Cuban Star: How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball

Overview

A proud and boisterous Negro League team owner, Alex Pompez rose to prominence during Latino baseball’s earliest glory days. As a passionate and steadfast advocate for Latino players, he helped bring baseball into the modern age. But like many in the era of segregated baseball, Pompez also found that the game alone could never make all ends meet, and he delved headlong into the seedier side of the sport—gambling—to help finance his beloved team, the New York Cubans. He built one of the most infamous numbers ...

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2011 Hardcover First Edition, 1st printing BRAND NEW First Edition, 1st printing of this brand new hardcover with dustjacket, 302 pages including index. Some b&w illustrations. ... Publisher's review materials slipped in. Unread, gift quality. Synopsis from the internet: League team owner, Alex Pompez rose to prominence during Latino baseball?s earliest glory days. As a passionate and steadfast advocate for Latino players, he helped bring baseball into the modern age. But like many in the era of segregated baseball, Pompez also found that the game alone could never make all ends meet, and he delved headlong into the seedier side of the sport?gambling?to help finance his beloved team, the New York Cubans. He built one of the most infamous numbers rackets in Harlem, rubbing shoulders with titans of the underworld such as Dutch Schultz and eventually arousing the ire of the famed prosecutor Thomas Dewey. He also brought the Cubans, with their incredible lineup of international players, to a Negro League World Se Read more Show Less

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Overview

A proud and boisterous Negro League team owner, Alex Pompez rose to prominence during Latino baseball’s earliest glory days. As a passionate and steadfast advocate for Latino players, he helped bring baseball into the modern age. But like many in the era of segregated baseball, Pompez also found that the game alone could never make all ends meet, and he delved headlong into the seedier side of the sport—gambling—to help finance his beloved team, the New York Cubans. He built one of the most infamous numbers rackets in Harlem, rubbing shoulders with titans of the underworld such as Dutch Schultz and eventually arousing the ire of the famed prosecutor Thomas Dewey. He also brought the Cubans, with their incredible lineup of international players, to a Negro League World Series Championship in 1947.

 

Pompez presided over the twilight of the Negro League, holding it together as long as possible in the face of integration even as he helped his players make the transition to the majors. In his later days as a scout, he championed some of the brightest future Latino stars and became one of Latin America’s most vocal advocates for the game.

 

That today’s rosters are filled with names like Rodriguez, Pujols, Rivera, and Ortiz is a testament to the influence of Pompez and his contemporaries.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In his first book, Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line, Burgos celebrated the role Latinos played in the development of professional baseball. Here he continues that theme in this highly readable in-depth account of one of the key Latino figures in baseball's early years: Alex Pompez (1890–1974), who overcame an early role in the Harlem numbers racket to become "the most successful force in the incorporation of Latino talent" in U.S. baseball history. Burgos expertly details Pompez's career over seven decades, including his troubled youth in Cuba during the 1900s; his move to the U.S. and his creation in 1923 of the wildly popular Cuban Stars team of the Eastern Colored League; and his role beginning in 1950 as a scout with the New York Giants in the "dismantling of baseball's color line" which not only helped the early careers of future legends Willie Mays and Willie McCovey but also aided such "talented Afro-Latino players" as Orlando Cepeda and Felipe Alou. Burgos definitively shows how Pompez helped create a "Dominican pipeline" of players that "laid the groundwork for what would become the major leagues' most significant source of foreign-born talent by the end of the twentieth century." (May)
From the Publisher
“Once again, Adrian Burgos has written a fascinating book about the stories behind the stories of the game of baseball. If you are at all curious about why the most common names in the major leagues are Martinez and Rodriguez, this elegant volume is for you.” —Ken Burns

 

“When I came to the Giants organization in 1955, Alex Pompez went to bat for me in a way no one else ever did. He took me and the other young Latino players under his wing, teaching us English and guiding us through the racially charged terrain of the majors at the time. In this long-overdue book, Adrian Burgos vividly portrays Pompez as he was: a great, flawed man and a steadfast lover of the game.” —Orlando Cepeda, Hall of Fame First Baseman

 

“I know Adrian Burgos as a dedicated academic, historian, teacher, and true baseball fan. In Cuban Star, he's done a masterful job of casting light on a key Latin American baseball executive who has for too long gone unnoticed. A great read!” —Dave Winfield, Hall of Fame Outfielder

 

“The story of Alex Pompez gives readers a very different take on the integration of major league baseball from the feel good version that focuses on Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. There were losers as well as winners, and Pompez and other black baseball entrepreneurs have been largely ignored until now.” —Roger Daniels, author of Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882

 

“One of the best baseball books of the new millennium . . . [Burgos] is a terrific writer and knows when he has a great subject.” —Allen Barra, San Francisco Chronicle

 

“A wonderfully detailed portrait . . . The research is impeccable. The context provided is nuanced and rich . . . This book is indispensable for anyone who wants to understand the Latinization of Major League Baseball.” —Luis Clemens, NPR.org

 

“Highly recommended for those studying baseball and African American or Latino studies.” —Robert Cottrell, Library Journal (starred review)

Library Journal
Burgos (history & Latina/Latino studies, Univ. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Playing America's Game) delivers the intriguing tale of the Afro-Cuban-American baseball mogul Alex Pompez, a leading Negro League team owner, a numbers racketeer in Harlem, and the man most instrumental in opening up baseball in the United States to Latin American players. The story initially shifts back and forth between the United States and Cuba, following Pompez as he runs black baseball's New York Cubans, lands reluctantly into the arms of mobster Dutch Schultz, finally captures the Negro League title, and becomes the conduit for an infusion of Latino talent into the MLB. Working with the Giants, Pompez helped sign future Hall of Famers Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, and Juan Marichal, work that garnered Pompez himself a spot in Cooperstown. Highly recommended for those studying baseball and African American or Latino studies.—R.C.
Kirkus Reviews

The story of a black Latino's rise and fall while reshaping America's favorite pastime.

