Sunday - Dec 16, 2018

Remembering some amigos who helped clear basepath for Jackie Robinson


­by Robert Heuer

Robert HeuerRobert Heuer

Latinos were not part of the conversation last April when baseball honored the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut. But a new book shows Latin America played an indispensable role in this black man’s triumph over prejudice.

In “Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line,” Adrian Burgos Jr. shows why it’s wrong to treat integration as solely an interplay between people white and black. Same goes for the conventional wisdom that baseball suddenly changed in 1947 when this grandson of a Georgia sharecropper took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In fact, a collaboration of whites, blacks and Latinos fostered integration over a long period of time before and after 1947. The seeds for change were planted in the latter 19th century as a transnational circuit took shape linking New York, San Francisco and Chicago with Havana, San Juan and Santo Domingo.

Whites and blacks played against each other in Latin America for the many decades when such exchanges were prohibited on U.S. soil. Two generations of Spanish-speaking major leaguers “tested the limits of racial tolerance” during the 40-year pre-Robinson era. Numerous black and Latino “integration pioneers” endured racist abuse for many years before the battle for equality was finally won.

These topics have been alluded to before, but never as the theme of a book. Burgos — a U.S. Latino History professor at the University of Illinois — is the first baseball historian to tell the integration story in its truly multicultural dimension.

This New York-born Puerto Rican became interested in writing a doctoral dissertation on the subject about 15 years ago when he was a University of Michigan graduate student.

What convinced him was a conversation with a T-shirt vendor at the Society of American Baseball Researchers’ (SABR) first Negro League Conference in 1995. SABR members are hardcore fans with a serious analytical bent. After listening to a number of presentations, Burgos wandered into the market area.

Looking over a T-shirt with logos of Negro League teams, he asked why the New York Cubans were missing. The African-American vendor said the team wasn’t significant.

The Cubans won the 1947 Negro League World Series. And, as Burgos had begun to discover, it was the first team to maximize talents of Latinos whose skin color barred them from the majors.

“The truth is the exact opposite of what this vendor was saying,” Burgos recalls. “The New York Cubans are, in fact, one of the most important Negro League teams. I began to wonder about the criteria by which we remember the Negro Leagues.”

His inquiry unfolded as the Baseball Hall of Fame also researched Negro Leagues. Cooperstown museum offi cials appointed Burgos to a committee set up to determine whether this new information would prove that previously overlooked individuals should qualify for a plaque among the game’s immortals. In 2006, this committee considered a list of 39 people and voted in favor of 17.

Among the inductees were early 20th century Cubans José de la Caridad Méndez and Cristóbal Torriente, as well as Alex Pompez who had been owner of the New York Cubans.

Burgos failed to persuade fellow committee members to induct Orestes “Minnie” Minoso. They said their charge was to consider performance in the Negro Leagues. Minoso’s career began in the Negro Leagues, but his greatest success came in the major leagues.

A two-time All-Star during three Negro League seasons, Minoso became the fi rst “Latin Negro” major leaguer when joining the Cleveland Indians in 1949. The slow pace of integration left him languishing in the minors. After almost winning the 1951 Rookie of the Year award, Minoso became a seven-time All-Star and one of the most popular players in Chicago White Sox history.

Burgos was incredulous this spring to read After Jackie — a new book on integration — that fails to recognize the Cuba-born Minoso as a Chicago team’s first “black” major leaguer. Burgos’ advocacy for the elderly Minoso continues with an upcoming article for a White Sox publication. The title will be “Pioneering Latino Still Awaits Call to Cooperstown.”

A misunderstanding of Minoso’s historical importance is one of myriad examples Burgos finds showing how the baseball media treat Latinos as “perpetual foreigners” with “only a recent history in the game.”Playing America’s Game provides an authoritative account of baseball’s failure to come to terms with the roots of its multicultural future.

You don’t have to read 44 pages of footnotes to know Burgos is onto something. In June, the webzine Black Athlete Sports Network named Playing America’s Game Book of the Month. San Diego Padre vice president Dave Winfield recently invited Burgos to speak at a luncheon highlighting the Latino/African American Negro League connection. Winfield, a Hall of Famer and author of a newly published baseball critique Dropping the Ball, had underlined many passages of Burgos’ book. Burgos recalls: “He told me the book illuminated a history of common struggles that are rarely discussed.”

(Robert Heuer, of Evanston, Ill., has written about baseball’s Latinos for Hispanic Link News Service since 1983. Reach him at rjheuer@comcast.net.) © 2007