NEW YORK -- The National Baseball Hall of Fame joined forces with CITGO Petroleum Corp. on Monday to salute the impact that Latinos have had on Major League Baseball. A subsidiary of the Venezuelan-based oil company, CITGO is spending $5 million during the next five years to underwrite a series of exhibits that will be showcased at museums and ballparks across the U.S. The first panel display is set to be unveiled at San Diego's PETCO Park on March 18-20 during the semifinals and finals of the inaugural World Baseball Classic. The larger museum exhibit will be launched this spring and traverse the country for the next year. "This day is long overdue," said Roberto Clemente Jr. at a press conference announcing the project. "It's nearly a century in the making."
Clemente Jr., whose Hall of Fame father died in a plane crash off the coast of their native Puerto Rico on Dec. 31, 1972, was joined by a quartet of famous Hispanic Hall of Famers representing different regions of Latin America: Juan Marichal of the Dominican Republic; Tony Perez from Cuba; Luis Aparicio from Venezuela and Orlando Cepeda from Puerto Rico. Only seven of the 196 players enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y., are of Latin origin. The other two are Rod Carew, who is of Panamanian decent, and Martin Dihigo, a Negro League entry born in Cuba. In the future there will be more. Marichal, for instance, is the only Dominican in the Hall, but he's sure ultimately to be joined by some from a group of active players that include Pedro Martinez, Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Miguel Tejada. "I say today to kids and I say to the world that nothing is impossible," said Marichal, the Giants right-hander with the trademark high leg kick, who is from the town of Laguna Verde in the Dominican. "Considering where I was born, if I went all the way to the Major Leagues and then all the way to Cooperstown, then nothing is impossible." The traveling exhibits will include artifacts and photographs of the famous players and, indeed, Marichal donated a glove that he quipped "was older than Cepeda." The Baby Bull, who starred for the Giants and Cardinals, among other teams, during his 17-year career, added a number of black and white photographs. "As a Puerto Rican guy, I'm very happy going from city to city so people will know what we went through," Cepeda said. Clemente, whose 18-year career, all with the Pirates, ended when his twin-engine plane carrying food and supplies to an earthquake-torn Nicaragua plunged into the ocean off the coast of Isla Verde, was the 87th Latin player when he ascended to the Major Leagues in 1955, his son said on Monday. Jackie Robinson shattered the color barrier in 1947. "But my father was the first to speak out about the inequities that Latin players faced in the game and society," Clemente Jr. said. There's a move afoot to retire Clemente's No. 21 for all of the 30 franchises, much like Robinson's famous No. 42 was retired nine years ago. But last week Sharon Robinson, the daughter of the late Brooklyn Dodger Hall of Famer, spoke out against that notion. "When you start retiring numbers across the board, for all different groups, you're kind of diluting the original purpose," she said. Clemente Jr. said he agreed with Robinson when asked pointedly about the prospect on Monday, but he added that the subject should be deferred to a later date. Perez was one of the last players legally able to leave Cuba under the regime of President Fidel Castro, who disbanded the Cuban professional leagues in the early 1960s. "I feel like I'm the luckiest guy who ever came out of Cuba," said Perez, who signed as a free agent with the Reds in 1960 and played the first 13 of his 23 seasons in Cincinnati. "The saddest day was when I told my family that I was leaving the country to play professional baseball and I might not be coming back. It took me 10 years before I saw them again." Aparicio played for the "Go-Go" White Sox that lost the 1959 World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers. As the only native Venezuelan in the Hall, Aparicio presented the American League Manager of Year award to fellow countryman Ozzie Guillen at the Baseball Writers of America dinner on Sunday night. Guillen, who also played shortstop for the White Sox and managed the team to the World Series title last October, noted that he received just one vote on the writers' Hall of Fame ballot, which was released earlier this month. Bruce Sutter was the only player elected. Glancing at the collection of stars at the head table, which included Cepeda, Aparicio, Cal Ripken Jr., Pujols and Alex Rodriguez, Guillen mused that it was the closest he would get to the Hall of Fame. Aparicio said on Monday that he never stops being thankful that he was elected to the shrine that Clemente Jr. called "the Vatican of baseball." "It's got to be the greatest thing in the world," Aparicio said. "If I had it to do it all over again, I'd still be a baseball player."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.