Burgos (Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line, 2007) recounts the life of Alex Pompez, "the Harlem numbers king who became professional baseball's greatest importer of Latin American talent." Though Pompez became well-known for his high-stakes gambling, he used his winnings to fund his passion, baseball. Ostensibly, the book is about baseball, though it soon becomes clear that it's actually a study in race relations. Burgos is at his best when he addresses the race issue, considering the surroundings and offering insight into mid-20th-century Harlem. The middle of the story drowns in Pompez's legal woes (racketeering charges brought against him by an overzealous prosecutor with political ambitions), though after the trial, the narrative finally returns to its roots—the influx of foreign-born players whom Pompez ushered into the game. The story eventually expands to include Jackie Robinson's momentous integration to Major League Baseball, and the author notes how this progressive act prompted professional teams to sign Latino players as well. Burgos also explores integration's negative effects, especially how Robinson's entrance into the Majors served as "the beginning of a massive talent drain from the Negro leagues into organized baseball." The author writes that Pompez's life story is "more than the redemption song of a criminal mastermind." Instead, it "illustrates the promise of America and its lived contradictions during the twentieth century, especially when it comes to how the color line influenced just about every aspect of American life"—including the national pastime.

A scholarly approach to the refashioning of the Negro leagues and its effects on organized baseball.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809094790
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/26/2011
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Adrian Burgos, Jr. teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author of Playing America’s Games: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line. His work has been featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter, NPR, and other media outlets.

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Read an Excerpt

1

 

ROOTS AND ROUTES

 

The crowd gathered at the dock in Key West buzzed with excitement as they awaited the arrival of their special invited guest aboard the steamer Olivette. Once José Martí was spotted disembarking from the Olivette, the marching band struck up the music and the crowd waved their Cuban flags. Among those greeting Martí stood José Francisco Lamadriz, veteran of Cuba’s first war for independence and president of the Convención Cubano. The two engaged in a warm embrace with tears in their eyes. “I am embracing our past revolutionary efforts,” Martí stated. “And I embrace our new revolution,” responded Lamadriz.1

The joyous reception hid the labor a committee of local club leaders had put forward to bring about Martí’s visit. A group of cigar factory workers had insisted Martí visit their community following his successful stay in Tampa, where he recruited support for his revolutionary organizational effort. Among those involved in organizing Martí’s visit to Key West was José González Pompez, who had established himself within the Florida isle’s circle of figures active in the Cuban independence movement. He along with other committee members solicited donations to cover the cost of Martí’s trip to Key West by going door-to-door and visiting cigar factories. Their task of rallying interest in Martí’s budding organization, Partido Revolucionario Cubano, involved more than the usual advocacy. For starters, only one of the committee members, Serafín Bello, was an established leader from one of the dozens of Cuban revolutionary clubs in Key West.2 Moreover, the Key West community had seen leaders, glib speakers, and organizers come and go; each arrived with lofty goals, delivering speeches, and in need of a lot of financial support. Angel Peláez, the committee’s elected president, described the heady days in preparation for the Cuban apostle’s visit: “There was a difficulty, and that was the impossibility of the committee going to all the factories within a short time, because nearly all of the members were poor workers, [they were] on the committee in the spirit of patriotism and without pay. Each day meant for them a loss of one day’s salary, which was their bread, the life of their family.” Pompez intervened to provide a partial solution to the transportation issue committee members faced, supplying a carretón, a small mule-drawn cart, to carry the cigar workers as they traveled from factory to factory. Their effort definitely seemed worth it as they looked out onto the wharf and saw the cheering multitude greet the guest of honor.

For José Pompez, participation in the visiting committee was part of his contribution to la causa of freeing the island of his birth and from where he had fled Spanish colonial rule. He and other Cuban exiles came to see Key West as a democratic laboratory for what they desired for their native land. Unlike Cuba, Key West had an economy devoid of slavery and a political system that allowed all adult male citizens the opportunity to participate electorally. Florida laws on eligibility for voting, moreover, provided Cuban émigrés the possibility to practice their democratic rights of electoral participation. Requirements called for a declaration of intent to naturalize along with six months’ residence for county elections and a year’s residency to become eligible to vote in state elections.3 Such possibilities had drawn Pompez to Key West after filing his declaration of intent on September 4, 1879.4 Key West was where he would fall in love with and marry Loretta Mendoza Pérez and where the couple would start a family.

That baseball, the numbers, and cigars would largely impact the life of Alex Pompez is little surprise, considering the Cuban émigré communities of Key West and Tampa. In these communities Cubans forged a culture that was an amalgam, created through economic exchange and the flow of workers and entrepreneurs who adopted practices from different locations within the Americas. The result was a culture they claimed was distinct from that of their island’s colonial rulers, Spain. A young Alex witnessed the migrations of Cubans between Cuba and Florida driven by mobilizations around nationalist insurgency, the rise and fall of cigar work at factories, and the emergence of baseball as the Cuban national game on sandlots in their colonias formed in the States. These events would shape his worldview and that of others as to the possibilities for individual and collective remaking, of participating in the making of something new, of becoming Cuban and fighting for one’s own nation wherever one resided. Those lessons would be part of Pompez’s inheritance from his father and those of his father’s generation.

Baseball Takes Root

War and migration marked the span between 1868 and 1898 for Cubans. The Ten Years’ War produced little tangible results for the insurgents. The Pact of Zanjón ended armed hostilities but produced a fragile peace. Upset that the pact did not abolish slavery, insurgent leaders Antonio Maceo and Calixto García, among others, refused to sign. Armed hostilities renewed on August 26, 1879. The Guerra Chiquita (Little War) that ensued also failed to yield independence, but it did produce the gradual abolition of slavery, a planned eight-year transition period from forced labor to free labor. Tens of thousands of Cubans who supported independence continued to flee the island’s political turmoil in either self-imposed or government-ordered exile during this thirty-year span. These migrations included a number of families whose offspring would significantly impact Cuban baseball throughout the Americas.

