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Although largely ignored by historians of both baseball in general and the Negro leagues in particular, Latinos have been a significant presence in organized baseball from the beginning.
In this benchmark study on Latinos and professional baseball from the 1880s to the present, Adrian Burgos tells a compelling story of the men who negotiated the color line at every turn—passing as “Spanish” in the major leagues or seeking respect and acceptance in the Negro leagues.
Burgos draws on archival materials from the U.S., Cuba, and Puerto Rico, as well as Spanish- and English-language publications and interviews with Negro league and major league players. He demonstrates how the manipulation of racial distinctions that allowed management to recruit and sign Latino players provided a template for Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey when he initiated the dismantling of the color line by signing Jackie Robinson in 1947. Burgos's extensive examination of Latino participation before and after Robinson's debut documents the ways in which inclusion did not signify equality and shows how notions of racialized difference have persisted for darker-skinned Latinos like Orestes ("Minnie") Miñoso, Roberto Clemente, and Sammy Sosa.
In recent years, a series of top-notch books (e.g., Alan M. Klein's Baseball on the Border: A Tale of Two Laredos) has greatly added to our knowledge of Latin American baseball. Now Burgos (history, Univ. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) offers his own encyclopedic treatment of Latinos and baseball, covering the topic from the late 19th century to the present. Burgos presents the story of players like Vincent Nava, baseball's "first brownplayer," who endured racial insensitivity and outright "racist taunts," and Louis Castro, the first Latino to play in the major leagues in the 20th century. He also points to darker-skinned stars, such as Jose Mendez and Cristóbal Torriente, who were prohibited from playing organized baseball. Gradually and inconsistently, a smattering of Latinos made it to the big leagues, but even the collapse of the Jim Crow barrier failed to prevent players like Vic Powers and Roberto Clemente from enduring racial prejudice. Nevertheless, by the 1980s, Major League Baseball was increasingly internationalized and now includes many Latinos. Burgos's coverage of this important baseball story is recommended for general readers.
—Robert C. Cottrell
"If you want to understand the Latino experience in baseball, read this book."--Slate Magazine
"The best book yet on the history of Latinos in American baseball."--Beyondchron
"Burgos does a thorough job of describing this system of skirting the color line, as well as its effects."--Mlb.com
"Superb and, in many ways, path breaking . . . A must-read for any serious fan of baseball."--San Francisco Chronicle
The Search for Markets and the Dilemmas of Inclusion
Baseball ... requires the possession of muscular strength, great agility, quickness of eye, readiness of hand, and many other faculties of mind and body that mark a man of nerve.... Suffice it to say that it is a recreation that anyone may be proud to excel in, as in order to do so, he must possess the characteristics of true manhood to a considerable degree. Henry Chadwick, Beadle's Dime Base-Ball Player (1860)
A CUBAN IN AMERICA'S GAME
Little fanfare surrounded eighteen-year-old Esteban Bellán's decision to leave Rose Hill College in 1868 after completing just three years of grammar preparation classes (the equivalent of high school). A member of the Rose Hill varsity baseball club for those three years, the Cuban native aspired to turn his talent on the diamond into a career in professional baseball. This ambition, however, meant joining a profession that was still experiencing growing pains and had yet to establish a stable economic footing.
The professionalization of baseball had undergone uneven development by the time Bellán embarked on his professional journey. Although newspaper coverage attested to the improving levels of skill and performance on its diamonds, professional baseball remained loosely organized. A strong national league had yet to emerge, and professional teams had yet to begin conducting national tours. Players took advantage of the weak organizational structure by "revolving"-jumping from one team to another in spite of established contractual agreements. This and other practices sullied the game's reputation and prompted calls for the formation of a stronger league that would ensure the respectability of the professional game.
Into this profession ventured Esteban Bellán, whose Cuban elite parents sent him to New York initially to study at the Rose Hill campus of St. John's College (present-day Fordham University). The Cuban established a reputation as a solid player within two years of his 1868 professional debut. The New York Clipper, in its 1870 season preview, praised him as "an efficient and faithful guardian" of third base and "one of the pluckiest of base players." His most productive season came as a member of the Troy Haymakers in 1872, when he compiled a .278 batting average. The following year Bellán returned to Cuba, where he participated in the formation of the island's first baseball club, the Habana Base Ball Club, and helped lay the foundation for baseball's emergence as Cuba's national game.
Baseball had arrived in Cuba a decade before Bellán's return, at about the time the sport started to flourish in the United States. During the Civil War the military had served as a catalyst for baseball's spread to different regions of the United States. Away from the battlefront, soldiers from both sides played the game at recreation and prison camps. After the war, soldiers returning home transported the game throughout the land. In the case of baseball's spread to Cuba, political strife and economic instability on the Spanish-controlled island produced waves of emigration during the last half of the nineteenth century that set the conditions for the game's introduction there.
Geographical proximity enabled Cuban émigrés to move easily between the States and Cuba to escape labor strife or political conflict, find better economic opportunities, or reunite their families. Nearby cities in Florida such as Key West, Tampa, and Jacksonville developed into popular destinations. New York City, Philadelphia, and New Orleans also became destinations as port cities connected to Cuba by steamer lines.
