Op-Ed: Telling the Negro League Story

By Adrian Burgos, Jr.
Updated: February 21, 2006

The opinions of Prof. Burgos do not express the overall viewpoints of BASN or its staff.

ILLINOIS—It’s welcome news: African-American Museum is going to be built in a prominent location on the Mall … museum organizers expect construction contributions to come pouring in. Soon, let’s hope they’ll get to the long-overdue work of telling the African-American story. As a scholar whose research examines the African Diaspora in the English and Spanish-speaking Americas, I am quite interested in how the Museum will handle portrayal of the Negro Leagues—perhaps African-Americans’ most vital economic and cultural institution in the first half of the twentieth century,

A lot of myopia will have to be overcome as I discovered a decade ago at a Negro League conference. While visiting the vendor exhibits I started perusing through some merchandise and my eyes settled on a wonderful t-shirt. The vendor perked up. Proud to say he designed it. I asked, “Why exclude the New York Cubans?” His response: the Cubans franchise was not significant enough in the history of the Negro Leagues.

Oh no, I’m thinking to myself. He’s got the story all wrong—although I can understand why. Negro League history has only recently been rediscovered in the last 25 years. But the critically important Latin American dimension is misunderstood, and treated as an afterthought.

Ted Williams was the first to speak out and move others into action in his 1966 Hall of Fame induction acceptance speech. Four years later Robert Peterson published Only the Ball was White, the book that inspired many of us to pursue Negro League research.

A decade later, Donn Rogosin labeled Latinos the missing link in the story of the Negro Leagues in his book Invisible Men. This inspired me; I noted in the book margins, “This is where I enter.” This occurred about the time Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary brought us the eloquent Buck O’Neill, and sparked the publication of a plethora of Negro League books, collection of oral histories, and the filming of additional documentaries.

As a Latino of Puerto Rican descent, I first learned about Latinos in the Negro Leagues while writing my College senior’s thesis in the early 1990s and later dedicated myself to researching and writing this important chapter of baseball history.

Little did I know that a decade of research on Latinos in the Negro Leagues would result in the National Baseball Hall of Fame calling on my expertise to serve on its Screening and Voting committees for its Special Election on Negro League and pre-Negro League candidates. Called after the completion of a five-year research project funded by a $250,000 grant from Major League Baseball, the February 27th election is an important step forward to a fuller rendering of Black baseball’s history as it includes five Latino candidates: José Méndez, Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso, Alejandro Oms, Alejandro Pompez, and Cristobal Torriente.

The Latino candidates attest to their collective presence at the creation of the Negro Leagues and participation from its infancy through outs glory years and ultimate demise as we transitioned into the integrated era. The living representative of the greatness of these participants who embodies the transition from the Jim Crow to integrated eras is Miñoso.

The Cuban performed in the Negro Leagues with the NY Cubans from 1945 to 1948, appearing in all-star games and leading the team to the 1947 Negro League World Series title. Sold to the Cleveland Indians in August 1948 Miñoso became the first Black Latino to perform in the Majors the following year. Traded to Chicago in May 1951 he pioneered the racial integration of the White Sox.

Miñoso’s inclusion on the Negro League ballot exemplifies the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s earnest commitment to setting the story of the Negro Leagues, Integration, and Latinos straight. Honoring Miñoso and the other Latino participants makes the Negro League story complete. Their place alongside Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and the sole Cuban presently enshrined Martin Dihigo will enable that vendor, or his children, or grandchildren to better understand how their own connection to the African diaspora also connects them elsewhere in the Americas and that this too is part of their history as African-Americans.

Of these candidates, Miñoso bridges baseball’s two eras, performing in the Negro Leagues as an all-star third baseman with the New York Cubans before bringing the style honed on the Cuban and Negro League diamonds to the Majors.

The story of Negro League baseball is incomplete without a discussion of Latinos who participated in the Black baseball circuits. Miñoso and the other Latino candidates illustrate that Latinos were present at the creation of the Negro Leagues and participated throughout. The election on February 27th offers an important opportunity to present them as central and not peripheral to this history.