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Latino ballplayers played key role in overcoming game's racial barriers

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

Released 7/6/2007

Adrian Burgos
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Adrian Burgos, professor of history at Illinois, is the author of a new book that chronicles the role of Latinos in America’s favorite pastime, “Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line.”

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Despite the wealth of information available to them, baseball writers, historians and aficionados somehow have managed to bench one of the game’s greatest stories.

So says the author of a new book that chronicles the role of Latinos in America’s favorite pastime – they not only played great ball, but did so “while negotiating the color line at every turn.”

In “Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line,” a study of Latinos and U.S. professional baseball from the 1880s to the present, author Adrian Burgos Jr. traces the racial and ethnic tensions that developed over the incorporation of Latinos in professional baseball.

He shows how Latinos were “central figures in baseball’s racial saga,” and how they and African American players worked closely together in the Negro Leagues to “challenge the dictates of baseball’s Jim Crow system and the color line imposed by Major League Baseball.”

“To this day, their shared past remains one of the most overlooked chapters in baseball history,” said Burgos, a history professor at the University of Illinois.

“Playing America’s Game” is the first historical work on Latinos in baseball that “treats as one story their experience on either side of baseball’s racial divide,” Burgos said. His inspiration for telling “this story in this manner” arose from having grown up a baseball fan “with no knowledge that the vast majority of Latinos had performed in the Negro Leagues prior to integration – by about a 5-to-1 margin,” he said.

“Moreover, I found unsatisfactory the explanation that the 50 or so Latinos who performed in the Majors prior to Jackie Robinson were all considered ‘white’ and likewise, the Latinos in the Negro Leagues were all viewed as ‘black.’

“The story that I uncovered was much more complicated, revealing individuals and team officials who manipulated ideas of race to negotiate or ameliorate the impact of baseball’s color line. In some cases it was for fleeting gains such as being served at a segregated restaurant.
Access was the goal in other cases, such as when big league officials presented a player as ‘Cuban’ and not ‘black’ to justify signing the player to a team in the segregated majors.“

This story emerged from archival materials from the U.S., Cuba and Puerto Rico, Spanish- and English-language publications and personal interviews with Negro League and Major League players. Collectively, they demonstrated, among other things, how the “manipulation of racial distinctions” that allowed management to recruit and sign increasingly racially ambiguous Latino players – especially during World War II – provided a “template” for Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey when he initiated the dismantling of the color line by signing Jackie Robinson in October 1945.

Still, Burgos’ extensive examination of Latino participation before and after Robinson’s 1947 Major League 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, Roberto Clemente and Sammy Sosa.”

“Notably, the focus on Latinos highlights how integration is a process, and while integration changed racial matters in baseball, it did not instantly change institutional practices.”

For example, Major League organizations with a few notable exceptions opted against incorporating the off-field expertise of Negro League managers, front office personnel and owners, Burgos said. The New York/San Francisco Giants hiring former Negro League team owner Alex Pompez to direct its international scouting – and who opened the Dominican talent pipeline into the Majors, or the Chicago Cubs employing Buck O’Neil as a coach “were the exceptions.”

Twelve years passed before each big league team fielded a black player, Burgos noted, “and pioneering players included Miñoso and Ozzie Virgil Sr., who integrated the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers, respectively. Yet the role of Latinos as integration pioneers has been largely ignored in the recent spate of books commemorating the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson and baseball integration.

“This contributes to the notion that Latinos are merely recent arrivals to baseball – a perception that unfortunately shapes contemporary discussions of race and America’s game, and that often leaves Latinos as an afterthought while shortchanging their long history of contributions,” Burgos added.

According to Burgos, recent discussions in the sports world following the comments of Detroit Tigers star Gary Sheffield in the July issue of GQ linking the growing presence of Latinos in Major League Baseball to their being “easier to control” than African Americans, “lose sight of the shared history of struggle on the other side of organized baseball’s racial divide – in particular, that Latin American leagues provided an alternative model, an integrated one that welcomed the best of North American players, regardless of color, to play alongside the best Latino players, and that by participating in the Cuban or Mexican leagues, African American and Latinos extended the battle against Jim Crow beyond the territorial boundaries of the United States.”

In June, Burgos was in San Diego working with the Padres on their “Tribute to the Negro Leagues.” He will be in San Francisco on Sunday and Monday to sign books and attend All-Star game activities.

Burgos also was among a group of scholars who conducted a comprehensive study of the Negro Leagues and black baseball. In June 2005, the National Baseball Hall of Fame selected Burgos to serve on committee charged with drafting a ballot of Negro League candidates to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Last October, he appeared in two segments of ESPN TV’s special, “Baseball: The Latin Game.” That documentary has just been released on DVD.