Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, And The Color Line

By Tony McClean
Updated: May 31, 2007
Playing The Game by Adrian Burgos Jr.NEW HAVEN, Ct. — When one takes a look at the history of baseball in regards to Latin American players, the general perception is that the “Latinization” of the sport has been just a recent phenomenon.
In reality, that perception is not only untrue — but totally misguided. Going as far back as the 1800’s, Latinos involvement in the sport has not only been a part of its fabric, but a huge part of its long history.

As a history professor, Adrian Burgos Jr. was intrigued by the stories and the history of Latinos in the “national pastime”. In his new book, ” Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line”, Burgos tells a compelling story of the men who negotiated the color line at every turn — passing as “Spanish” in the major leagues or seeking respect and acceptance in the Negro leagues.

“I wanted to historicize and let the reader understand more clearly in what ways Latinos were positioned along the color line in the fact that some were allowed into organized baseball, but the vast majority were not”, said Burgos, an assistant professor of history at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

“The long time argument that has been perpetuated about the early Latinos who played in the majors were all considered white is not true. Carefully looking at the records just doesn’t sustain that argument.”

Burgos draws on archival materials from the United States, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, as well as Spanish and English language publications and interviews with Negro League and major league players.

In his study on Latinos and professional baseball from the 1880s to the present, Burgos demonstrates how the manipulation of racial distinctions that allowed management to recruit and sign Latino players provided a template for Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey when he initiated the dismantling of the color line by signing Jackie Robinson in 1947.

“They (Latinos) were called all sorts of racial and derogatory names just as much as the blacks who came after them”, Burgos added. “Management didn’t treat them as equals and it was reflected in the general attitudes and pay scale as well.”

“As a group, these Latin players experienced and faced a similar, but somewhat different form of racism during their time. Some of it was rooted in the fact that they were foreigners, but also many of the U.S. born Latinos were also positioned as foreigners because they didn’t fall into was seen as the idea of race during that period.”

Burgos’ extensive examination of Latino participation before and after Robinson’s debut documents the ways in which inclusion did not signify equality and shows how notions of racialized difference have persisted for darker-skinned Latinos like Orestes (“Minnie”) Miñoso, Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, and Sammy Sosa.

Along the way, Burgos also speaks on the Latino influence on the Negro Leagues. One man in particular was Alex Pompez, the longtime owner of the Cuban Stars and New York Cubans franchises from 1916 to 1950. Pompez also briefly served as the vice president of the Negro National League.
“He successfully transitioned from the segregated era into the integrated era, bringing in his expertise to the New York Giants organization as a scout”, Burgos added. “He was a man way before his time.”

Along the way, Pompez would see the Giants sign such ex-Negro Leaguers as Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, and Ray Dandridge. When they made the move to San Francisco, Pompez also lured the franchise to seek such Latin stars as Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda.

Although the real story of Latinos and baseball has largely been ignored by sports historians, “Playing America’s Game” give a clear picture on the struggles and triumphs of these pioneers and how it all relates to today.
Burgos’ book isn’t just about the sport of baseball and how it relates to the Latino community past and present, it also tells of the long standing and unflinching history of American race and ethnic relations.