Spanish ruling authorities, concerned with baseball’s association with subversives, kept close tabs on the colony’s baseball scene. The colonial government first banned baseball in 1869 but soon rescinded the ban. Another ban followed in 1873. After the Ten Years’ War, authorities continued to suspect the game was more than a North American import and that it possibly served as paramilitary exercises preparing Cubans for battle against colonial forces. Lingering suspicions prompted officials to intensify monitoring of the game: all social organizations, including baseball clubs, were required to officially register to legally hold private meetings. In 1876, colonial authorities forbade the names Yara and Anacaona: the former invoked the Grito de Yara that initiated the Ten Years’ War, the latter a Taina princess who resisted the first Spanish arrivals to the island.5 Cubans continued to embrace the game nonetheless. They took baseball wherever they migrated, forming baseball clubs and creating local amateur and semiprofessional teams. The Aloma brothers (Ignacio and Ubaldo) from Cienfuegos typified the way Cubans transported the game. In 1891, the brothers relocated their sugar plantation from Cuba to San Pedro de Macorís in the Dominican Republic. Once there, they organized the first two baseball clubs in the country. Cubans likewise spread the game to other parts of Caribbean, including the Yucatán region of Mexico and Venezuela.

Many Cubans would make Key West their home while the struggle for Cuban independence persisted. Individually and collectively, their actions unveiled the vaunted place baseball occupied in Cuban culture and its links to the insurgency.6 A shift in cultural orientation among self-identified Cubans quickened in the late 1840s. Those supportive of national independence increasingly sent their children to educational institutions in the United States instead of Spain. Baseball subsequently arrived in Cuba in the early 1860s, before armed hostilities erupted between Cuban insurgents and Spanish colonial forces. Whereas in the United States the Civil War and military mobilization facilitated baseball’s spread across the nation, the game’s introduction in Cuba resulted from a migration of students who studied in the United States and transported baseball equipment and knowledge back to Cuba as part of the cultural baggage they acquired. Credited with introducing the first bat and ball to the island, Nemesio Guilló underscores this cultural shift within the Cuban elite. In 1858 Guilló arrived in Mobile, Alabama, to attend Springhill College. Six years later he returned to Cuba. Among the belongings the young man brought back was baseball equipment, which Cuban newspapers later described as “the first to be seen in Cuba.”7 Guilló was not alone. Dozens of Cubans learned to play the sport while pursuing their studies in the States. Esteban Bellán stood most prominent among them. A teenage Bellán arrived in New York City in 1865 to study at Rose Hill College (present-day Fordham University), where he earned the distinction of being the first Cuban to play college varsity baseball in the States in 1868 and three years later appeared as the first Latin American to play major-league ball when he joined the National Association’s Troy Haymakers.

Further evidence that baseball had begun to sink deep roots within Cuban culture abounded. The game took root wherever Cuban émigrés migrated. In Key West, they formed their own league and received visits from island-based Cuban teams. A local league established in 1887 would include four teams: Azul, Punzó, Intrépido, and Progreso. The names gave a clear indication of the nationality and political stances of the émigrés, referring to the colors of the Cuban League’s Habana (Azul) and Almendares (Punzó) and also to their fearless spirit and belief in progress. In 1888, the Island Habana baseball club visited Key West. But that squad was not the first Cuban team to pay a visit to the Cuban colony. Seven years early, the Fe baseball club had made the trip across the straits to play against the local competition.8

For members of Cuban émigré communities in Key West and elsewhere, baseball provided more than recreation and diversion; it helped define them as a people. Cubans viewed baseball as as much their game as that of the United States. Cuban nationalists envisioned baseball as an expression of their culture, one that distinguished them from the Spaniards who controlled Cuba. The baseball clubs they formed made their politics obvious, bearing names like Yara, Progreso, and América. Additionally, Cubans founded the baseball periodicals El ScoreEl Baseball, and El Pitcher, among others, which followed their budding baseball scene on the island, where a professional league took form in 1879, as well as in the émigré communities. The flurry of publications and the practice of exchanging information among journalists in the States and on the island allowed Cuban baseball enthusiasts to gain pride in the feats of their compatriots wherever they lived or played ball. Significantly, those on the island acknowledged the role of baseball in the émigré communities and its association with the nationalist cause. Aurelio Miranda, a founding member of the Habana baseball club, waxed poetic in proclaiming baseball would aid the nation-building process. “I always believed that baseball not only promised to promote the physical development of our youth and provide them a virtuous recreation … but that it would also serve other purposes—to form, for example, robust citizens adept at struggle.”9 That struggle aimed to make a Cuban society free of colonial domination; in the interim, they built communities in Key West, Tampa, New York, and elsewhere.

To Make Their World New

Life in Key West improved for the previously arrived Cuban émigrés with each successive wave of arrivals. Walking its streets, they could hear Spanish interspersed with English, smell the familiar aroma of Cuban cuisine and cigars wafting through the air, and participate in discussions of the latest developments in Cuba. With Havana a short trip by steamship, in times of political tranquillity Cubans in Key West would routinely make the ninety-mile trip south to spend their weekends visiting family and friends after purchasing goods unavailable back home. This proximity contributed to Key West’s becoming a favored destination. By 1885, the Cuban-born population in Key West totaled 4,517, nearly a third of its 13,945 residents, but that number did not include the children of Cuban émigrés like Alex Pompez who were part of the first generation born in Key West.10

As their numbers grew, so did their possibilities. Cuban émigrés established mutual aid societies and social clubs such as the Convención Cubano and Club San Carlos, which sustained community members in times of economic hardship and aided the recently arrived in their period of adjustment. Although typically social in their orientation, these organizations at times took a decidedly political tone, hosting speakers who informed members of the latest developments within the insurgency or labor activists who sought to organize the workers among them. These clubs provided émigrés a space to envision a Cuba free of Spanish colonial authority as well as to address their situation in the United States.

