Magazine article Insight on the News

Wild Pitches in Dominican Republic: In 1937, Several Negro League Legends Became Guns for Hire in a Tense Baseball Battle with Political Undertones. (Sports)

Magazine article Insight on the News

Wild Pitches in Dominican Republic: In 1937, Several Negro League Legends Became Guns for Hire in a Tense Baseball Battle with Political Undertones. (Sports)

Article excerpt

It was a war fought with bats, balls and gloves, not firearms. It was a baseball season in which the key players were a Latin American dictator, gangsters, armed militiamen and some of the most colorful characters ever to put on a uniform in the Negro Leagues. Whatever it was, it was one of the most remarkable chapters in baseball history.

Baseball is the national pastime in America, but it is--and was--the national obsession in the Dominican Republic. And in 1937, Rafael Trujillo decided baseball would be the best way to win the hearts of his countrymen.

Trujillo already had tried to do that at gunpoint in 1930, when he overthrew the government. He was elected president but ruled as an iron-fisted dictator, commanding the army and putting family members into political office through terrorist activities. But he didn't control baseball, the game his countrymen loved, and in 1937 he decided to change that. In order to field a team that would win the Dominican Baseball League, he raided the Negro Leagues for some of its biggest stars.

Trujillo's political opponents owned a stake in the two other teams in the Dominican League. They also raided the Negro Leagues that season, setting up a war that was on its surface baseball but deeply political underneath. After all, it would be a loss of face for the dictator not to have the best baseball team in the country.

This was a war that Trujillo was determined to win. He took over the operation of not one but two of the existing--and rival--teams in Santo Domingo, Escondido and Licey. For this season, the teams merged to form one squad, the "Ciudad Trujillo Dragons" (Trujillo already had renamed Santo Domingo, the capital city, Ciudad Trujillo).

Trujillo's opponents countered the merger by importing some out-of-town talent, so to speak. The Santiago team brought in Negro Leaguers George Scales and Spoon Carter. San Pedro recruited pitching great Chet Brewer, Showboat Thomas and several other Negro League players.

Not to be outdone, Trujillo set his sights on the biggest star in the Negro National League--Pittsburgh Crawfords pitcher Leroy "Satchel" Paige.

As the Crawfords began their spring training in New Orleans in 1937, Paige was met by agents of Trujillo. They paid Paige between $6,000 and $15,000 (reports vary) to come to the Dominican Republic that year to play for Trujillo's team. He also was given money to convince his teammates to come south as well. He persuaded outfielder Cool Papa Bell and four other Crawfords to join him. Soon after, the great catcher Josh Gibson followed.

The defections made Greenlee, the Crawfords' owner, seethe. He was a flamboyant racketeer who built an empire on numbers games and bootlegging. He became one of the city's most prominent figures, the black community's connection to the white politicians. He owned one of the town's best-known nightclubs, the Crawford Grille, where jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie played. He liked living.

To some, the loss of Greenlee's stars was poetic justice. In 1930, Greenlee had raided the other established black team in town, the Homestead Grays, of Gibson, Judy Johnson and Jud Wilson. He got Bell and Jimmy Crutchfield from other black teams. The Crawfords, who won the Negro National League championship in 1935 and 1936, may have been the greatest Negro League baseball team ever assembled.

The big ticket, though, was Paige, the biggest draw in black baseball history. Paige is believed to have pitched in more than 2,000 games during his career from 1924 to 1955 and thrown more than 100 no-hitters. He left the Birmingham Black Barons for the Crawfords in 1931 and put the team on the map with his pitching skill and his colorful, crowd-pleasing style. "Before I started cutting loose around Pittsburgh in 1931, there was no big money for anybody in the Negro Leagues," Paige told the Saturday Evening Post. …

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