From Cuba To Cooperstown: The History Of Latinos In Baseball

roberto clemente
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On New Years Eve, 1972, Roberto Clemente said goodbye to his wife at the airport as he prepared to board a flight to Nicaragua in hopes of providing relief to those in need of help, following an earthquake that had devastated the region. That same year, Clemente — a revered Latino baseball star — achieved 3,000 hits in the majors, and had cemented his name in the history books as not only one of the greats in Major League Baseball, but as one of the trailblazers for Latino players everywhere. It would be the last time Clemente’s wife would converse with the legend — shortly after taking off, the plane crashed off the coast of Puerto Rico. Clemente’s body was never found.

In an unprecedented move, Clemente was voted into the MLB Hall of Fame within a few months of his passing, despite the standing rule that players could not be voted into its hallowed halls without having been removed from their professional career for at least five years. The Puerto Rican-born star was the first Latino player to be inducted into the Hall, having amassed 18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates as one of the best defensive and offensive players to ever compete in the game.

Clemente wasn’t the first player to break through into the majors as a legitimate Latino threat, though. This month, Hennessy All-Stars is celebrating Erick Aybar of the Los Angeles Angels, a Dominican Republic star who has a Golden Glove and All-Star appearance to his name. Hennessy is honoring the history and culture of Latin athletes in the sport, athletes like Aybar and Clemente, who solidified the notion that Hispanic players were here to stay, a path later followed by David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and other stars who ingrained their heritage into the fabric of the sport.

Laying Down Roots

The roots of baseball in Latino nations can be traced back to Cuba, when young Cubans studying in the states returned home with a working knowledge of the sport. It took at least a decade for the U.S. pastime to catch on, but in 1878, the first Cuban baseball league held its inaugural game. During that time, in which Cuba assimilated the sport, Estevan Enrique “Steve” Bellán — the first Latino player to play in professional leagues in the states — made his debut in the U.S.’ National Association of Baseball Players (NABBP). Born in Havana, Cuba, Bellán studied at St. John’s College in New York, then embarked on a career in early American baseball leagues. He played big league ball from 1868 until 1873, before returning to his native Cuba to help cultivate the county’s growing infatuation with the sport as a player/manager. To this day, Bellán is credited as one of the forefathers of Cuban baseball, shuttling his experience in the states to his birthplace and using his position to infuse the first crop of Latino baseball players with the necessary fundamentals and skills to excel in the growing competition.

As Cuba continued to develop their passion for the sport, Venezuela found themselves adopting it, as well. While the exact impetus of the sport’s origins in Venezuela aren’t distilled into one singular event, what’s known is that students who studied in the states brought baseball back with them and began teaching its rules and structure to other citizens of the Latin American nation. In 1895, four brothers — Amenodoro, Emilio, Gustavo, and Augusto Franklin — organized the Caracas Baseball Club, and on May 3, 1895, they held the country’s first baseball game. The exhibition attracted 2,000 onlookers, and the country’s first baseball stadium — Stand del Este — was constructed soon after. Much like Cuba, baseball’s popularity began expanding throughout the country. In 1902, Emerito Argudin — a Cuban — established Base-Ball magazine, the country’s first publication dedicated to the sport. Argudin furthered the pastime by publishing the country’s first baseball rule book, while at the same time becoming the nation’s best player with an MVP and triple crown title to his name.

Breaking Barriers

Citing the growing talent of the Cuban leagues, the Cincinnati Reds visited the island in 1908 to engage in a series of exhibitions against some of the country’s top talent. In a five-game series, Cuba’s Almendares club bested the Reds, winning four of the games played. The American organization was highly impressed with two specific players: Armando Marsáns and Rafael Almeida. Marsáns and Almeida took their skills to the American minor leagues for a few seasons, but in 1911, the Reds called up the players to join their major league team, the pair becoming the first athletes from Cuba to become major leaguers since Bellán. While Almeida struggled to get off the ground — after three seasons, he was sent back to the minors — Marsáns became a rising star, ranking in the top of the National League for batting average and stolen bases. Following a career full of injuries, Marsáns ended his tenure in the majors in 1918 — last playing for the New York Yankees — then later serving as the first Cuban manager of an American minor league team.