Countless Cubans here constantly affixed their sights southward and planned for how to achieve a free, democratic Cuba. Political dissidents keyed in on this locale due to its geographical proximity to Cuba and also its well-organized community of émigrés. By the 1890s, Key West replaced New York City as the center of the leadership of the insurgency stateside. A large veteran military contingent called Key West home, including seventeen generals from the Ten Years’ War, two of whom—Carlos Roloff and Serafin Sanchez—would lead the 1895 expedition that launched the third War for Independence in Cuba.11

The significance that nationalist leaders gave Key West’s émigré community was no clearer than when the Cuban Apostle himself, José Martí, visited. Exiled from Cuba by the Spanish colonial government, Martí moved to New York City in 1881 and dedicated himself to organizing Cubans to overthrow the shackles of colonialism in their native land. His writings enlivened the dream of Cuba Libre and inspired a new generation of Cubans to join the cause; his essay “Nuestra América,” published in January 1891, provided inspiration for insurgents old and new. His biggest challenge at this point was convincing the cadre of revolutionary leaders and veterans of the two previous wars for Cuban independence that his plan and organization was worth aligning themselves with in yet another push for war and independence. He understood that while he already had secured support from the communities in New York City and Tampa, the support of Key West Cubans was crucial to a project as ambitious as his: organizing the Partido Revolucionario Cubano (PRC, or Cuban Revolutionary Party) as the main organization mobilizing the Cuban independence movement. Cubans here had a political cachet and possessed the wealth to underwrite this project that would make reality his vision of a new Cuba free of Spain and that was “with all and for the good of all.” The problem was that Cubans in Key West had already formed over sixty pro-independence groups.12

Following his welcoming reception at the dock in late December 1891, Martí met privately with some local leaders the first several days of his visit even though he was suffering from a cold and had been ordered by his doctor to take bed rest. On the night of January 3, Martí made his first public presentation at the Club San Carlos. Introduced by José Francisco Lamadriz, Martí continued trying to bridge the differences among the existing Key West groups that supported Cuban independence. He met with group leaders at the Hotel Duval and outlined the PRC’s platform, hoping to sway to his new organization the Key West leaders already sympathetic to the cause of Cuban independence but who possessed their own ideas about how best to achieve that aim. On the last night of this historic first visit, the locals gathered at the Club San Carlos to fete Martí. Children recited poetry. Local dignitaries took their turn speaking to the gathering, including Serafin Bello, Génaro Hernández, and José Pompez. When those gathered finally put the PRC platform to a vote, the motion carried.13

Martí’s visit aligned an important contingent of supporters from the Key West colony with his camp. In April, Key West supporters agreed to formally create a chapter of the Partido Revolucionario Cubano; its formation came just three months after the first chapter’s creation in New York City. Those gathered elected officers and a board of directors. Indicative of his standing within the community and among the nationalist supporters, José Pompez was elected to the chapter’s board of directors.

The intervening years in Key West had been quite good for him. A lawyer by training, he also possessed an entrepreneurial streak, operating a cigar factory that generated enough money to sustain a comfortable life and donate to Martí’s cause. He had married Loretta Mendoza and the couple gave birth to their son Alejandro on May 3, 1890, and other children followed: Armando, Leonora, and José. Additionally, he had gained further prominence in the community, becoming part of an inner circle of Martí’s confidants in Key West, included among those Martí wrote to and about in his private letters and in his published writings as the Cuban revolutionary leader sought to maintain the support of his vital Key West connections. These days were not all filled with joy, however. A February 1892 letter penned by Martí to the leaders of Key West PRC chapter noted that Pompez was grieving. Martí expounded on the tragedy that had caused Pompez’s grief in an issue of Patria (the official PRC publication): “And now to the eloquent Pompez, the shrewd and builder Pompez, young and noble Cuban from Key West, has died the most recently born of the honorable man.”14 Grief at the loss of a child is handled in different ways; Pompez opted to pursue public service. Just months after his child had been buried, he successfully ran on the Republican ticket for a seat as a Monroe County representative in the Florida House of Representatives.

Pompez’s election to the statehouse was emblematic of the high level of organization, political acumen, and nationalist loyalty among Cubans in Key West. Cubans had elected their own to local and state office for several reasons. First, located over six hundred miles away from the state capital in Tallahassee, Key West was literally and figuratively a world away. Second, the composition of the local population—about a third locally born “Conchs,” another third Cuban émigrés, and a quarter Bahamians—made Key West unique among Florida’s major cities: the sheer number of eligible Cuban voters made them a vital voting bloc. Four years earlier, rather than merely voting along party lines, Cubans had elected two of their own as Monroe County representatives to the statehouse. Third, Cubans prominent in the cigar industry in Monroe County and in Florida in general made wealthy Cuban cigar-factory owners valuable allies. Finally, Cubans came in a range of skin colors and, moreover, those who supported the Cuban revolutionary movement embraced a nonracial national identity that Martí espoused. These economic, political, and social factors complicated the efforts of “Redeemers,” who sought to impose a hard Jim Crow color line that separated black and white based on skin color alone.15

