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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About 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.
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.
Read an Excerpt
How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball
By Adrian Burgos Jr.
Hill and WangCopyright © 2011 Adrian Burgos, Jr.
All rights reserved.
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.
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. 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. Such possibilities had drawn Pompez to Key West after filing his declaration of intent on September 4, 1879. 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. 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. 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." 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 majorleague 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.
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 Score,El 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." 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Excerpted from Cuban Star by Adrian Burgos Jr.. Copyright © 2011 Adrian Burgos, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PART I: RISING STAR,
1. Roots and Routes,
2. Making Harlem Home,
3. Launching the Cuban Stars,
4. The Rise and Fall of a Numbers King,
5. Witness for the State,
PART II: A WORLD MADE NEW,
6. Rebuilding the "Latins from Manhattan",
7. Glory Days,
8. Scouting the Americas for Giants,
9. From Cuban Stars to Dominican Giants,
10. Into the Shadows,
Also by Adrian Burgos, Jr.,