Oh brother, where are thou?

By Adrian Burgos Jr.
Updated: March 14, 2010

ILLINOIS — Torii Hunter says he’s not racist; his comments were taken out of context in the USA Today article that appeared on this past Wednesday as part of a roundtable series on how to improve baseball.

What did he say? “People see dark faces out there, and the perception is that they’re African American … They’re not us. They’re impostors.”

He then clarified: “Even people I know come up and say, ‘Hey, what color is Vladimir Guerrero? Is he a black player?’ I say, ‘Come on, he’s Dominican. He’s not black.’”

Now, Mister Hunter wants us to understand he meant no ill-will by his comment, but he is not apologizing. “I’m not apologizing to nobody because I didn’t do anything,” Hunter told Los Angeles Times sportswriter Mike DiGiovanna.

“I didn’t say anything like that…. I’m upset…. And people wonder why athletes don’t talk to the media. … They took one negative thing and ran with it.”

Torii was just trying to illuminate a problem that Major League Baseball has had in attracting (and developing) “black” talent.

His motivation apparently is to get MLB to invest more in baseball in African American communities; part of the problem here is that Hunter is defining black just to mean African Americans and thereby exclude black Latinos

So, in seeking to shed light on one problem, Hunter has cast a spotlight on another, one that is a perhaps longer-lingering matter that afflicts not just baseball but U.S. society as a whole: how to talk about Latinos and race, and, even more challenging, what to do with Afro-Latinos.

Indeed, this issue is not a recent one when it comes to baseball, Latinos, and racial matters. And Torii is not alone in lacking the language and historical understanding of how we got here in U.S.

professional baseball.

As I wrote in my book Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line, there is a long history of black Latinos experiencing racism and discrimination in U.S. professional baseball.

The overwhelming majority of Latinos played in the Negro Leagues versus the Major Leagues (by approximately a 5-1 ratio) before Jackie Robinson initiated the dismantling of the color line.

Once the wall of separation began to crumble, black Latinos such as Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso or Vic Power recount at times being ostracized by African American teammates for not being black (or “black enough”).

Even the great Roberto Clemente dealt with that, and once stated to a sportswriter that he was a double n—- because he was black and because he was Puerto Rican (Latino).

So, part of the problem as Hunter’s words bear out (as did Gary Sheffield a few years back), is that there remains an incapacity on the part of African Americans and white Americans in how to distinguish between ethnicity (African American or Latino) and race (black) or the complexities of how identities intersect (e.g., Afro-Latino).

But even to Torii’s point about MLB lack of investment in US urban centers, this issue does not just affect blacks as he defines it. It also affects U.S.-born Latinos.

The data bears this out: You are much more likely to make it to MLB if you are a foreign-born Latino playing baseball than a U.S. born Latino, and even the percentage of Puerto Ricans, who are US citizens, has declined over the past two decades.

Finally, it must be noted that Torii’s words are not the only affront here.

USA Today’s roundtable of eight experts included managers, players, agents, scouts, and team execs but not a single Latino, U.S. or foreign born; this although, when combined, Latinos today represent close to a third of MLB players.

This exclusion is typical of English-language media and not just of sportswriters — recall the lack of Latino talking heads in the mainstream media’s coverage of the Presidential campaign.

Too often Latinos are shut out, not given the opportunity to have a voice in such discussions, but rather are the subject of the calls for reforms. In this instance, USA Today is approaching a 21st century problem with a 1960s approach of calling in just white and black experts.

Yet, Latinos have long been a part of America’s game, since the 1870s: Esteban Bellán and Vincent Nava participated before organized baseball formed its color line; a few were escorted into the segregated Majors by white team and league officials (e.g. Washington Senators’ Clark Griffith and Joe Cambria) while the majority including the likes of Martin Dihigo, Cristobal Torriente, and José Mendez participated in the Negro Leagues; and others like Minnie Miñoso and Ozzie Virgil pioneered integration on different Major League teams in the 1950s.

The problem remains is how to reconcile the economic imperatives of talent-seeking MLB organizations to acquire foreign-born Latino talent and these same organizations’ unwillingness to invest in and cultivate baseball in the United States (especially its urban centers).

The national pastime has become predominantly a middle-class sport.

And that is a discussion from which Latinos ought not to be shut out of.