The rookie legislator’s participation in the 1893 Florida legislative session began on April 4 with taking the oath of office. Much of the first day was spent listening to the Speaker of the House welcome the legislators and partaking in procedural votes to fill various House posts such as chief clerk and chaplain. Assigned to the Public Health Committee, Pompez introduced bills and resolutions that included one on the qualifications of jurors and another on child labor. On April 10, he offered a resolution for the appointment of a committee “to inquire into the matter of fees collected by the Board of Health authorities of the port of Key West.” The House adopted the resolution and named him one of the special committee’s three members. The committee report he delivered called for equal treatment of arrivals at the ports in Key West, Tampa, and Jacksonville. (Fumigation rooms were still in use at Key West’s port, where primarily Cubans entered, yet their use had stopped at the other ports.) The House formally adopted the report’s findings and recommendations. On May 3, the House brought out of committee a child labor bill that Pompez proposed that aimed “to prevent minors under thirteen years of age from being employed in factories.” With a few minor amendments the bill passed, 42–10. The next day the House leadership “indefinitely excused” him: he had traveled the longest way to get to Tallahassee and it was time to return to Key West to attend to his own affairs.16

Tampa Bound

On the heels of his time in the Florida House, José Pompez received an enticing offer to relocate his cigar operations and family to the Tampa area. About a decade earlier, in October 1885, Tampa area business developers had successfully recruited cigar baron Vicente Martínez Ybor to move his Key West–based operations north. Cigar factory owners were hard-pressed to turn down cheap land and a guarantee of labor peace—although the means through which labor peace was secured later raised eyebrows. The package the Tampa Board of Trade offered was too good to pass up for Ybor: a subsidized purchase of forty acres just northeast of Tampa proper. Due to its location, Ybor enjoyed relatively free rein to build what equated to a company town and later became incorporated as Ybor City. Hoping to avoid the labor strife that afflicted his operations in Key West, Ybor offered cigar workers what he deemed good wages and living conditions, including housing employees could purchase at cost. The Cubans who moved to Ybor City, and later West Tampa, would continue the practice of using baseball to maintain intimate ties to the island and to demonstrate their ardent support for the liberation of Cuba. Incorporated in 1886, Ybor City soon featured baseball diamonds in addition to its cigar factories, worker cottages, and social club buildings. Ybor residents formed baseball clubs that ventured out of the neighborhood to challenge other teams. On October 26, 1888, The Tampa Morning Tribune reported the “first colored baseball game” had taken place the previous Monday afternoon in Ybor City. The two Cuban teams made clear their identity and politics through their names, Cuba and Porvenir (the Future). Their contest occurred approximately a month after Ybor City hosted the Layton baseball team on what the Tribune described as a “newly made diamond one block in the rear of Pons [cigar] factory.”17

José Pompez’s cigar operation was never on par with Ybor’s, but it nonetheless attracted the attention of the West Tampa Development Company. Desirous of developing land west of Tampa and Ybor City, the company offered him two building lots in the West Tampa area first surveyed in April 1892. The affordable price for the building lots and their central location in West Tampa made the offer doubly attractive. Affordable housing made moving to West Tampa attractive for cigar workers: hundreds of cottages, some costing as little as $400, that could be purchased with a 20 percent down payment and on a monthly installment were constructed. But life in West Tampa was rudimentary, not at all like life in Havana, New York City, or even Key West. In Pompez’s case, he completed the purchase of the West Tampa property just off of Main Street for $1,000 in May 1894. His cigar factory was built there while local builder John Drew constructed a new house for his family, one of five luxurious residences Drew built that year, each costing more than three times the average for a worker’s cottage.18 Once settled in his new home, Pompez put his political acumen to work toward drafting the charter for the fledgling town. He worked with a group that completed the papers for incorporation. Official recognition of West Tampa came on May 18, 1895. West Tampa’s population at its incorporation totaled 2,335; it would grow into the fifth largest city in Florida with 10,000 residents in less than twenty years. A month after incorporation, West Tampa held its municipal elections, in which Pompez won the city clerk position.19

In June 1896, José Pompez successfully won reelection; he held the position until his death later that year on November 12. Staunchly committed to Martí, the PRC, and the ongoing War for Independence in Cuba, he bequeathed his estate to the insurgency. This last powerful gesture left his widow Loretta having to lean on the local Cuban community in Tampa and her parents in Key West for support.20 The loss of his father created a considerable void in young Alex’s life; the legacy set by his father’s example in life and death cast a shadow that would loom over him. His father’s election to the Florida statehouse was notable for its timing, occurring as members of the Democratic Party perpetrated extreme acts of racial terror and intimidation to suppress black participation in the electoral process.

Pompez’s father had been a product of a particular generation; exiled from their native lands for their belief in democracy and freedom, they engaged in a sustained anticolonial struggle. They did not stop living because Spanish colonial rulers compelled them to leave the island for their pursuit of a free Cuba. This drove men like José Pompez to remake themselves while they engaged in a cause larger than themselves. The donation of his estate to the Cuban insurgent movement demonstrated a commitment to a greater cause than just the individual and family.

Further indicative of the place that Cuba Libre had in the hearts of the generations of Cuban émigrés, the liberal mixing of politics and baseball increased as the nationalist insurgency gained support in the early 1890s. Many local institutions in Cuban communities served as vital centers for raising funds for the insurgent Cuban army—what they called Ejército Mambí. Games organized by supporters of the insurgency occasionally featured political speeches by José Martí, Antonio Maceo, and other nationalist leaders. One Cuban exile, Emilia de Córdoba, made this mixture explicit, and is credited with initiating the practice of using baseball games to raise funds for the insurgent movement. Such games also provided cover for recruiting men willing to take up arms or fill other roles for the cause.21 Key West native Agustín “Tinti” Molina was such a man; his actions highlighted how embedded baseball was within the insurgency and nationalist Cuban culture. In early January 1895, Cuban insurgent leaders in Florida devised a plan to communicate to fellow leaders on the island the signal to launch their military offensive and initiate the revolution. The plan required smuggling the message rolled up in a cigar from West Tampa to Cuba. According to lore, leaders selected Molina as the smuggler in this covert operation. A skilled ballplayer who would later play professionally in the States and in Cuba, Molina traveled to the island under the pretext of playing several games for the Matanzas team in the Cuban League. Once his purpose was accomplished, he returned stateside; his next visit to Cuba would occur as part of an expedition of armed insurgents in the War for Independence.22

