A Look At The Lexicon Of Latinos

By Dave Reynolds
Updated: October 18, 2005

Present-day major-league baseball players are notoriously ignorant of the game’s history. Thankfully, at least, almost every African-American player is aware of the trail blazed by Jackie Robinson to open baseball’s doors to them.

Hispanic players have supplanted African-Americans as the majority minority in today’s game, totaling more than one-quarter of major-leaguers. But few, if any baseball historians, let alone players, are well-versed in the breakthrough of Latin American players into the bigs.

To be sure, the barrier was broken much earlier than Robinson’s entrance in 1947, and with decidedly less fanfare. So Albert Pujols, Jose Contreras and the Molina brothers, to name just a few of the current Latin stars who have led their teams into postseason play, can be forgiven for never having heard of the Cuban-born Hispanic baseball pioneers Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida, who joined the Cincinnati Reds in 1911.

Their stories, along with those of dozens of other little-known Latin players, come to life in the pages of a book by former Peorian Nick Wilson titled “Early Latino Ballplayers in the United States” ($35, hardcover, McFarland Press).

If you can move past the unfortunate title and the price, this is an important and compelling historical work that should be required reading for anybody interested in baseball’s roots.

Wilson, who spent much of his youth living with his grandparents – Nick and Elizabeth Maloof – on Rohmann Street in West Peoria, graduated from Midstate Business College in 1968 and worked for Dun and Bradstreet in downtown Peoria from 1969-71.

Wilson then moved to Denver, where he owns and operates a wine importing business.

“Some of the fondest memories are of my life spent with my large, loving family in Peoria,” Wilson said. “I still have cousins in Peoria, some who still live in the old neighborhood.”

Wilson was inspired to write this book while gathering interviews for his first book, “Voices From The Pastime,” a historical primer on baseball in the 1920s.

He spoke with several Cubans who played in the Negro Leagues during that time and learned of earlier light-skinned Latino athletes who were allowed into the exclusively white game.

“Probably one of the most powerful and consistent themes of the book was the unmitigated fear that major-league owners had every time they signed a Latin-born ballplayer,” Wilson said. “From the time that the first two Latino players signed a big-league contract in 1911 until Jackie Robinson first set foot on a big-league field in 1947, owners and fans were fearful that one of these players might have black African bloodlines.

“It was an obsession which led team owners to issue phony biographies, stressing the pure white-Spanish heritage of the men they signed. It’s amazing to think that only 58 years ago, the opportunity for a team to sign a superstar was trumped by the possibility that the player might have black African blood coursing through his veins.”

While Almeida had a short-lived big-league career, Marsans’ baseball years in the U.S. became significant in another realm when he challenged the Reds in court, allowing him to play for the upstart Federal League. He won the case and played in the Federal League until it dissolved, then returned to the big leagues for another few seasons.

Wilson has done a nice job weaving such obscure facts with well-researched anecdotes of the Latin players’ baseball lives in America, including their many interactions and competitions with well-known baseball figures of the day.

The author traces the Latin migration into mid-century when the color barrier broken by Robinson helped open the doors to darker-skinned Hispanic greats like Minnie Minoso and Chico Carrasquel and, a little later, Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Perez and the Alou brothers, among others.

Wilson’s project research has been archived with the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

“It was very rewarding to do such a project,” Wilson said. “I took it on to show the personal and professional lives of the men who suffered discrimination and hardships to play the game they loved. They also opened the game to their succeeding generations.”