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"No One Walks Off the Island"

Dominican prospects, including future MVP Miguel Tejada (left), at Oakland Athletics’ academy, 1993

Dominican prospects, including future MVP Miguel Tejada (left), at Oakland Athletics’ academy, 1993 Jose Luis Villegas

On April 15, 1997, at New York's Shea Stadium, baseball paid a belated tribute to its bravest pioneer. Jackie Robinson's number 42 was posthumously retired by every major-league team. Only those players currently wearing "42" would be permitted to keep using it, and when they retired no one would ever again wear the number of the first player to break baseball's color line.

Doug Glanville talks about baseball and diversity

Marcos Breton discusses Jackie Robinson's impact on baseball.

Yet even as Robinson received this unprecedented honor, American blacks were disappearing from the game – on the field and in the stands. African-Americans' long struggle for acceptance in major-league baseball had mirrored the larger fight for civil rights, but now they were turning away from the sport in favor of football and basketball, and the other opportunities that they had forced open for themselves.

Throughout its history, baseball had replenished its talent by drawing on new ethnic groups of Americans, their arrival in the major leagues often signaling their assimilation into the mainstream. Now, for the first time, baseball would draw heavily on pools of talent from outside the United States, and once again the game would be transformed.

By far the greatest trove of new players was to be found in parts of the Caribbean, where baseball had been enormously popular for more than a century. Latin Americans had played professional baseball in the United States since the late 1800s but when the color line had hardened in the game, only those who could claim to be of "pure Castilian" (read "white") ancestry were welcomed. Even then, they were sometimes brutally ostracized, taunted, and even thrown at, to the point where in the 1930s Washington Senators manager Bucky Harris had to threaten to fine his own players if they did not stop insulting their Cuban teammates.

Most of the great Latin stars fell on the other side of the color line. Many, such as "The Black Diamond," the great Cuban right hander, Jose Mendez; El Caballero, the splendid outfielder, Alejandro Oms; El Maestro, Martin Dihigo, the greatest Latin star of all, played in the Negro Leagues on various iterations of the Harlem-based Cuban Stars. They lived a peripatetic existence, playing in the U.S. in the summer, then with different island or Mexican teams in the winter. Others, such as Puerto Rican slugger Pedro Cepeda, and father of Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, never bothered coming to the States at all, preferring the respect and adulation they were accorded at home.

Felipe Alou talks about segregation in the 50s and 60s

Felipe Alou talks about the language barrier and the ridicule Spanish speakers faced

With the end of Jim Crow in baseball, more Latin stars of all colors made the majors in the 1950s and '60s, despite the general racial animosity they still faced. Led by the ferociously competitive Roberto Clemente, they included such stars as Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Orestes "Minnie" Miñoso, Luis Aparicio, Bobby Avila; and the Alou brothers, Felipe, Matty, and Jesus. Unlike most American blacks, they did not yet know the unstated "rules" of segregated life in the United States. Felipe Alou, who started his professional career in the Giants' system in 1956. recalled that when he came to America, "I didn't even know what ‘colored' meant."

Alou had been a college student in the Dominican Republic, the son of a white mother and a father who was descended from slaves. He had grown up in a society without a color line, but playing for a minor-league team in Florida, Alou found himself forced to the back of a municipal bus, and into colored balconies in movie theaters. Even on the team bus, he had to depend on teammates to bring him food from segregated restaurants he could not enter, and he could not stay in the same hotels as white players. In some towns, he was not even allowed to play.

Sportswriters quoted his broken English verbatim for the amusement of their readers, and ridiculed Alou and his fellow Latins as "clowns" and "hot dogs" for the impassioned style of play they brought to the States.

Like many Latin players, Alou soon discovered that he had to be "a lot, lot better" than white players to advance to the major leagues.

"But that's the way it was, and we lived with it. And we made it, thank God," remembered Alou, who was faced with the dilemma of putting up with the abuse, or going back to live under the brutal, U.S.-backed regime of Rafael Trujillo. "It was a way to get out. I said to myself, which was better, to confront this problem, or to be a second- or third-class citizen, or to go back and live under a dictatorship?"

