Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Load the Bases: Latin Ballplayers

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Load the Bases: Latin Ballplayers

Article excerpt

True baseball fans know Latin American ballplayers are vital to a game which stands with Mom and apple pie as the popular symbol for all things red, white, and blue. But few are aware that the national pastime of the United States extends its reach far beyond U.S. borders.

Since 1911, when major league scouts began the business of importing Latin Americans, these peloteros have been able participants in the making of baseball legendry. Over the Years, thousands of Spanish-speaking athletes from Puerto Rico and seven Latin American nations (Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela) have journeyed north hoping to wind up on a major league diamond. More than 500 of these ballplayers have risen through the minor league ranks and reached "el big show." Their struggle to succeed in a decidedly gringo forum--made harder by troubles with the language and culture--is avidly followed by millions of Latin Americans from Mexico and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Latinos have proven to be true fans--expert observers of the game, and devoted to the lore of season after season of high-spirited competition.

The recently-published book El Beisbol: Travels Through the Pan-American Pastime offers readers the most comprehensive look yet at a game which belongs to the Spanish Caribbean as much as to North America. Yet not even author John Krich realized that Latin America's contribution reaches to the very foundation of baseball.

The concept of free agency, which allows players to go with the highest bidding team, was born of Latin blood and is vital not only to baseball but almost every other professional sport. Baseball lore villainizes Jorge Pasquel, once the virtual owner of the Mexican summer league, who shocked major league owners in 1946 by using satchels of cash to entice players to break their contracts. Then-commissioner A&B. "Happy" Chandler gave five-year suspensions to the 20 players who succumbed, but lifted the sanction when one player went to court to challenge the reserve clause, the part of the contract which obligated players to stay with one team. Three decades later, with players making millions through free agency, Alfonso Pasquel said: "If the major league players had any guts, they'd make sure my brother Jorge was elected to Cooperstown for helping them gain their freedom. These ballplayers, once they signed a contract, were chained for a lifetime."

Winter ball is another institution with roots in Latin soil. In 1878, two years after the start of the National League, the now-defunct Cuban League was formed as an off-season circuit to attract U.S. players. The biggest beneficiaries were black players, who because of the color of their skin, were run out of pro baseball in the 1880s. These men, who played for pennies wherever they could find a game, were heartily welcomed in Havana.

"Without that Caribbean nursery garden, I don't believe the capital ever would have presented itself to form the National Negro League in 1920," said the late Eric Roberts, an authority on black athletics. In effect, winter ball--an invaluable training ground for scores of U.S. players--kept black baseball alive. Then, after World War II, when the Brooklyn Dodgers saw fit to sign a black man, Jackie Robinson returned the favor by opening the door for dark-complected Latins.

While Cuba was once the leader in generating talented Latino ballplayers, the field is now dominated by the Dominican Republic. Coincidentally, the country which has fathered so many great players shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, where all the baseballs used in major league games are produced.

Last year, 30 Dominicans played in the major leagues, representing six percent of the league's rosters. Dominicanos make up about half of the total number of Latinos--including U.S. Hispanics--in the majors. At least 300 more Dominicans play minor league ball. Big league scouts feverishly cast recruitment nets across the land; 16 teams check competition by operating camps in which they assess 20 to 40 teen-aged prospects at a time. …

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