Cuba continued to be a hotbed for upcoming major league talent when Adolfo Luque joined the Boston Braves in 1914. Dubbed “The Pride of Havana,” Luque’s immense talent on the pitching mound found its apex after he joined the Reds in 1918. For the 1923 season, the right-hander recorded 27 wins on his way to maintaining the best ERA in the National League. In 1933 — in his twilight years with the New York Giants — Luque fought the hands of time by turning in an incredible performance in that season’s World Series, serving as a relief pitcher in the seventh game and helping his team clinch the championship. Luque’s career holds several claims, including being the first Latino pitcher to appear in a World Series and the first Latino to record 100 wins. He’s also known as one of the first major Latino MLB superstars, receiving a spot in the Reds Hall of Fame in 1967.

Despite Luque’s talent, the Cuban-born athlete was rubbing against the racial barrier at a time when people of color were not allowed in the majors. Luque was able to skirt that wall — he wasn’t as dark-skinned as some of his Latino brethren — but for those with darker skin pigmentation, the only chance to play baseball came in the form of the Negro Leagues. The color barrier in baseball stayed in effect from 1889 to 1946, and during that time, a little over 50 Latin Americans cycled through the majors while more than 200 dark-skinned Latinos were relegated to the Negro Leagues. Much like the Cincinnati Reds did in the early 1900s, Negro League teams — which began professionalization in the 1870s — sought out a high-level of competition, which led them to battling highly skilled players from Cuba. In 1900, Cuban teams competed against Negro League teams in exhibitions in Havana, and what followed was an influx of Cuban players to the states in order to become permanent fixtures in the budding, minority-led organizations.

The pipeline flowed both ways, too, with Negro League athletes like Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige participating in leagues in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. “For the Americans going down (to the Caribbean), they were treated better there than in their own country,” said James A. Riley, a Negro League historian. “For the most part, there were no color distinctions or segregation, except for hotels owned by Americans or that had clientele from the U.S. The American players loved it down there because there was little discrimination and you received first-class treatment.”

Roughly 15 percent of the athletes in the Negro Leagues sported a Hispanic heritage, and in the face of racial inequality in baseball, African-Americans and Latinos found a brotherhood built on their love for the game at a time when skin color determined job placement. Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso —  a Cuban professional baseball player — recalled the fellowship that Latin and African-American players shared while competing in the Negro Leagues. “It was a great experience because we were like brothers,” he said in an interview with “It was 24 brothers traveling together on a crowded bus and all eating the same food. We used to fight to defend each other on and off the field. We took on everything together.”

The 1930s saw a spike in players of Latin decent entering the major leagues. Baldomero Almada debuted with the Boston Red Sox in 1933 as the first Mexican to join the upper echelon of baseball. Almada played professionally for seven seasons, and shortly after his arrival, José Góme — the second Mexican major leaguer — made his debut, becoming the first Latino player to join the Phillies organization. In 1938, a milestone was reached when Miguel Angel González — a Cuban player turned coach — became the interim manager for the St. Louis Cardinals, marking the first time a Latino held that position in the majors.

World War II And The Golden Age

World War II picked up steam as the ’30s turned into the ’40s, and in the recruitment process, an estimated 500 American major league players began trading in their uniforms in exchange for a military outfit. In order to offset the deluge of athletes taking off for war, MLB teams looked towards players in Cuba and other developing Latin American countries to refill their ranks. Salvador Hernández, Regino Otero, and Jesse Flores were part of this new infusion of Latino baseball players — they were not subject to the draft — called upon to bolster the vacated positions. The Washington Senators benefited the most from this new crop of Latin blood, almost winning the pennant in 1945 with a team largely comprised of Cubans.

The ascension of Latino baseball wasn’t without controversy, though. A Mexican professional baseball league was created in the mid-1940s, and it promised competitive salaries and provisions to players in both the MLB and the Negro League. In response, MLB commissioner “Happy” Chandler decreed that any player joining the Mexican League would be ineligible to play organized baseball. Just when it seemed like men of color would be forever fastened to the outskirts of professional baseball, Jackie Robinson struck his fist through the racial barrier in 1947. Robinson’s signing to the Dodgers signaled that the color line, which had prevented African-Americans, as well as black Latinos from reaching the pinnacle of the sport, was about to dissolve. That dissolution became even more clear when, in 1949, the aforementioned “Minnie” Miñoso became the first black Latino player to join the MLB when he debuted with Cleveland Indians.