Wherever they settled, Cuban émigrés formed a variety of organizations. Mutual aid societies helped them adjust to their new surroundings. In New York, Tampa, and Philadelphia, they established political organizations such as Partido Revolucionario de Cuba y Puerto Rico that pushed for Cuban independence or for the creation of an Antillean nation. Many Cubans also embraced baseball, forming their own clubs and local leagues.
Migration during Cuba's Ten Years War (1868-78) worked to facilitate baseball's assimilation into Cuban national culture as part of a broader shift in the cultural orientation and attitudes of the Cuban elite. During the Ten Years War, Spanish colonial authorities grew increasingly intolerant of anti-Spanish protests among university students, imprisoning the many whom they viewed as the most egregious offenders. Frustrated with Spanish colonial domination and worried about their children's future, disenchanted members of the Cuban elite either emigrated or sent their children to be educated in the United States.
The elite's decision to send their children to the United States was an extension of the battle to claim independence from Spain. Cubans chose to enroll their students in religious schools, among them Springhill College, St. John's College, and Georgetown University. This enabled Cubans to adhere to their religious beliefs, but on their own terms, thus maintaining cultural continuity. Other members of the Cuban elite sent their offspring to U.S. military academies-a decision that further revealed a desire to place the next generation beyond the purview of Spanish colonial authority, and to possibly prepare future leaders of the anti-colonial struggle.
Scores of Cubans who figured prominently in the game's development on the island received their baseball indoctrination as émigrés or students in the United States. Nemesio Guilló, credited by some chroniclers as the "father" of Cuban baseball, attended Springhill College in Mobile, Alabama, for six years, returning to Cuba at the age of seventeen in 1864. Reportedly included among his possessions were a bat and a baseball, "the first to be seen in Cuba," according to a 1924 account in Diario de la Marina. Throughout the late nineteenth century countless Cubans returned from their North American sojourns with similar cultural artifacts. In transporting the game to different parts of the island, this generation acted as the vanguard of Cuban baseball, teaching others how to play the game and forming baseball clubs that laid the foundation for the game's development.
When Cuban teenager Esteban Bellán arrived to attend Rose Hill in 1864, a Spanish-speaking enclave was already forming in New York City. Starting in the 1820s, Cuban émigrés fleeing political persecution and seeking improved economic opportunities chose to relocate in New York City. By the 1860s, Cuban émigrés, from common laborers in the cigar-making sector to nationalist leaders such as José Martí and Rafael Serra, joined Puerto Ricans and others to form a Spanish-speaking enclave centered on barbershops, restaurants, cigar stores, and other storefront businesses.
New York City had also developed into a baseball hotbed, and the Rose Hill campus was no exception with students and faculty regularly playing on campus. Organized in September 1859, the Rose Hill Base Ball club was the school's first club. Two years later, the first Spanish-surnamed student appeared with the Rose Hills: Uladislaus Vallejo, a native of Sonoma, California. Among Spanish-surnamed students, who ranged between 15 and 25 percent of the student body from the 1860s through the 1880s, several partook in the baseball scene. A number of Cubans who helped form baseball clubs and served as league officials in Cuba studied at the Bronx-based school. This group included the Zaldo brothers, Carlos and Teodoro, who studied at Fordham from 1875 to 1877 and later formed the Almendares Baseball Club, one of Cuba's most storied teams. But it was Esteban Bellán who left the biggest mark. The first Cuban to play in U.S. professional baseball, his entry into the profession created little stir as baseball management and the sporting press focused their attention on building up the professional game and creating a stronger organization.
PROFESSIONALIZATION AND MAKING THE LINE
Like many of his professional peers, Esteban Bellán took advantage of professional baseball's weak organizational structure. After he left Fordham, the young Cuban performed for different teams in each of his first three seasons. Players exercised this mobility because most professional teams and leagues lacked the power to enforce their contracts. Turbulent conditions abounded: Players jumped contracts. Clubs raided one another's rosters. Unable to maintain a stable pool of talent, teams and leagues regularly folded.
Commentators and journalists noted that the unenforceability of contracts threatened professional baseball's economic stability. Baseball management operated at a disadvantage since its capital investment in grounds, infrastructure, and local communities was immobilizing. By contrast, players enjoyed the ability to ply their skills wherever they could find a good contract. This created a peculiar dilemma for management. "On the one hand," baseball historian Warren Goldstein has written, "as relatively immobile sources of capital, clubs wanted players to be free to move to them. On the other hand, these same clubs wanted to have some way of keeping players from revolving away from them as easily as they had come." Baseball management attempted to solve this problem by creating a contractual system that bound players to an organization and by continuously expanding its search for new talent.
