Blogs by Robbie Gomez
Cuban Baseball: The Hidden Struggle
3/14/2008 10:31:32 AM
The struggle for African-Americans to find their place in American baseball is well-documented, as it should be. Putting up with racial slurs from fans, fellow players, and even the front-office from their own team had to be very difficult to such black players who so bravely broke baseball’s color barrier such as Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby. And that is after MLB allowed black players in finally. Before that, they were not even allowed to play. The only place were great black ballplayers could get into organized, professional games was in the infamous Negro Leagues. However, African-Americans were not the only ones affected by baseball’s segregation. Latin-Americans had it very rough as well, but eventually, like the African-Americans, broke through with the Cubans leading the way.
Before the color barrier in baseball was in full effect, a few black and Latin-American players played alongside white players. Steve Bellán was born to a wealthy family in Havana, Cuba. Being of primarily Spanish-decent, Bellán was a white Cuban, therefore was afforded more opportunities to progress himself in Cuba. Like most wealthy Cubans of the mid to late 1800s, Bellán was sent to the United States for his college education. He wound up at Fordham University from 1863-1868 where he learned the game of baseball, even playing for the Fordham Rose Hill Baseball Club. Bellán showed enough skill at the game that he wound up playing for the professional Troy Haymakers (now the San Francisco Giants) in 1869. He continued to play professionally until 1873 when he returned to Cuba. Helping to introduce and popularize baseball there, Bellán played in the first organized baseball game in Cuba on December 27, 1874. A few years later, a professional Cuban league was formed, with Bellán playing for and managing the new Habana Baseball Club from 1878-1886. While his influence in making baseball a staple in Cuban culture, he will be best-remembered as the first Cuban, and first Latin-American for that matter, to play in the Major Leagues.
As was stated earlier, there were some black and Hispanic players that played professionally in the USA in the 1800s, before segregation. Baseball’s unwritten color barrier was a product of multiple men’s work, but a lot of the credit must go to Cap Anson, baseball’s first superstar. The first man with 3,000 Big League hits, Anson played as a member of the Chicago White Stockings for most of his illustrious 27-year career. He became so popular in Chicago that after he left the team in 1898, the White Stockings were re-named the Chicago Orphans (later the Chicago Cubs after “Orphans” was deemed too politically incorrect). His immense popularity left Anson with a considerable amount of power among his peers. One instance of his influence proved very important to the role black players would play for the next 60 or so years.
The White Stockings were playing the semi-pro Toledo Mud Hens in an exhibition game on August 10, 1883 in an effort for Chicago to make a few extra bucks. Moses Fleetwood Walker was the catcher for the Mud Hens, but he was also black. It was not extremely rare for black players to play for pro or semi-pro ball at the time, but Anson was a racist. Walker was injured on that day and was not scheduled to play at all, a fact that Anson was unaware of. When Anson saw that Toledo had Walker on their team and told the Toledo manager, Charlie Morton, that Anson’s team would not take the field if Walker played. Morton, wanting to stick it to Anson, put the injured Walker in Centerfield, sparking an argument between Morton and Anson. When Morton said that if Anson maintained his refusal to play against the Mud Hens and the black Walker, he would have to forfeit the game which would mean forfeiting the gate receipts in the process, Anson gave in and the game was played.
The following year, with Toledo now in the professional American Association, another similar incident happened with Walker and Anson. Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother Welday, both players for Toledo, became the first black players to play in the Major Leagues on May 1, 1884. However, when Anson’s Chicago White Stockings played the Mud Hens that year, Anson specifically put into the written contract of the game that no black player could play in the game. While these incidents alone did not keep African-Americans out of the Major Leagues for 60 years, Cap Anson’s popularity influenced the segregation-movement greater than that of any other individual involved.
The Negro Leagues were at its peak from the 1920s to the 1950s. In that time, though, it was not only black Americans who played on the teams. In the off-season, black and white players from the United States would go down to Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic to play in winter leagues. Because the Latino leagues accepted African-Americans, the Negro Leagues accepted all Latinos, white or black. This led to brining over many prominent Cuban players to the United States where their baseball skills were evident on the field.