In the aftermath of Miñoso and Robinson signing to the majors, the color barrier became a house of cards. Miñoso — an incredibly skilled player — was asked to play in the 1951 All-Star Game along with Alfonso Carrasquel, the duo considered to be the first Latinos to play in the Midsummer Classic. Miñoso would go on to have a legendary career, making the All-Star team a total of seven times, and winning the Golden Glove on three occasions. In an interview with ESPN, he recognized Jackie Robinson as a motivating factor in his quest for acceptance.

I said to myself, if Mr. Jackie [Robinson] could make it, I could make it too. I also used to follow Stan Musial, Ted Williams — my buddy — and I tried to be like them. They opened the door for me, and whatever I was going to do, I just felt I didn’t do anything enough. I just felt that, being around, that I was lucky.

The floodgates for Latino players to join the ranks of professional American baseball proceeded to swing open. The aperture widened even further when Fidel Castro’s regime shut down the Cuban League in 1961, this coming on the heels of the last Negro Leagues collapsing at the tail end of the ’50s. In the ’60s and ’70s, players from Puerto Rico, Panama, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela — among other Latin American nations — started streaming into the majors, and new stars were born. Juan Marichal, Rod Carew, and Tony Perez all set out on Hall of Fame careers during this era. Showing that an affinity for the contributions of Latino players is also retroactive, Martín Dihigo — an electrifying Cuban player who was a threat in all nine positions and competed in Negro, Mexican, and Cuban leagues — was elected into the Hall at Cooperstown in 1977, without ever having played an MLB game.

The Foundation Of The Game

By 1980, MLB scouts were on a mission to gather the products of Latin America’s century-long odyssey in baseball perfection. Mexico’s Fernando Valenzuela exploded out of the gate in his 1981 rookie season, taking the Dodgers to the championship, capturing the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young award, all while transcending the sport into the realm of cultural iconicity. Puerto Rico’s Edgar Martinez popped up in 1987, and established himself as a menace at the plate. Martinez’ career included seven trips to the All-Star game, and in 1995, he led the league in runs, doubles, and batting average. The ’90s brought Mariano Rivera and Pedro Martinez, two of the most dominating forces to ever step foot on the pitcher’s mound, while behind the plate, Ivan Rodriguez made a case for being one of the best catchers of all-time en route to capturing the American League MVP in 1999. At the turn of the century, Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, and Alex Rodriguez broke MLB pitchers’ spirits while racking up MVP awards and World Series titles. Today, players like Miguel Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, and José Abreu lead a new generation of Latino superstars.

And the stats speak for themselves.

In the 2006 season, one-third of the All-Star game roster identified as Latino, as did nine of the 10 players with the highest batting average. Of the 70 players in the 2011 All-Star game, 21 were of Hispanic heritage. Currently, Latin Americans make up a large swath of the MLB athletes; out of the 868 players tallied for the 2015 season, 83 are from the Dominican Republic, 65 are from Venezuela, 18 are from Cuba, 13 hail from Puerto Rico, and nine are of Mexican descent. Although Cuba was a birthplace for Latino baseball, its pipeline of players to the U.S. shrunk considerably after Castro tightened his grip in the ’60s. Now, with relations between the U.S. and Cuba normalizing, tales like those of Yasiel Puig — who had to endure a 30-hour hike through treacherous swamps to get to America — will hopefully become an anomaly rather than the norm.

Erick Aybar
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Erick Aybar mixes a drink at his Hennessy All-Star Celebration.

A large part of Hennessy’s All-Star Celebration is recognizing both the past and the present Latino baseball stars who have done more than play a game to the best of their abilities. Other celebrants of Hennessy’s program, like José Abreu and Carlos Beltran, have furthered the rhetoric of sport as a breeding ground for cultures and nationalities to coalesce, meeting each other on the field and announcing to the world that neither color nor language will present the kind of blockades meant to deteriorate our ability to see the humanity in one another. The most recent winner was Erick Aybar, the Angels’ star shortstop:

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Baseball is thriving in almost every single Latin nation — the beneficiaries of its scope and circulation falls not only to its players and their families, but to the fans, who now can envelop themselves in a truly international spectacle. Hispanics are truly a major component of the American baseball narrative now. There will never be another Clemente or Dihigo, much in the same way that there will never be another Robinson or Mantle, but with the demise of the barriers and color lines that obstructed the progression of the game, the joy in watching baseball can now reside in observing the next Latino superstar’s rise to prominence.