LATIN BLACKS IN BASEBALL BEFORE JACKIE ROBINSON.
The start of the Major League Baseball season is just around the corner and that seems like a good time to look back at some of the very early contributions to the game made by Latin ballplayers. Not to take anything away from the monumental social and cultural achievement of Jackie Robinson, but did you know that, technically, he was not the first black ball player to play in the Major Leagues? That distinction actually goes to an African descendant Cuban outfielder who broke the so-called “color line” way back in 1935. Details on that in the later innings of this blog.
In the last twenty years or so Latin ballplayers have changed the face of Major League baseball – both literally and metaphorically. Remarkably, about a third of the baseball players on the rosters of teams in the American League and National League are Latinos. People are still shaking their heads, wondering what must be in the water in a pueblo called San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic – a little town that has produced a wealth of stellar players, especially shortstops.
But Latin ballplayers in the big leagues have come here from all over Latin American, including Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama and Venezuela. And, more recently, defectors from Cuba. (And, of course, there are Latin players who were born here in the United States.) The recent influx of Cuban players sort of brings things full circle, in that the first Latins in U.S. baseball in the early part of the 20th century came from Cuba.
As the 2014 season begins Los Angeles Dodgers fans, as an example, are filled with anticipation about the prospects of having the remarkable Cuban Yasiel Puig play a full season with the team. Puig was brought up from the minor leagues halfway through last season and he electrified the fans. He was the lightning bolt that started the Dodgers on a tear that led to the winning of the pennant. Legendary broadcaster Vin Scully aptly called him “a wild horse” on the field. He’s the size of a linebacker and he runs as fast as a championship 100-meter sprinter. He hits the ball as hard as anyone – to all fields. He’s apt to forgo the formality of hitting the cut-off man from the outfield and rocketing the ball directly to any base, including home, with the precision of a powerful pitcher. Quite a ballplayer, indeed.
Other clubs in the majors are benefiting from the talents of Cuban ballplayers, perhaps much to the chagrin of Fidel and Raul Castro. Getting Cuban professional ballplayers to defect and sign stratospheric contracts with big league clubs has become something of a multimillion dollar cottage industry.
Most historians agree that baseball took root in Cuba in the 1850s when U.S. students studying in Cuba introduced the game to their fellow students. There’s apparently no truth to the widely circulated rumor that the U.S. Marines introduced the game to the island during the Spanish American War of 1898. Cuba became a formidable venue for baseball beginning in the early 1900s. Writers Marcos Breton, Roberto Gonzalez Echavarria and F. Lennox Campello (among others) have done solid work in documenting the early history of Cuban baseball – and Latin American baseball in general. They have unearthed a treasure trove of detailed, intriguing information.
You have to remember that many Major League baseball teams had their spring training camps in Cuba. The Cuban Revolution changed all that. Baseball has always been popular there.
There was cross-pollination of styles and approaches to the game, between north Americans and Cubans. Latin ballplayers generally seemed to favor a more “go for broke” style, emphasizing speed and a greater risk-taking approach than the gringos. They’d routinely try to take that extra base or consider stealing home a regular part of the offensive arsenal. One thing that marked the difference between Cuban professional baseball and “American” baseball, of course, was race — and segregation.
Cuban baseball was mostly integrated, black and whites on the same field. Not the case in the United States.
Baseball historians point to a remarkable Cuban pitcher named Adolfo Luque as the Latin ball player to first have a big impact on the U.S. Major Leagues. To soften his “foreignness” baseball owners and gringo sports writers referred to him as “Dolf Luque” – pronouncing it “Luke.” He played for the Cincinnati Reds and other Major League teams, starting in 1914. He had an impressive career, winning 200 games as a hard-throwing pitcher. One season, 1918, he had an astonishing won-loss record of 27 and 8 and an amazing earned run average of 1.98. He played in the big leagues until 1935. He was what was once called a “mulatto” and more than once he was taunted by opposing players who yelled, “Hey, you Cuban nigger,” from the dugout. He was not one to turn the other cheek. One story has it that after being insulted by someone in the opposing dugout he ran over and punched Casey Stengel in the nose! He played in the big leagues until 1935, blazing the trail for Latin ballplayers to come.
And one of those to follow in Adolfo Luque’s footsteps was the man who, it could be argued, was the first black player to play in the Major Leagues, several years before Jackie Robinson put on the uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. He was Roberto Estalella. He was clearly an individual with African ancestry, but the owners and the complicit sportswriters of the time insisted he wasn’t “black,” he was “Cuban.”
Estalella, by all accounts, was a heck of a ballplayer. He played for the Washington Senators, beginning in 1935. He also played for the St. Louis Browns and the Philadelphia Athletics, ending his Major League career in 1949. An outfielder and third baseman, he was a career .282 hitter. And he was of African descent.
The fact that he was African descended was papered over by official baseball. There was no official rule against having blacks play in the big leagues, but it was the universally accepted “gentlemen’s agreement.”
It took Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey to effectively violate that agreement and usher in a radical chapter in baseball history when he signed Jackie Robinson to play in the big leagues. Rickey looked over several African Americans and other (Latin) black ballplayers as the potential candidate to break the “color line.” He wanted someone who was upright, respectable and willing to tolerate the racial slurs and threats that were sure to come. Jackie Robinson, a college educated, mature, articulate and sensible man was the right candidate. But, again, Rickey “auditioned” others, including an unquestionably black Cuban named Silvio Garcia. Rickey asked Garcia what he would do if someone insulted him on the field of play. Garcia reputedly answered, “I kill him.” Needless to say he was not the right man at the right time.
There were other Cuban players who were actually black and played in the major leagues before Robinson. They played in the Negro Leagues and then played in the Major Leagues. If they were black in the Negro Leagues, why weren’t they black in the Major Leagues? They are among the unsung players in the history of the game.
Now, this is not to diminish the enormously significant achievement of Jackie Robinson. He changed the game and he helped change American society. What he – and Branch Rickey – did transcends sports. It was a pivotal development in this country’s consciousness. This country has always had a difficult time dealing with questions of race and ethnicity. Today’s discussions about race, incidentally, are much broader than simply an issue of “black and white.” It’s an issue broadly involving Asian Americans, indigenous people and Latinos. And Latinos, of course, are a complex group when it comes to race. We can be mestizo, European, black and mixture of them all.
Clearly, when Jackie Robinson became a Major League ballplayer – especially given the elegant and graceful way he handled himself in the face of ugly jeering and even death threats – it changed everything. But Latinos have been trailblazers too.
The new baseball season is about to begin. Play ball!
Luís Torres is the author of “Doña Julia’s Children: The Life and Legacy of Educational Reformer Vahac Mardirosian.” Available online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.com.