Black Cubans like Martin Dihigo, José Mendéz, Alex Pompez, and Cristóbal Torriente each gained enough notoriety for their baseball accomplishments that they were enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Dihigo was the first, and for awhile the only, Cuban in the Negro Leagues to get attention from the voters as he was elected in 1977 compared to the latter three being elected in 2006. Johnny Mize, a fellow Hall of Famer and white 1st baseman, once said of Dihigo, “He was the only guy I ever saw, who could play all nine positions, manage, run and switch-hit.” José Mendéz was one of the greatest, most dominant pitchers in the Negro Leagues, but was not elected to the Hall of fame until 80 years after he retired. Alex Pompez was not elected for his playing, but rather for his front-office days. He was the owner of the New York Cubans, a Negro League team that was often made up of predominantly black and white Cuban players. After the Negro Leagues started to dissolve with the influx of black and Latino players into the Major Leagues in the 1940s, Pompez left for a scouting job with the National League’s New York Giants where he used his connection to Latin America to bring in many Caribbean stars like Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal. The final player, Torriente, could be used as a great example of how the Negro Leagues were capable opponents of the white Major Leagues of the time as evidenced by his outstanding career batting average of .339 against black pitchers in Negro League games and the similarly great .311 average against white pitchers when Negro League teams would play Major League teams in exhibition games.
The problem with this though, is that often the black Cubans in the Negro Leagues receive less-attention in the Negro Leagues. Of the 35 players in the Hall of Fame identified as Negro Leaguers, only 4 are Cuban. There were approximately 200 known Cuban players in the Negro Leagues which would mean that 2% of Cuban Negro Leaguers are in the Hall of Fame. Going by those numbers, there would have to be approximately 1,750 total players in the Negro Leagues. During the Negro Leagues peak operating years (1933-1950), there were about 12-14 teams with 14-16 players on each team. Using simple algebra, that would equal about 2,860 total players in the Negro Leagues during that time period. 2,860 is greater than the 1,750 estimated earlier, however that number doesn’t take into account that players played more than one year in the Negro Leagues. With most great players playing close to 20 years professionally, the numbers show that the Cuban Negro Leaguers are under-represented in the Baseball Hall of Fame compared to their African-American teammates.
However, according to Bill James, the Latin players in the Negro Leagues were accepted by their African-American teammates. It had to be this way because often the only players on the team who could get the team service at a restaurant or rooms in a hotel during in the racially-tensioned United States of the time were the lighter-skinned Cuban players. If the black Americans wanted to eat or sleep, they needed their Cuban teammates; therefore relations between the two races were often good. Also, there was no reason for the African-Americans to hate the Cuban players because the reason they were on the same team in the first place is because both were not allowed in the Major Leagues. Thus, it is not the African-Americans who do not recognize the Cuban accomplishments in the Negro Leagues, but rather the media and Hall of Fame voters who are over-looking them.
There is a proposal floating around Major League Baseball to retire Roberto Clemente’s number in a similar fashion to the way Jackie Robinson’s has been. The argument for “21” to be immortalized like “42” is that Jackie Robinson paved the way for minorities in baseball, but that really all he did it for was the African-Americans. It is obvious today that Hispanic players are starting to dominate the Big Leagues, and that black Latinos really didn’t have a shot in the Majors until Roberto Clemente came around. It should be noted that no one is claiming that Roberto Clemente is the first black Hispanic player in MLB since the breaking of the color barrier. The claim with Clemente is that he was so great and important that he was the one who allowed for black Latinos like Orlando Cepeda to come to American and be accepted as the great ballplayers that they are. However, I disagree with Roberto Clemente being given that much credit. He was a great player with a great heart, but he did not have to go through as much as the black Cuban great Minnie Miñoso. Clemente made his Major League debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 14, 1955. Miñoso made his debut with the Cleveland Indians on April 19, 1949, six years earlier.
Miñoso, unlike Clemente, is not a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, but this is not because he is not a Hall of Fame-caliber player. Miñoso, unlike Clemente again, was forced to play in the Negro Leagues. Playing in the Negro Leagues and Mexican Leagues until he was 28, Miñoso’s career Major League statistics of his time were not deemed good enough to get him into the Hall of Fame. Also, because his time in the Negro Leagues only lasted about a half-dozen seasons or so, he is not considered a Negro League all-time great either. However, despite only playing 12 full-time seasons, Minnie Miñoso was able to compile nearly 2,000 hits, 200 home runs, and over 1,000 runs batted in and 200 stolen bases. Along with his 3 gold gloves and 7 All-Star selections, had Miñoso not been kept out of the Major Leagues for the beginning of his professional career because he was black, he would most likely have already been elected to Cooperstown.
