At a time when scouting in Latin America was in its infancy, the New York Giants in 1956 called up-with little fanfare-Osvaldo (Ozzie) Virgil, who was the first Dominican in the Majors.
The Giants, together with the Pittsburgh Pirates (who could forget Roberto Clemente, scouted from Puerto Rico) were two of the first teams to actively scout Latin American players. And the Giants, in San Francisco by the late 1950s, would have on their team the first wave of Dominican players who would make a lasting impact on Major League Baseball: The Rojas Alou brothers and Hall of Famer Juan Marichal.
The eldest of the baseball-playing Rojas Alou brothers, Felipe, came up with San Francisco in 1958, followed by Mateo (Matty) in 1960 and Jesus in 1963. All three Alou brothers would go on to have more than respectable careers, and in 1963 they made history as the first trio of brothers to play in the same outfield at the same time.
The Alous had some stellar moments in the Majors with the Giants and later other teams (including Matty's batting title in 1966 with the Pirates), but the true Dominican superstar of the Giants of the 1960's was Juan Marichal. The right-hander came up in 1960 and was an immediate sensation on the mound. With his unique high leg kick, the "Dominican Dandy" was a nightmare for National League hitters, winning 20-plus games six times and finishing his career with 243 wins (and incredibly, 244 complete games, more than his victory total) and a 2.89 ERA in 16 seasons.
On June 15, 1963, Marichal threw a no-hitter against the Houston Colt 45's, and on July 2 of that year, he had what many would say was his shining moment in baseball: a 16-inning shutout, against Milwaukee Braves' Hall of Famer Warren Spahn no less. Willie Mays ended the classic duel with a home run in the 16th to give Marichal and the Giants the victory. Can you imagine a hurler going 16 innings in this era of the over-protected pitcher? Impossible. But that's part of Marichal's legend.
Marichal was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983, and he is still the only Dominican in Cooperstown. But that will change in a few short years, when several of his countrymen will have been retired for the mandatory five years before eligibility.
Other Dominican pioneers in the 1960s were Cardinals second baseman Julian Javier, Kansas City A's outfielder Manuel Jimenez and pitcher Rudy Hernandez, who had a short stint with the Washington Senators.
THE NEXT GENERATION
After the era of Marichal and the Alous, more talent from the Dominican began to reach Major League organizations, but at times it seems as if this generation has gone somewhat unsung.
Maybe it's because there was no cable TV or internet during most of these years, or because the players didn't necessarily have Hall of Fame caliber careers. Sure, in the Dominican those with thorough baseball knowledge hold this generation in the praise it deserves, but younger fans in and outside the D.R. are a little fuzzy on who really composed that next wave of players from the island. Here's a little reminder of some of the stars that made their mark in the Majors in the late '60s, '70s and '80s:
Ricardo (Rico) Carty, one of countless natives from the town of San Pedro de Macoris who have shined in the Majors, was a kind of a "bridge" between the first and second generation of Dominicans in the big leagues, coming up in 1963 with the Braves. A solid hitter, Carty was one of the mainstays of Milwaukee-Atlanta's lineup in the late 60's and early 70's, including his stellar 1970 season in which he led the N.L. in hitting with a robust .366 average. He combined average (.299 lifetime) with good power and production, finishing with 204 home runs and 890 RBIs in a 15-year career.
Manuel (Manny) Mota is another in the group of Dominican players who developed in the Giants' system in the early '60s, but he would go on to a long career after leaving San Francisco. After coming up with the Giants in 1962 and later having several solid seasons with the Pirates in the '60s, Mota would make a name for himself in the '70s with the Dodgers in a specific role: pinch-hitter. Mainly as a backup outfielder with Los Angeles, Mota turned into an important specialist for many successful Dodgers teams, and he would retire in 1982 with the record for most lifetime pinch hits with 150 (that record has been subsequently broken by Lenny Harris).
Cesar Cedeno was quite a sensation when he came up with the Astros in 1970 at age 19. The prototype of the "five-tool player," the Santo Domingo native did it all in Houston, with power, speed, a good average, a good glove and a strong arm in centerfield. From 1970 to 1977, the "Super Baby" was one of the most exciting players to watch in all of baseball.
Cesar "Cesarin" Geronimo is perhaps one of the overlooked regulars on Cincinnati's Big Red Machine of the 1970s, but his role on that overpowering team cannot be underestimated. His play in center field was key for the Reds, combining with that of Dave Concepcion at short, Joe Morgan at second and Johnny Bench behind the plate to form one of the best defenses ever up the middle. And at the plate, Geronimo had his share of timely hits for Cincinnati's World Series champion teams of 1975 and 1976.