Earnest attempts to build national associations to counteract the practice of revolving started in the late 1860s. The first association to develop a national membership, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), was formed in 1857 "to promote the standardization of playing rules, to regulate interclub competition and to encourage the growth of baseball." Initially composed of amateur clubs from New York, the NABBP's membership grew and extended as far west as Oregon and south as Virginia. This expansion forced the association's membership to consider two significant issues: the color line and the professionalization of baseball.
Baseball lacked a uniform policy regarding race-based segregation. The question of the color line was viewed as a local matter for individual associations and professional teams to consider for themselves. Importantly, the issue was not limited to teams and associations in the South, but was debated primarily in the Northeast and Midwest, where the majority of amateur and professional teams and associations were based.
At the second annual convention of the NABBP following the Civil War, the association's nominating committee summarily rejected the application of the Philadelphia Pythians, a team of African American players. The committee's report described its stance regarding applications for new membership: "It is not presumed by your committee that any club who have applied are composed of persons of color, or any portion of them; and the recommendation of your committee in this report are based upon this view, and they unanimously report against any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons." Baseball's first national association thus adopted a color line. The nominating committee's decision not to consider these applications was widely trumpeted. Sportswriter Henry Chadwick, for one, agreed with the spirit of keeping any subject that had a "political bearing" out of the convention.
Three years after NABBP's decision, delegates at the annual meeting of the New York State Base Ball Association took up the same question. Delegates unanimously adopted a resolution that called for the rejection of all applications by clubs that included "colored men." The Troy Haymakers' delegate voted for the exclusionary measure even though that team employed Cuban native Esteban Bellán. The association's decision drew a few vocal critics. Chadwick, for one, objected to the exclusionary resolution on the grounds that it introduced "a political question ... as a bone of contention in the council of the fraternity. Chadwick's position did not emanate from empathy for African American players; the baseball "fraternity" was not interracial.
Formal consideration of the racial question bothered Chadwick and others, for it brought into the open what others had accomplished covertly. Passage of these formal bans along with gentlemen's agreements to exclude "colored" players in other associations asserted lines of racial separation and created race-based privilege for white men. These efforts at the start of Reconstruction illustrate local responses to the demographic shifts and legal changes whereby African American males had begun to attain full citizenship status protected by constitutional amendments.
MAKING PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL RESPECTABLE WORK
Professional clubs and associations encountered a series of challenges in transforming the amateur game into a professional business. In addition to gaining control of finances and personnel, organizers had to convince baseball aficionados that the professional game was both compelling entertainment and respectable work. Altering public perceptions posed a major hurdle. Since the late 1850s many had viewed baseball, sporting-goods mogul Albert Spalding noted, as little more than a pastime "to be played in times of leisure, and by gentlemen, for exercise, and only incidentally for the entertainment of the public." Spalding, a former professional player who starred in this early era, explained that this view represented the majority, who feared that baseball "would suffer by professionalism." Specifically, they worried that professionalization would open the sport to any man "who could play the game skillfully, without regard to his race, color, or previous condition of servitude." They also feared "the introduction of rowdies, drunkards, and dead-beats" into the stands during games. The potential change in the composition of on-field participants and spectators contributed to the concern that "the game would lose in character if it departed from its original program."
Baseball management thus had to convince a skeptical audience that professional baseball was an appropriate evolution of the popular pastime and that amateur and professional baseball differed qualitatively. Advocates offered that professionals demonstrated greater mastery in their athletic performance due to their regular practice in preparation for league exhibitions. Amateurs performed a weaker brand of baseball since they played the game only as a leisure pursuit.
Distinguishing between the rough-and-tumble play of boys and the work of professional men required the regulation of behavior. The sporting press and baseball management cooperated formally and informally to ensure social control by disciplining labor for actions that could impugn the game's standing. Sportswriters openly discussed the ideal qualities in a model player. In the first edition of Beadle's Dime Base-Ball Player (1860) author Henry Chadwick listed a series of offenses for which clubs should levy fines, among them players using profane language either in club meetings or on the field, disputing the umpire's decision, not obeying the team captain, and being absent without excuse from the club's business meetings. Clubs soon amended their constitutions and bylaws to include player codes of conduct. Historian Warren Goldstein found that disciplinary action taken by clubs typically focused on the four transgressions outlined by Chadwick. Common to these offenses was the player's loss of self-control as evident in behavior unbecoming a gentleman.
Excerpted from Playing America's Game by Adrian Burgos Jr. Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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List of Illustrations
Introductions: Latinos Play America's Game
PART ONE: THE RISE OF AMERICA'S GAME AND THE COLOR LINE
1. A National Game Emerges
2. Early Maneuvers
3. Holding the Line
PART TWO: LATINOS AND THE RACIAL DIVIDE
4. Baseball Should Follow the Flag
5. "Purest Bars of Castilian Soap"
6. Making Cuban Stars
7. Becoming Cuban Senators
8. Playing the World Jim Crow Made
PART THREE: BEYOND INTEGRATION
9. Latinos and Baseball's
10. Troubling the Waters
11. Latinos and Baseball's Global Turn
12. Saying It Is So-sa!
Conclusion: Still Playing America's Game
Appendix: Pioneering Latinos