Latinos now make up about a third of Major League Baseball rosters. Tracing their rise has been the focus of University of Illinois history professor Adrian Burgos Jr. His new book "Cuban Star" (due out in May) chronicles the life of Alex Pompez, an Afro-Cuban-American who largely led the way for Latino ballplayers, as a Negro League owner and then a scout for the New York/San Francisco Giants. Burgos, recently named to MLB's new Baseball Origins Committee, was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
Why a book about Pompez? What made him so important?
The history of baseball's color line and of racial integration is incomplete without a serious discussion of Latinos' long participation in baseball, and Alex Pompez is the most significant figure in that history. His life story illuminates a broader terrain of struggle against Jim Crow segregation and his career in baseball unveils the active participation of Latinos within that long struggle.
Pompez witnessed the rise and fall of the Negro Leagues as a team owner, of the Cuban Stars and then the New York Cubans, between 1916 and 1950. He also witnessed the hardening of racial fault lines in the American South, and the harsh realities of both southern and northern forms of segregation. He drew on that vast experience to counsel African American and Latino prospects about the rules of social engagement. The way he used this expertise represents an understudied part of baseball's integration story.
Pompez may not have invented what we can label a "Latino" approach, but he perfected it within the baseball world and then made great use of it as a Giants' scout (1950-72) when it came to acquiring talent out of Latin America and the Negro Leagues. And he produced results: His work with the Giants spurred them to acquire Negro League stars Monte Irvin and Willie Mays, and he personally participated in the signing of Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, and Juan Marichal, among other talented ballplayers.
What does his story illustrate about the complications for Latinos in baseball?
Pompez knew that, for Latino players, moving from a Spanish-speaking society into an English-speaking society was sometimes just as significant a challenge as learning how to hit a big-league curveball. The challenge seemed doubly difficult for darker-skinned Latinos during the early days of integration, after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line in 1947. Some of them, for instance, encountered the powerful dictates of Jim Crow for the first time in traveling to the Giants spring training camp in Melbourne, Fla.
Attention to such matters formed Pompez's distinctive approach, one that blended his personal experience on and off the playing field as someone who was then often described as a Cuban Negro. That he was not a foreigner in a strange land was crucial, for he was familiar with the evolving social rules when it came to race and ethnicity in the United States, and he used this knowledge to guide his young charges and even as part of his recruitment pitch to the parents of the prospects he sought to sign.
Pompez was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in 2006 as one of a group of 17 Negro Leaguers selected by a special committee, of which you were a part. Some in the sports media then cried foul as a result. Why?
They contended that his reign as a Harlem numbers king - an illegal lottery, similar to today's 'pick three' - while a Negro League owner should have disqualified him. In their view, numbers kings were vultures who preyed on the dreams of the less fortunate in Harlem's black and Latino communities. A few went so far as to attach that label to Pompez's career in baseball, claiming he also took advantage of the baseball aspirations of Latinos for his own gain.
The dissenters are wrong on both the numbers and baseball fronts. One must understand the fundamental role of numbers money to even making the Negro Leagues operational, and of how Pompez was the most significant force in the incorporation of Latino talent for much of the 20th century. He introduced the best lot of Latino players into U.S. professional baseball when one combines his time in the Negro Leagues and major leagues. Moreover, he did not seek out Latinos as a cheaper source of talent; they were his central base. And he welcomed them all, from the darkest to the lightest, and even worked with Major League insiders before the color line was dismantled to secure opportunities for Latinos to creep across the racial divide.
After passage of the Arizona immigration bill last year, some players threatened to boycott this year's All-Star Game and a move-the-game campaign began. What's changed, if anything, in the meantime?
Groups have continued to pressure Major League Baseball to move the All-Star Game, mounting petition signature drives and organizing informational gatherings to remind baseball that they consider this a civil rights issue and one baseball has a responsibility to address. Major League Baseball is in a peculiar situation. Latinos are the largest minority within the game and now constitute over one-sixth of the nation's population. Thus Latinos are a significant potential fan base.
Part of the issue is about how baseball chooses to address (or ignore) the concerns voiced by Latino groups. Their sustained protests echo with the issues raised by Felipe Alou in his 1963 article in Sport magazine, "Latin-American Ballplayers Need a Bill of Rights." Alou insisted that baseball needed someone to expressly deal with Latino concerns, and not just in a promotional or marketing context or in an overseer-type managerial position, but rather, someone acutely aware of the cultural nuances involved. In fact, they might just need to find someone like an Alex Pompez.