Spanish-American War), Cubans were already playing baseball. Such was their zeal that, according to Perez, professional Cuban teams regularly beat visiting U.S. teams.
Angel Torres, a sports journalist and author of two self-published baseball books, “The History of Cuban Baseball, 1878-1976,” and “The Baseball Bible,” says that with the advent of segregation, Latinos in the United States were on both sides of the colorline. While some Latinos played exclusively in the major, or white, leagues, others — and they were more prevalent — played in the Negro leagues. Even light or “white” Latinos played in the Negro Leagues, he says. The reason all Latinos were welcome in the Negro Leagues is because Black baseball players — who were not allowed to play in the U.S. major leagues — were welcomed throughout Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries, where baseball was embraced and professional leagues flourished.
Not Black, Not White
Writing this year in Journal of Negro History Adrian Burgos, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, says that the U.S. idea of “race” was problematic for Latinos who had to learn to negotiate this American reality.
According to Burgos, “They were neither [B]lack nor white as so defined in U.S. racial terms.” Socially, for example, Black Cubans who played in the United States were not considered “Negroes,” but as foreigners or Latin Americans. Black Cubans and non-white Latinos, however, were generally not permitted into the major leagues. This was particularly true prior to World War II. (Burgos was able to find 11 Latino baseball players who played in both the Negro Leagues and the major leagues.)
While Latino baseball players were generally segregated on the baseball field, they were subjected to less societal discrimination than African Americans, says F61ix Masud-Piloto, director of the Center for Latino Research at De Paul University. For that reason, says Masud-Piloto, some members of the Negro leagues often tried to pass themselves off as Cubans when seeking lodging or meals. There were also times when Latinos on the Black teams would have to order food for everyone to ensure they all were fed.
As a result of World War II, the depletion of major league baseball players created a necessity to recruit. This increased the numbers of Latino baseball players in both the white and Black leagues.
As an example, a Puerto Rican named Hiram Bithorn (a non-Hispanic-sounding name), was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1942. Although considered “white” in Puerto Rico, some researchers consider Bithorn to have been the first to break the colorline, says Burgos.
Most researchers, however, give that distinction to Jackie Robinson, who joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and paved the way for the diversity seen in the sport today. Prior to Robinson, only a handful of Latinos had played in the white leagues, and then only because they either “passed” for white or were accepted as “foreigners.”
After Robinson’s entrance into the sport, some of the game’s biggest superstars have been Latinos such as Orestes “Minnie” Mifioso, Bobby Avila, Roberto Clemente, Tony Oliva, Orlando Cepeda, Felipe and Mattie Alou, Rico Catty, Tony Perez, Juan Marichal, Rod Carew, Dave Concepcion, Jose Canseco and Fernando Valenzuela.
Today, it is estimated there are some 150 Latino baseball players on major league team rosters.
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