It should seem ridiculous that Miñoso had to have gone through so much more than Clemente, having gone through the Negro League experience as well as the Major League racism experience, yet still have a dimmer star. The most-likely conclusion that can explain this is that Clemente is a black Puerto Rican, while Miñoso is a black Cuban. Puerto Rico has been under U.S. military control since the Spanish-American war while U.S.-Cuba relations have been hostile ever since the rise of Fidel Castro to power in Cuba and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. This would lead American society to have an obvious bias towards Puerto Ricans over Cubans, as can be expected with such a situation. Also, due to this, it has been very difficult for Cuban players to come over to the United States to play baseball while Puerto Rican players can come as they please, leading to more Puerto Rican players in the majors than Cubans. But even so, there might not have even been a Clemente had there not first been a Miñoso.
Even Jackie Robinson’s distinction as the first black player in the Major Leagues can be disputed by the accomplishments of black Cuban. Bobby Estalella debuted for the Washington Senators on September 7, 1935. While he was not completely black (he was considered to be a light-skinned mulatto), what cannot be denied about Estalella is his clear African ethnicity. Estalella’s bloodlines prove that he had African blood in him. Yet, this was not a secret. While he may not have had extremely dark-pigmented skin, his African ancestry was not a secret, yet he managed to play 9 seasons in the Major Leagues.
While it may be disputed whether or not the mulatto Estalella truly broke the color barrier or not before Robinson did, it cannot be denied that the two players who helped pave the way in the breaking of the color barrier were Cubans Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans. Both players debuted together with the Cincinnati Reds in 1911 making them the first Cubans to play in the Majors since the start of segregation. Both players started out playing in the Negro Leagues before going to the white-American National League together. When their signing was announced, many Cincinnati fans assumed that Almeida and Marsans were people of color because of the Cuban background and their playing days in the Negro Leagues. However, as was stated earlier, white Latinos were allowed to play in the Negro Leagues, which is what Almeida and Marsans were. Both players were born to Spanish-born parents in Cuba, making them purely white. However, they were still foreign-born, thus they had to endure many racist stories published about them in addition to racist comments being yelled at them by so-called fans.
After Almeida and Marsans became the first Cubans/Latin-Americans to play in segregated baseball, stars such as Dolf Luque and Mike Gonzalez were fortunate enough to enjoy lengthy Major League careers, the first Cubans to do so. Luque debuted in 1914 and compiled nearly 200 wins as a starting pitcher while Gonzalez debuted in 1912 and played in over 1,000 career games. In addition to that, Gonzalez also became the first non-Caucasian to manage a Major League team.
The reason that Almeida, Marsans, Luque, and Gonzalez(among others) were allowed to play in the Majors as known-Cubans was because they were of strictly European heritage. Not only did their white skin get them into white American baseball, but it also gave them many advantages back in Cuba. There was a lot of racism in Cuba that remains ignored by many historical accounts. Cuba in 1901-1959 (known as the Period of the Republic) had many racial issues of its own that were very similar those in the United States. After a string of disagreements over voting rights in Cuba, genocide of blacks in the Cuban military and racial oppression in public places was very prevalent in Cuba. Lourdes Casal wrote on this issue: “In Cuban small towns and provincial capitals, segregation was rigidly enforced in formal social life and in the patterns of informal association related to courtship, such as in public parks. The private school system was predominantly, although not totally, white. Elite schools practiced racial discrimination but it was hardly necessary because few blacks could afford the high tuition costs and other expenses.”
As if the racial struggle wasn’t enough for black Cubans in Cuba, once they came to American, the same thing prevented their progress here, too. The only difference, though, was that any indication that a Cuban might be black was good enough for Americans to deem them black. Back in Cuba, mulattos were re-classified as white in an effort to eliminate Cuba’s black history altogether, making American tougher to make it for non-white Cubans. In baseball, Luis Padrón serves as a perfect example.
Padrón was a great up-and-coming ballplayer from Havana, Cuba. After sealing his reputation as a great, young outfielder, Padrón was granted a try-out with the Chicago White Sox in 1909. Because no Latin-American had played in the Big Leagues since Steve Bellán in the 1870s, Padrón’s tryout sparked a lot of interest in both Chicago and Cuba. On July 3, 1909, the Chicago Tribune wrote: “Manager Sullivan is trying out an outfield recruit in a Cuban named Padrone who has played with the New Britain team of the Connecticut league. In morning practice he has been tried against right and left handers and has hit both well.” On July 29, 1909, the Cuban paper La Lucha wrote on its English page an article chronicling how well Padrón had performed in his try-out. They said, “There is no doubt but that Padron will be looked upon as a phenom., and Americans in Cuba who are all admirers of his playing will all wish for his success.” The article also stated that Padrón had made the team after his great performance at the try-out, but this would prove to be false. In Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues by John Holway, it says of Padrón’s try-out: “The Chicago White Sox invited Cuban pitcher Luis (Mulo) Padron to spring training. However, he was considered too dark and was sent home.”