Involvement in subversive activities against Spanish colonial rulers typically resulted in drastic punishment for those arrested. Emilio Sabourín learned this in 1895. An established figure in Cuban baseball, Sabourín belonged to the Habana Base Ball Club and had participated in the first officially recognized game on the island in 1874. Arrested for involvement in the theft of ammunition from a Spanish government storage facility in Cuba and for funneling profits from Cuban League operations to the independence movement, colonial authorities sentenced him to twelve years behind bars. Imprisoned in a dank Spanish prison in Ceuta, on the northern coast of Morocco, he died less than three years later.23 Luis Someillan did not suffer such a grim outcome, but he was likewise tried and imprisoned for crimes against the Spanish colonial government. An amateur player in his youth, Someillan was partly educated in the States and became a naturalized U.S. citizen. In the 1890s, he operated a tobacco concern in Havana that exported to cigar makers in Key West. In January 1896, he and other suspects were arrested in Havana for insurrectionary activities. He did not meet a sympathetic judicial tribunal. Early in January 1897 he was tried, convicted, and ultimately sentenced to life in prison on the Isle of Pines; he was released on November 23, 1897.24

The link between baseball and insurgency became even more visible once the war began in earnest in 1895 as thousands enlisted in the insurgent army; others provided material support. In Ybor City, a local periodical La Pelota covered both sport and politics and forwarded all proceeds to the Partido Revolucionario Cubano.25 The lineups of teams in Tampa, Key West, and Cuban communities elsewhere contained many names of individuals who later willingly exchanged their bats and gloves for guns and bullets to fight the Spanish. They and others further embedded baseball into Cuban national culture, reaffirming the bond linking Cubans on the island with émigrés living in Key West, Tampa, Philadelphia, and New York City. Moreover, it made baseball little different than music and literature produced by Cubans during this time, cultural forms and practices that served as a connective membrane whereby they maintained their “Cuban-ness” and demonstrated their commitment to one day return to their island free of Spanish colonial rulers.

Seasons of Change

For Alex and the West Tampa Cuban community, the death of José Pompez was yet another in a series of losses—losses that followed good news. Less than six months after celebrating his reelection as city clerk, José Pompez was being interred. A day after the Florida state government officially recognized the charter for the city of West Tampa word arrived from the Cuban battlefront: José Martí had fallen in the Battle of Dos Ríos in Oriente Province. The Apostle was lost; the War for Independence would drag into a third year with seemingly little headway. In April 1898, U.S. troops would intervene, transforming the war into its own “Spanish-American War” and quickly dispatching the Spanish military forces. A truly independent Cuba would not come into being for quite some time, however. The U.S. military occupied Cuba until 1902, leaving only after the Cuban constitutional assembly included the Platt Amendment into its new constitution. The terms of the Platt Amendment called into question whether Cuba was truly an independent nation, stipulating that Cuba could not enter into peace treaties with another country, that the United States could intervene militarily in Cuban affairs on its own behest, and that the Cuban president could call for U.S. military assistance when the need arose.

The social changes that transpired in Tampa over the next decade made life more difficult for those who were black, brown, or Cuban—or any combination of the three. On the one hand, growing up in Tampa exposed a young Alex to the world of cigars, baseball, gambling, community-level organizing, and politics. On the other hand, he and other Cubans experienced a sea change when it came to social relations as the color line gained even greater significance for U.S.-born blacks and foreign-born Cubans and their progeny living in Tampa. Where exactly Cubans stood collectively along the color line was not a settled question. Prior to 1900s, an individual’s location along the color line was open to negotiation if you were Cuban, especially if you were lighter-skinned, came from some means, or retained significant aspects of Cuban culture that others saw as foreign. This created opportunities for Cubans often unavailable to U.S.-born blacks. The local baseball scene underscored this difference. By 1894 Afro-Cubans in Tampa had organized a traveling baseball club that faced black baseball teams in the region as well as participated in interracial contests against local Italian teams or other white Tampa-area squads. Yet, in reality, just about every Cuban baseball game was already an interracial affair. Cubans drew little distinction when it came to color and playing baseball; it was when they ventured beyond the friendly confines of Ybor City or West Tampa that the color line really came into play.26 Jim Crow laws made life difficult for all those who were not accepted as white, which contributed to a growing rift between light-skinned Cubans and Afro-Cubans. Equally significant, the patriotic struggle that had once bonded Cubans together no longer existed after the United States had routed the Spanish. Beliefs in racial difference—which had been “deliberately obscured” in the push for national independence—percolated to the surface. Thereafter it was not just a matter of where you stood but also who was willing to stand by you when it came to race and the color line.27

Thousands of émigrés left Tampa and returned to Cuba in the years following the end of Spanish rule. Many returned hopeful of rebuilding their homeland ravaged most recently by three years of warfare. Those who stayed in Tampa turned their attention to more immediate concerns. The Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) had given legal sanction to the practice of “separate but equal.” Whites in the South could now freely enact Jim Crow laws to segregate public institutions; private organizations and institutions could continue to racially discriminate without fear of legal reprisal. The Plessydecision legalized practices already under way in Florida. A year before the Plessy rendering, the Florida legislature passed a law barring integrated public schools: offenders could be fined up to $100. The new law affected Alex Pompez and other Cuban children in West Tampa who were just entering school. Two weeks after the Florida law went into effect, Fernando Figueredo, superintendent of West Tampa schools and head of the local PRC chapter, applied for public funding for the school Cubans operated out of Céspedes Hall. However, the school was viewed as violating state law, since it did not rigidly distinguish color within its student body. Figueredo was forced to withdraw the funding request and operate the school privately as an integrated institution.28