Marcos Breton talks about the Dominican Republic's love of baseball

Ramon Paredes discusses how most boys learn baseball at a very young age in the Dominican Republic

Felipe Alou and his fellow Latin players were doing more than making it for themselves and their families. They were breaking down barriers for hundreds of their countrymen to come. By the 1990s the trickle of Hispanic stars had become a flood. The U.S. boycott of the Castro regime had cut off the original source of most Latin players, but now they came from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, and above all, Alou's Dominican Republic, a tiny, impoverished nation of less than eight million people at the time.

Baseball had been brought to the D.R. in the 1890s by Cubans, and it spread like a fever through the capital of Santo Domingo, and the little sugar refinery towns of La Paja, Quisqueya, and especially San Pedro de Macoris, soon famous for its cane fields, its poets, and its shortstops. By the twenty-first century, San Pedro de Macoris had produced stars at all positions and no fewer than 73 major leaguers, including the likes of Rico Carty, George Bell, Tony Fernandez, Pedro Guerrero, and Alfonso Soriano. 

The talent to be found in just one Dominican city was not lost on major-league scouts. By the 1990s, they were routinely signing up players from the Republic at ages as young as 16. They played an aggressive, hustling brand of ball, much like that perfected by previous generations of African-Americans and known locally as beisbol romantico.

The saying spread among Dominican prospects, "No one walks off the island." It meant that in a land with so much baseball talent you had to hit, and hit aggressively, to impress the American scouts; simply showing a good eye would not be enough.

  • Ramon Paredes discusses the culture shock disappearing when 'play ball' is called
  • Omar Vizquel talks about the cultural difference of being a Latin player in baseball

Ramon Paredes discusses the culture shock disappearing when 'play ball' is called

Omar Vizquel talks about the cultural difference of being a Latin player in baseball

Once they had hit their way off the island, Dominicans and other Latin players still faced many obstacles, including the language barrier and other cultural adjustments. Despite the rising percentage of Hispanic Americans, young Latin players often started their professional careers in small minor-league cities, far from anything they were familiar with.

A few major-league clubs, beginning with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Toronto Blue Jays, opened "baseball academies" in the Dominican Republic that were designed to help prospects learn English and American customs, as well as baseball.

Latin prospects were not subject to the major-league amateur draft, and could be signed for far lower amounts than comparable American ballplayers. Their relatively meager signing bonuses were further diminished by unscrupulous "buscones," local scouts who coached children as young as ten, honing their skills, offering them gloves, bats, and shoes, food, vitamins, and performance enhancing supplements, to help them grow strong enough to compete and impress. If a boy was lucky enough at sixteen to sign with an American team, his buscone negotiated his contract, and typically helped himself to a hefty cut of the prospect's signing bonus.

  • Pedro Martinez on the opportunity to play baseball
  • Chris Rock talks about trying to imagine baseball without Dominican players

Pedro Martinez on the opportunity to play baseball

Chris Rock talks about trying to imagine baseball without Dominican players

The young players were, in the words of writer Marcos Breton, "being exploited at the same time they're being given the greatest opportunity of their lives."

At the major-league level, teams often remained indifferent to the needs of their Latin players, begrudging them Latin coaches, and the translators that they rushed to make available to Asian stars. Most Latin prospects – like most players from anywhere – would not make the major leagues. Unlike American ballplayers who did not make the grade, they rarely had the option of returning to school, or entering the legitimate U.S. economy. Instead they often hung on in urban semipro leagues around the United States even after their temporary visas had expired, scuffling for jobs, risking detention and deportation as illegal aliens.

Yet many Latin ballplayers would not only endure but triumph. The 1997 All-Star Game featured fifteen players of Latin ancestry, including Pedro Martinez, Edgar Martinez, Moises Alou, Andres Galarraga, Roberto and Sandy Alomar, Jr., Mariano Rivera, Ivan Rodriguez, and Alex Rodriguez. By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Latins constituted a majority of the roster on several major-league teams, and forty-six percent of all minor-league players. They dominated the game as no other ethnic group ever quite had. Beisbol romantico had arrived.

Excerpt from Baseball: An Illustrated History by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns (with a new chapter by Kevin Baker).

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