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Playing America's Game

Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line

Adrian Burgos
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Playing America's Game
    Book Description:

    Although largely ignored by historians of both baseball in general and the Negro leagues in particular, Latinos have been a significant presence in organized baseball from the beginning. In this benchmark study on Latinos and professional baseball from the 1880s to the present, Adrian Burgos tells a compelling story of the men who negotiated the color line at every turn—passing as "Spanish" in the major leagues or seeking respect and acceptance in the Negro leagues.

    Burgos draws on archival materials from the U.S., Cuba, and Puerto Rico, as well as Spanish- and English-language publications and interviews with Negro league and major league players. He demonstrates how the manipulation of racial distinctions that allowed management to recruit and sign Latino players provided a template for Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey when he initiated the dismantling of the color line by signing Jackie Robinson in 1947. Burgos's extensive examination of Latino participation before and after Robinson's 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94077-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  6. Introduction: Latinos Play America’s Game
    (pp. 1-14)

    The indelible mark segregation left on the American collective memory goes beyond posted signs and the official enforcement of Jim Crow laws in the South. Segregation was more than Eugene “Bull” Connor and his police officers letting loose their dogs and turning water hoses on civil rights marchers in Birmingham, Alabama. Segregation involved both official and social acts that restricted access to public and private facilities and institutions along lines of race. More than a southern phenomenon, segregation’s impact also came from everyday acts of citizens emboldened by their own racial beliefs and, at times, by law enforcement or social...


    • 1 A National Game Emerges The Search for Markets and the Dilemmas of Inclusion
      (pp. 17-33)

      Little fanfare surrounded eighteen-year-old Esteban Bellán’s decision to leave Rose Hill College in 1868 after completing just three years of grammar preparation classes (the equivalent of high school). A member of the Rose Hill varsity baseball club for those three years, the Cuban native aspired to turn his talent on the diamond into a career in professional baseball. This ambition, however, meant joining a profession that was still experiencing growing pains and had yet to establish a stable economic footing.

      The professionalization of baseball had undergone uneven development by the time Bellán embarked on his professional journey. Although newspaper coverage...

    • 2 Early Maneuvers Vincent Nava, the Cuban Giants, and the Color Line
      (pp. 34-52)

      “The Spanish Catcher of the Providence Club”: that was the tag Providence (Rhode Island) Grays team officials and the local press attached to Vincent Nava when he first appeared in the National League. Nava’s arrival in professional baseball’s most elite circuit was news in 1882. Over the next three seasons, Providence boosted attendance at the league’s games and local exhibitions by strategically using team photographs and advertising postcards featuring their catcher Nava to pique the curiosity of baseball fans.

      Vincent Nava’s entry into the National League drew more notice than had Esteban Bellán, his Latino predecessor in the National Association....

    • 3 Holding the Line African Americans and Experiments with Racial Inclusion
      (pp. 53-68)

      Organized baseball in the 1880s faced internal and external challenges to the terms and conditions of inclusion. African Americans campaigned for their inclusion as social equals at every professional level. Internally, the first organized collection of big-league players waged a battle against management, contending that they were highly skilled, professional men who merited better treatment than being bought and traded like chattel. In addition, a number of minor-league teams challenged the gentleman’s agreement, hoping to improve their squads by adding talented African American players. These challenges to the terms of access, mounted primarily as distinct struggles to baseball’s status quo,...


    • 4 Baseball Should Follow the Flag Incorporating Nonwhite Others in the Age of Empire
      (pp. 71-87)

      In 1911 sporting-goods mogul A. G. Spalding authored a history of baseball that celebrated the rise of “America’s national game” and advocated its spread in the “American colonies.” Spalding described the expansion of the U.S. national pastime into the outposts of the new American empire as a positive development and proudly proclaimed baseball was already being played throughout Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and even the Philippines. For Spalding, colonialism and the military were responsible for the game’s spread into these new lands: “our soldiers and sailors” introduced baseball wherever they set foot.¹

      North American newspapers also enthusiastically reported the game’s...

    • 5 “Purest Bars of Castilian Soap” Cubans Break into Organized Baseball, 1908–1920
      (pp. 88-110)

      Between 1900 and the early 1920s a transnational baseball circuit emerged that linked New York, San Francisco, and Chicago with Havana, San Juan, and Santo Domingo. This period saw teams from organized and black baseball make regular tours of Cuba and other parts of Latin America. Big-league teams started annual barnstorming tours in 1900. Two years later, African American teams began to tour Cuba, and by 1907 African American players were formal participants in the Cuban league. It would be another five years before Detroit Tigers Matty McIntyre became the first major leaguer to play on a Cuban league team.¹...