Fractures within Tampa’s Cuban community became more readily apparent as Jim Crow further encroached on their daily lives. Social clubs once united in the struggle for Cuban independence split along racial lines. In October 1900, lighter-skinned Cubans left El Club Nacional Cubano, producing speculation, then as now, about the motivation for their departure. Formed the previous October, the club had welcomed Cubans of all colors; but less than a year later the group splintered. Were the lighter-skinned Cubans attempting to draw an important distinction with Cubans who clearly had African ancestry for Floridians concerned with distinguishing between white and black? Was their departure an open declaration of an underlying racial belief they had suppressed while working together to liberate Cuba? Whatever the reason, the effect was the same: Afro-Cubans were left on their own to navigate the color line and Jim Crow in Tampa.29

Within the year, Tampa’s Afro-Cubans formed Sociedad de Libre Pensadores de Martí-Maceo, later called La Union Martí-Maceo, which evolved into a crucial institution for the Afro-Cuban community. Martí-Maceo addressed matters of insurance, health care, and labor benefits for its members, who were mostly cigar workers. It also served as a key point of distinction from African Americans: U.S.-born blacks were ineligible for membership. Medical benefits offered members treatment in Cuba if certain medical services were unavailable in Tampa. Given the ubiquity of segregation in Tampa, this gave Afro-Cubans the option of avoiding the use of Tampa’s segregated black hospital, the Clara Frye Hospital, and instead traveling to Cuba for medical treatment. Such benefits bolstered membership, which grew to over three hundred by 1910.30

Interestingly, the formation of a baseball team, the Cuban Giants, was among the first actions taken by Martí-Maceo. Although the club was short-lived, baseball flourished throughout Tampa, exposing locals to the increasing significance of the racial divide in Tampa’s baseball circuit and beyond. As one Afro-Cuban resident remembered, “Every single factory had a team at one time, but no colored, just white. Now, if you were white and you was a good ball player, they would sign you up in the cigar factory in order to play. But a Negro, no.”31

Opportunities would open for Afro-Cubans in semiprofessional and professional baseball in the decades that followed, especially as efforts to formally organize black baseball into national Negro leagues succeeded. Increased exchange between black baseball clubs in the States and touring Cuban baseball teams from the Island bolstered those organizational efforts. In these years, Tampa and other Florida towns became stopping points for Cuban teams conducting tours of the United States. This gave the Pompez family and other Tampa residents the opportunity to witness the All Cubans team and other clubs.32 Exchange within the budding professional circuit exposed Cuban players to the formidable barriers that prevented their entry into the major leagues. They, like most Cubans born in stateside communities, would perform primarily in the black professional circuit; perceptions of their racial roots would impact the routes that they could travel within U.S. professional baseball.

The Route to Harlem

Dealing with the loss of her husband and now tending to her children alone, Loretta Pompez moved her family to Key West to live with her parents, Tomás and Cecilia Mendoza. The move provided the stability any loving mother desires for her young children, and she had four in tow: her youngest son, José; her lone daughter, Leonora; Armando; and her eldest, Alex. Her father, who had become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1868, still worked as a cigar maker and owned the home where Loretta as well as her sisters Juana and Tomasa all resided.33 In 1902 she decided to try out family life in Havana, as the Cuban Republic had finally came into being. Spending part of his teen years in Havana, Alex would later claim, “infected [me] with baseball’s atmosphere that was ingrained in the Republic.”34 His destiny in baseball would not be on the field. Nor would Havana keep his interest for too long; no place did during his teen years.

From 1902 to 1910 Alex moved regularly between Havana, his grandparents’ home in Key West, and Tampa. A May 28, 1904, trip on the steamer SS Mascotte took him from Havana to Key West. Listed on the ship’s manifest of passengers as sixteen—an indication the fourteen-year-old was not above manipulating his age—he had already begun working as a cigar maker. The manifest also captured the racial confusion that he would deal with throughout his adult life: rather than list him as Cuban, the manifest had his race as African. Four years later he traveled aboard another ship to Tampa. This time he returned with his brother Armando, and the two found work as cigar makers and lived as boarders in Ybor City.35

The Cuba that Alex had left behind had made only halting progress in fulfilling Martí’s vision of a nation “with all and for the good of all.” Economic opportunities were unevenly available on the island. Years of pent-up frustration with the leaders of the Cuban Republic failing to deliver a “rightful share” contributed to Afro-Cuban veterans along with leading political and social figures organizing the Partido Independiente de Color (Independent Party of Color, or PIC) in 1908. Since it identified race as an organizing principle, some Cubans viewed this political party as a radical departure from the social compact about race, nation, and politics. Within the year the Cuban government banned the organization of political parties along lines of race or class. Tensions increased over the ensuing year, and a “race war” would erupt in May 1912. Over the three months that followed, Cuban military forces and armed groups of white vigilantes slaughtered an estimated five thousand to six thousand Afro-Cubans.36 The campaign of racial terror white Cubans exacted on Afro-Cubans, regardless of any actual affiliation with the PIC, demonstrated that Cuba was not quite the place for Pompez or others who might organize or participate in organizations as both black and Cuban.

