By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
Tiant: Black Latinos Excluded From Ace Club
BOSTON — Early Sunday afternoon. First pitch is 20 minutes away, and the line for the El Tiante concession stand stretches halfway down Yawkey Way.
There is a reason for this, and it’s not just the $6.75 Presidentes or the $7.75 pressed Cuban sandwiches sizzling on the outdoor grill.
Luis Tiant is here. Signing autographs. Posing for pictures. Stirring fond memories.
A one-man time machine.
One by one they approach the retired Red Sox pitcher with broad smiles and wide eyes. They offer outstretched hands. Humorous comments. Push their children forward to meet the great man.
“Louie! You’re the best, Louie!” one man barks a little too loudly.
“Louie, thank you,” a 40-something woman says. “I used to love to watch you.”
“I used to watch you back in the ’60s and ’70s with my father,” says another woman of the same generation. “I remember, Louie. You and Carl Yastrzemski.”
Tiant smiles through his gray-streaked fu manchu. Signs another black-and-white. Slides it across the small table next to the grill.
Moments later, though, Tiant’s mood changes. Someone asks him about the self-styled Black Aces, the group of 20-game winners organized by former pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant, the group Marlins ace Dontrelle Willis recently joined.
Now Tiant is angry.
“That’s a shame what they did,” Tiant, 64, says loudly. “Whoever came out with that idea, it’s embarrassing to us. It stinks.”
Four times the Cuban-born Tiant won 20 games in the big leagues, including three times during his run with the Red Sox from 1971-78. But Grant and his New York-based co-authors of a forthcoming book, Tom Sabellico and Pat O’Brien, don’t recognize him as a “black ace.”
Nor have they extended membership to any of the other 14 Latin American pitchers to win 20 games in the majors.
“I don’t even want to see that book,” Tiant continues. “They can go and throw that book in the toilet. That’s what they can do with that book. Burn it and throw it in the toilet.”
Among the other outsiders: Dominicans Pedro Martinez, Ramon Martinez, Joaquin Andujar and Juan Marichal; Cubans Mike Cuellar, Camilo Pascual and Dolf Luque; and Venezuelan Johan Santana.
All enjoyed 20-win seasons, but there is no Latin Aces club.
The thing is, we went through what they went through,” Tiant says of his African-American counterparts. “So why can’t we be in that club? I’m black. Maybe I’m not from here, but I’m black. If they don’t think in the beginning that I’m black, they’re wrong. If I was born in Cuba or Africa, I’m still black.”
He holds out a beefy right arm, the same arm that confounded hitters for 19 seasons, piling up 229 career wins.
“What color is this?” he asks. “It’s not white or anything else. That’s black.”
Tiant says he called Grant, whom he indirectly replaced on the 1964 Cleveland Indians, to register his objections. According to Tiant, Grant told him he didn’t qualify because he’s not African-American.
But technically, neither is club member Ferguson Jenkins, who was born in Canada. Jenkins has lived in the United States for decades and can trace his mother’s roots to the slave-holding South, but he is not a U.S. citizen.
Grant, 70, was at New York’s Shea Stadium Wednesday afternoon along with several other members of his club, which makes several group appearances a year at charity golf events and the like. J.R. Richard, Al Downing and possibly Vida Blue are scheduled to join a formal welcoming party for Willis.
Grant and his co-authors say they never meant to hurt anyone with the concept, but the line had to be drawn somewhere. Grant says he has spoken about the issue with Tiant and Cuellar and is sympathetic to their concerns.
“When Luis came along and Mike came along, they had to live like we did back in those days,” Grant says. “They couldn’t stay in hotels, couldn’t drink from the [white] water fountains. Some of the mulatto Latin players were considered too light for the black community and too dark for the white community, and they suffered from a mental standpoint.”
But Grant says there are no plans to expand the Black Aces to include black Latinos. Instead, he suggests a second book in their honor.
“It would be more like the Latin Aces and some more Latin players like Minnie Minoso and Juan Pizarro,” Grant says. “Maybe we’ll have a dinner of recognition. We have to work that out.”
Tiant isn’t interested. He still views this as a painful slight.
His father, Luis Tiant II, was a Negro Leagues pitching star for the New York Cubans in the 1930s and ’40s, but he was never allowed to jump to the major leagues. A chapter in the Black Aces book mentions the elder Tiant’s pre-integration contributions.
But in the son’s eyes, that doesn’t make up for leaving out him and all the other black Latin pitchers. Signed at age 18 out of Cuba, Tiant spent three seasons with the Mexico City Tigers before the Indians purchased his contact.
From 1962-64, he pitched in the minor leagues, toiling for teams in Charleston, W.Va., Burlington, N.C., and Jacksonville. The catcalls from the stands still echo.
“When I came here, I had to live with African-American people,” Tiant says. “I couldn’t live with the whites. They called me a nigger. I had to go in my room every god—- night and cry because of what people told me every god—- day. How they were going to hang me, they were going to kill me, send me back to Africa.”
He apologizes for his language to a group of fans that overhears his diatribe. Then he continues.
“Even at that time, I had some players play with me back then, African-Americans, and they used to tell me I was black,” Tiant says. “Now they come out with that crap? You have to be kidding me. That’s a joke.
“I haven’t been treated like a white person here. In the minor leagues, I wasn’t white. I was black. We couldn’t go in the hotel. We couldn’t eat in the restaurants. And now I’m not black?”
The pain in his voice is unmistakable. More than four decades after leaving Castro’s Cuba, Tiant’s wounds are fresh.
“You’re talking about discrimination?” he says. “What is discrimination? White people against blacks? We discriminate against ourselves. What’s the difference?
“If somebody is good to me, I’m good to them. If they don’t like me … I don’t want to be around them. I don’t care who it is. Black, Chinese, Japanese or Latin.”
The line is backing up. He doesn’t care.
“We’re all the same,” Tiant says. “We all stink. You don’t take a shower, you stink. You treat me good. I treat you good. You respect me. I respect you. I don’t care what color you are.”
He still has a place in Miami, but spends most of his time in Boston, where his son, Luis Tiant IV, is a mortgage broker. Stints as a minor league pitching coach with the Dodgers, White Sox and Red Sox are behind the elder Tiant, as is a brief run as the head coach at Savannah College of Art & Design.
Tiant’s main role these days is goodwill ambassador. Senor Baseball, you might say.
Even now, 27 years after he threw his last pitch for the Red Sox, he is embraced in New England.
“You know why I come back here?” Tiant says. “Because these people here in Massachusetts have been good to me. No matter what color I’m talking about. They say people here are racist. I can’t do that. People have been nice to me, better than my own people.”
With that Tiant excuses himself and turns back to the long line of Red Sox fans. There are more photos to sign, more memories to jog.
In their eyes, the man before them isn’t black, Latino or white.
He is simply El Tiante. Ace for the ages.