    • 6 Making Cuban Stars Alejandro Pompez and Latinos in Black Baseball
      (pp. 111-140)

      The story of Latinos and America’s game is incomplete without a discussion of their long participation in Negro-league baseball. Nor can this story be told without acknowledging the dynamic presence of African Americans who participated at the Latin American points within baseball’s transnational circuit. From the turn of the early twentieth century in Jim Crow America, before there were formally organized Negro leagues, to after the Negro leagues had disintegrated in the 1950s, African American players were sought after and secured for their skills by Latin American baseball entrepreneurs in Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking Americas....

    • 7 Becoming Cuban Senators
      (pp. 141-161)

      Throughout baseball’s Jim Crow era, major-league team officials widened the eligible talent pool by adopting labels that fused notions of race and ethnicity yet preserved the overarching goal of black exclusion. Big-league officials traced the national origins of players from the Spanish-speaking Americas back to particular regions of Spain, or in a few cases Portugal, to establish the racial eligibility of individual players they sought to sign. This practice created the context in which Californian Vernon “Lefty” Gómez, Tampa native Al Lopez, Mexican native Melo Almada, Cuban-born Adolfo “Dolf” Luque entered the major leagues as suitable ethnics from the Spanish-speaking...

    • 8 Playing in the World Jim Crow Made
      (pp. 162-176)

      Latinos enjoyed their greatest level of participation in U.S. professional baseball in the 1930s and 1940s, prior to the dismantling of the racial barrier. The thirty players from the Spanish-speaking Americas who made their major-league debut between 1935 and 1945 unsettled supporters of segregation. The Latino presence on either side of baseball’s racial barrier, and especially the handful of players who moved back and forth between the Negro leagues and organized baseball, clouded the associations among skin color, race, and exclusion. Those who supported racial integration pointed to the entry of more racially ambiguous Latinos into the majors as a...


    • 9 Latinos and Baseball’s Integration
      (pp. 179-197)

      When integration is revisited with the understanding that it was a process and not a moment of instantaneous change, the important precedent established through the signing of Latinos comes into sharper focus. Assuredly, major-league team officials contemplated, if ever so briefly, signing African American players before Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson. Rickey’s willingness to break from the gentleman’s agreement separated him from his peers in major-league front offices. But the history Rickey drew on in making his decision to break from convention remains a critical consideration in assessing the process of integration. Such an assessment requires considering how contemporaries in...

    • 10 Troubling the Waters Latinos in the Shadow of Integration
      (pp. 198-226)

      Denied entry into the majors a generation earlier, black Latinos were no longer restricted to performing in Latin America and in the Negro leagues or subjected to being summarily bounced from organized baseball for having African ancestry. For the first time in the history of Latino participation in organized baseball, darker-skinned Latinos could openly acknowledge their black and Latino identity. Although the racial barrier that restricted access was being dismantled, the powerful beliefs that had long sustained segregation lived on. Vic Power, Felipe Alou, and the dozens of other Latinos who pioneered integration in minor- and big-league towns learned that...

    • 11 Latinos and Baseball’s Global Turn
      (pp. 227-242)

      Roberto Clemente’s death rocked the baseball world as the sport and Puerto Rico lost one of their most recognizable Latino stars. Recognition of Clemente’s historical significance came much more quickly for him than it did for Martin Dihigo and other Latino pioneers in the Negro leagues. In an unprecedented move, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) waived its five-year waiting period and elected Clemente for enshrinement as part of the 1973 induction class.

      Credit for renewing interest in Negro-league greats belongs, in part, to Ted Williams, who used his 1966 induction acceptance speech to call for recognition of Negro-league...

    • 12 Saying It Is So-sa!
      (pp. 243-260)

      The participation of Latinos in U.S. professional baseball does more than reflect popular racial perceptions and social conditions away from the baseball diamond. The professional baseball scene operates as a public forum where the meaning of difference between Latinos and other racialized groups is played out before the American sporting public—sometimes before such issues fully emerge in popular conversation. This is acutely seen in discussions about the “browning of America.” In the aftermath of the adjusted 2000 census figures, debates about the significance of Latinos and their new status as the majority minority have become timely, particularly as pundits,...

  10. Conclusion: Still Playing America’s Game
    (pp. 261-268)

    The discourse of baseball as the U.S. national pastime needing protection from those who would besmirch its purity continues to influence Americans, from well-heeled politicians to blue-collar fans. Congressional hearings about steroids in baseball, conversations on sports radio, and expanded electronic media coverage reiterate the symbolic significance attached to baseball as America’s game. As a testament to the game’s enduring symbolic power, the 2005 congressional hearings on steroids and baseball occurred against the backdrop of suspicions that baseball’s home-run surge following the canceled 1994 season was the outcome of performance enhancers. The mid-March hearings put the vaunted ideas about America’s...

  11. Appendix: Pioneering Latinos
    (pp. 269-274)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 275-320)
  13. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 321-344)
  14. Index
    (pp. 345-362)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 363-364)