Violence against labor organizers and others who refused to “know their place” that accompanied the rise of Jim Crow increased in the first decades of the twentieth century. Tampa’s cigar industry had always stood apart from the rest of the local economy and had seemed impervious to the evolving racial order. The experts in its cigar manufacturing sector, Cubans had proven indispensable to the industry and were thus able to institute a wage scale for cigar workers that “depended on skill rather than color.”37 The industry was nonetheless riddled with recurring labor strife. This occurred partly because the labor force ranked among the best-informed groups of workers anywhere. Implementing a practice cigar makers imported from Cuba, the workers at the cigar factory hired a lector (reader) who read the latest newspapers, political tracts, and classical literary texts while they worked, thus keeping them abreast of the latest labor struggles in Florida and beyond.38

An underlying tension within labor relations lingered in Tampa after the enticement of Vicente Martínez Ybor’s cigar factory to the city. Local business leaders, politicians, and police officials had promised labor peace, by whatever means necessary. A vigilante-style repression quelled a cigar worker strike in 1901 as fifteen union leaders were kidnapped under cover of darkness and taken to Honduras; this was the fulfillment of the promised labor peace. In this instance, the vigilantes were led by prominent white political and business figures, including D. B. McKay, owner of the The Tampa Daily Times. The vigilantes thus succeeded in breaking the strike organized by La Resistencia (the resistance), a locally organized labor union that was pushing for a closed shop. That same year the whites-only primary was declared legal in the state, enabling the white Democratic Party to take control of Florida state politics.39 Efforts to suppress the black vote would take on a new dimension in 1908. A group of white political figures formed the White Municipal League, whose central purpose was to “prevent the future operation of the Negro vote as a balance of power in municipal elections.” On the morning of the 1910 municipal election, The Tampa Morning Tribune reported that candidates no longer had to “go down into the dives of the ‘Scrub’ [the black community] to hobnob with the festive colored brother on his own ground, to ‘fight the devil with fire’ by resorting to money, used in the most shameful way, as a means of securing the bulk of the Negro vote.”40

A July 1910 strike brought matters to a head once again. Composed of some of Tampa and West Tampa’s most prominent white citizens, vigilante committees unleashed another violent barrage that forced cigar makers back to work without any concessions. The message could not have been clearer: there would be no collective bargaining, as the local authorities would serve as “neutral arbiters.” While some cigar workers returned to the cigar factories dejected, others opted to leave the area for New York or return to Cuba. The lynching of several Italians involved in the unionization efforts proved a tipping point. In the area’s racial politics, Italians and Cubans were Latin “cousins,” and some white locals viewed both groups as little better than “Negroes.” If Italians were subject to lynch law in Tampa, then a mulatto Cuban who opposed segregation surely would be similarly subject to southern-style vigilante justice.41

Segregation had become ubiquitous throughout northern and central Florida. Even before José Pompez moved his family to West Tampa, African Americans already had their own neighborhood, the Scrub, separate from Tampa’s white residents. The Scrub lay between Tampa’s commercial center and Ybor City; West Tampa was developed two miles farther west of Ybor City. Although not as rigid, the living situation for Cubans developed its own form of segregation that was no less powerful than what U.S.-born blacks encountered. While Ybor City’s master plan for housing lacked a provision for a “Negro section,” a section where black Cubans predominated would nonetheless emerge by the 1910s.

Born in Ybor City in 1919, Evelio Grillo vividly recalled the circumstances of growing up in Tampa as someone who was black, Cuban, and American. Grillo and other darker-skinned Cubans attended “black” schools, worshipped at different churches, and joined different mutual aid societies than their lighter-skinned compatriots. Ethnic boundaries between African Americans and black Cubans in Tampa were “deliberately sharpened” despite increased interactions. Cubans learned where the lines existed from both personal experience and the collective knowledge passed down by relatives and neighbors. That is to say that race entered into life differently for Afro-Cubans and U.S.-born blacks, but it did so just the same. Racial discrimination in Ybor was subtle, as in Cuba, consisting of “behaviors and attitudes that likely would have escaped the notice of white southerners in Tampa.”42

Historical generations, social class, and family background separated Pompez and Grillo, affecting the possibilities they envisioned as individuals. The ideology of the Cuban independence movement instilled the idea of collaboration across racial lines toward building a new and better society in the Tampa of Pompez’s youth. A generation later Grillo grew up in a Tampa where Jim Crow segregation had gained legal standing, lighter-skinned Cubans had for the most part deserted institutions they once shared with their darker-skinned compatriots, and the state’s Republican Party had abandoned black Floridians and their campaign for civil rights.43 Increased racial violence accompanied limited opportunities for blacks. “Our choices became clear,” Grillo wrote in his memoir, “to swim in black American society or drown in the Latin ghettos of New York City, never to be an integral part of American life.”44 Pompez’s upbringing, cultural capital, and political generation combined for him to imagine and pursue possibilities in New York City that Grillo considered untenable a generation later.

Pompez had initially found stability during this return to Tampa, even joining La Union Martí-Maceo as a dues-paying member in 1910. However, when a general strike among cigar workers brought the industry to a halt with little prospect for a favorable resolution, he sensed the time was right for him to leave not just Tampa but the state as well. No longer a teenager, and with conditions in Tampa worsening, he decided to join the wave of black migrants who headed north to New York City. He soon entered a Harlem in its initial stages of flourishing into a black cultural mecca. Living the formative years of his youth in Tampa, Key West, and Havana had greatly informed his identity and outlook while also inculcating in him a passion for baseball. It is little surprise that when he migrated to New York City as an adult, he quickly immersed himself in the masculine world of cigar makers, baseball, and gambling.

Unlike Evelio Grillo, a fellow black Cuban and native son of Tampa, the twenty-year-old Pompez was willing to see if he could avoid “drowning” in the “Latin ghettos” of New York and make it. He again found employment as a cigar maker, earning $20 a week. Shortly after, he opened a cigar store and initiated his participation in the numbers.45 He also established a relationship with Nathaniel “Nat” Strong, the leading booking agent in the New York metropolitan area for baseball and other sports. The opportunities seemed boundless for him to mix his love for baseball with a business acumen he somehow had inherited from his father. Tampa and its virulent race relations felt worlds away. Harlem presented him with the chance to remake himself from mere cigar maker to entrepreneur, numbers king, and sports mogul. There he could become more than the son of a patriot: he could himself become El Cubano—“the Cuban”—a Harlem numbers king.

 

Copyright © 2011 by Adrian Burgos, Jr.

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