Negro League Baseball and Its Latin Connection

As the 2010 Major League Baseball season begins the declining number of African-Americans in professional baseball again becomes a topic for discussion. Basketball and football has become the sport of choice for many black athletes instead of the game many still consider the “National Pastime”. The topic got additional attention recently with the reported comments of Los Angeles Angel centerfielder Torii Hunter. Hunter, an African-American, in referring to Latin American players reportedly said, “People see dark faces out there, and the perception is that they are African-American. They are not us. They are imposters.” Hunter later admitted using the word “imposter” was a wrong choice. He was only talking about cultural differences. But in spite of the “cultural differences” Hunter was so awkwardly trying to describe, there has been a historical connection between African-American and Latin American baseball players; a common thread that is rooted in 20th Century professional baseball history. The connection between the two from the past that Hunter overlooked: Negro League Baseball.

This spring marks the 63rd anniversary of racial segregation ending in Major League Baseball. On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson dawned the field wearing a Brooklyn Dodger uniform to play first base against the Boston Braves at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. He crossed over the color line to become the first African-American to play Major League Baseball since before the turn of the century. It was an “invisible” color line because white club owners had denied there was a league policy prohibiting black players from entering the Major Leagues. However except for a few that played during the early formation of organized professional baseball in the 1880′s, no African-American had played in the Big Leagues before Robinson.

This “invisible” color line not only kept African-American players out, but also Latin American players. During this “whites only” Major League era, there were a few light-skinned Cubans that crossed the line. But they faced racial insults and discrimination. White players saw them as no different in terms of race than they saw black players. Out of response to the “invisible” color line, Negro League baseball was born and from its infancy Latin American players were a part of it.

In the early 1900′s, the Cuban Stars and Havana Stars frequently toured the eastern US during baseball season. Since there were dark skinned Cubans on both teams, most professional white teams would not play them. The Cuban teams played the majority of their games against the top African-American teams at that time (Philadelphia Giants, etc). The Cuban Stars in 1920 were one of the initial teams of the first major Negro baseball league formed, the Negro National League (NNL). The team operated out of Cincinnati and was the first Negro League team to use a Major League stadium, as it’s home field. The New York Cubans, owned by Cuban born Alex Pompez, were in the Negro National League for 12 years starting in the late 1930′s. Pompez stocked his teams with not only African-Americans and players from Cuba, but also players from other Latin American countries. His 1947 team won the Negro League World Series. In 2006, Pompez was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

There were also Cuban players on other Negro League teams. Martin Dihago played with not only the Cuban Stars, but also the Homestead Grays and the Hilldale Daisies; and was considered by many as the best all around Negro League player. Jose Mendez pitched for the Chicago American Giants, Detroit Stars, and Kansas City Monarchs. Known as “El Diamante Negro”, The Black Diamond, in his native homeland of Cuba, Mendez ‘s skin color was too dark for him to cross Major League Baseball’s “invisible’ color line. He was the Monarch’s pitching star when they won the first Negro League World Series in 1924. Christobel Torrienti was a power-hitting outfielder in the 1920′s that played with the Chicago American Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, and Detroit Stars. He was a light-skinned Cuban, but it was said he did not cross the “invisible” color line because of his hair. It was thick and curly Negroid type hair. Dihago was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1977, Mendez and Torrienti in 2006.

There were many other Latin American players that spent their summers playing in Negro League baseball.

Winter league baseball also connected African-American and Latin American players before Major League Baseball’s “invisible” color line was erased. Playing winter league baseball was the way African-American players supplemented their Negro League salaries. Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and many other Negro League players spent their winters in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, or Venezuela. They played against the best Latin American players. In addition, many white Major Leaguer players supplemented their salaries in winter league baseball. The legends of many great Negro League players are filled with stories from games played in the winter leagues. It was also a haven for African-American ballplayers, as they did not have to confront racial prejudice and discrimination in those Latin American countries as they did in the United States.

When the “invisible” color line was finally erased, African-American baseball fans did not make a big differentiation about the dark faces they saw on the diamond as more African-Americans and Latin Americans came to the Major Leagues during the 1950′s. They cheered as loud for Minnie Monoso, Roberto Clemente, and Orlando Cepeda as they did for Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Ernie Banks.

Hunter’s reference to Latin American players as “imposters” was a wrong word choice. Along with African-American ballplayers, they also felt the real sting of racial discrimination while trying to play professional baseball. They both were kept out of the Major Leagues for almost half a century only because of one reason: their skin color. Even after the “invisible” color line was erased, they both still faced discrimination in professional baseball. During Spring Training, neither could stay in the same hotels with their white teammates in Florida and Arizona. That did not change until the 1960′s. And some Major League managers and coaches who could not let go of the past also tried to unsuccessfully stereotype them both as lazy and mentally slow.

Their history of facing racism in professional baseball will forever link African-American and Latin American players. It is a connection started in the days of Negro League baseball that goes beyond any cultural differences Torii Hunter tried to reference.

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