Despite the unfortunate outcome for Padrón, Cubans, specifically black Cubans, eventually found their path to the Major Leagues. Since Minnie Miñoso really broke through for all Hispanic players, many Cubans have left their mark on Major League Baseball. Veldado, Cuba-native Zoilo Versalles won the 1965 A.L. MVP with the Minnesota Twins. His Twins teammate from Pinar del Río, Tony Oliva, was an All-Star 8 times and won the A.L. Batting Crown 3 times during his career that may get him into the Hall of Fame in the future. Tony Peréz, from Ciego De Avila, is the only Cuban Major Leaguer to get inducted into the Hall of Fame when the Baseball Writers’ Association of American voted him in for the Class of 2000. Peréz was the 3rd Baseman for the dangerous Big Red Machine teams of the 1970s where he helped Cincinnati to 2 World Series Championships. In the 1980s, José Canseco (born in Havana) teamed up with Mark McGwire to form the “Bash Brothers”. His monster home runs propelled himself to the 1988 A.L. MVP award. That year Canseco became the first player with at least 40 home runs and 40 stolen bases. He also helped the A’s and Yankees to World Series titles in 1989 and 2000, respectively. Rafael Palmeiro, native of Havana, became just the fourth player in Major League history in 2005 to have over 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. Other notable Cuban Big Leaguers have been Bert Campaneris, Luis Tiant, and Cookie Rojas.
But getting to the Majors has not been any easier for most Cubans, white or black. The story of Cuban ballplayer Arno Hernández shows this best. Hernández had a dream of one day playing in the American Major Leagues. However, Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution erased any possibility of that, as Castro would not let Cubans leave Cuba for America, especially baseball players. Castro is quoted as saying, “This is a triumph of free baseball over slave baseball,” with “free baseball” being the Cuban Leagues and “slave baseball” being the U.S. Leagues. Stuck in Cuba, Hernández was left disappointed in how his baseball career would wind up as. U.S. – Cuban relations never showed any real progress over the years, which caused Hernández’s third son, Livan, to flee Cuba for America to pursue his own professional career in 1995. Livan left the country in 1995 and helped the Florida Marlins win the World Series in 1997 when he was the WS MVP. Arno’s second son, Orlando, did not have as easy of a time defecting from Cuba, however.
In October 1996, Orlando, who was a key member of the 1992 Olympic Gold Medal-winning Cubans, was banned from the Cuban National Team for allegedly planning on defecting like his brother had. Seeing his brother, Livan, having so much success in America, Orlando left his family in Cuba for the United States in December 26, 1997. Orlando was one of eight Cuban men who got on a small boat together to defect from Cuba. They arrived on the island of Anguilla City on the 27th and were picked up by the US Coast Guard on the 29th. Because Orlando Hernández was an athlete, the Coast Guard elected to not send him back to Cuba (they had no obligation to because of the lack of friendliness between the American and Cuban governments) and Hernández went to Costa Rica where he gained his citizenship. Because he became Costa Rican before going to the States, Hernández was considered a free agent by baseball and did not have to enter the draft, allowing him to sign with any team he wished. On March 7, 1998, Orlando Hernández signed a 4-year contract with the New York Yankees, helping them win World Series titles in 1998, 1999, and 2000 and winning another with the Chicago White Sox in 2005.
Another player, the Seattle Mariners’ young star shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt from Santa Clara, Cuba, revealed that he, too, was illegally smuggled into the United States. His smuggler has recently been arrested for smuggling Betancourt as well as other Cubans. It is all just further proof that the Cuban baseball players’ struggles with making it in Major League Baseball is still going on today and probably beyond. 100 years ago it was racial issues that kept them out. In more recent years it is the Cuban-U.S. relations that keep the Cuban players out of not only MLB but the USA, as well. In the future, it could be anything that tries to prevent the Cubans from showing the world to their full potential their baseball prowess. But no matter what, Cubans have left their footprints on baseball history and will continue to find a way to show the world that Cubans, white and black, will always play baseball at the highest level.
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