Alfredo Griffin made his Major League debut originally with the Indians in the mid-'70s, but in 1979 he came up for good with the Blue Jays and that year was co-A.L. Rookie of the Year. Griffin combined solid defense at shortstop with a more than respectable bat, as well as speed on the basepaths with Toronto, Oakland and the Dodgers. He won three World Series rings, one with Los Angeles and two with the Blue Jays, as he finished his Major League career.
Joaquin Andujar also came up in the mid-'70s, with the Astros, but with a team as stacked with starting pitching as Houston was, it wasn't easy for the San Pedro de Macoris native to crack the rotation. Things changed for Andujar in 1981 when he was traded to the Cardinals. He had two straight 20-win seasons in St. Louis in 1984-85, but his shining moments with the Cardinals were in 1982 when he won 15 games with an excellent 2.47 ERA. In that year's World Series, Andujar pitching with an extremely sore knee, gutted out a victory in Game 7 against the Brewers. The right-hander liked to call himself "One tough Dominican," and was just that during the Fall Classic of '82, winning two games vs. Milwaukee.
Pedro Guerrero was one of the best hitters of his time, first with the Dodgers and then with the Cardinals. Another native of San Pedro de Macoris, Guerrero was a mainstay of the Dodgers lineup in the '80s, including a stellar performance in the 1981 World Series, in which he hit .333 with two home runs, a double, a triple and seven RBI's in a six-game victory for Los Angeles over the Yankees; he would be named co-MVP of the series.
Mario (Melvin) Soto excelled with the Reds during some of the lean years in Cincinnati from the early to mid-80's. From 1981 to 1985, Soto was one of the better pitchers in the National League, striking out 200 or more three times and winning 17 and 18 games in 1983 and 1984, respectively.
George Bell was a feared power hitter and fine RBI man in the '80s and early '90s, mostly with the Blue Jays, and in the end with the Cubs and White Sox. From 1984 to 1992, he was one of the most productive players in the Majors, and in 1987 he had his signature season: a .308 average, 47 home runs and 134 RBI's. Those numbers were good enough for Bell to be named A.L. Most Valuable Player (the first time a Dominican won an MVP award). Coincidentally, it was Bell who was traded from the Cubs to the White Sox in 1992 for his countryman Sammy Sosa, who would go on to make baseball history in Wrigley Field.
Pascual (Cuta) Perez was one of the most colorful pitchers of the 1980's, but he combined that with an impressive repertoire on the mound with the Braves, Expos and Yankees. Perez began his Major League career with the Pirates, but he established himself in Atlanta, with solid seasons in 1983 and 1984. After missing the 1986 campaign, Perez had an amazing 7-0 mark with the Expos to finish the 1987 season, and would win 12 more in Montreal the next year. Perez was followed by his brothers Melido and Carlos as Major League pitchers.
Jose Rijo is one of the best Dominican hurlers to pitch in the Majors, making his mark on the Cincinnati Reds from the late 80's through the mid-90's, and then in an admirable comeback from serious elbow injuries in 2001. Rijo originally came up in 1984 with the Yankees, and after a three-year stint with the A's, he was traded to Cincinnati in 1988. With the confidence and encouragement of then-manager Pete Rose, Rijo established himself in the Reds' rotation, reaching double figures in wins on five occasions. The shining moment for the native of San Cristobal and ex-son in law of Juan Marichal was in 1990 when he won two games against Oakland in the World Series, including a dominating performance in the decisive Game 4. In 15.1 innings in the 1990 Fall Classic, Rijo gave up just one run and struck out 14, and was named Most Valuable Player of the series.
Tony Fernandez was one of the best defensive shortstops of his time, ranking high on the list of lifetime fielding percentage for the position. Fernandez was a cornerstone of many successful Blue Jays teams of the late '80s, and he would return to Toronto as shortstop of its second championship club in 1993. He would go on to play several infield positions on various clubs in the '90s, and finished his career full-circle with the Blue Jays in 2001.
Julio (Cesar) Franco...the first question would be, what generation does he belong to? He came up in 1982, and is still an active player in the big leagues. But make no mistake -- the curiosity of Franco and his marathon career should not take away from his quality as a player; quite the contrary, as his ability to stay in shape and contribute are a testimony to his worth. And in his prime, Franco was one of the better hitters in baseball, as shown by his A.L. batting title in 1991 with the Rangers.
IN THE DUGOUT
After so many years of fine contributions to the game by Dominican players, Felipe Alou took the reins of the Montreal Expos in 1992, becoming the first Major League manager from the island. Although he suffered with the departure of so many stars year after year in Montreal, Alou kept the Expos competitive from '92 to '96, always getting the most out of his young talent. In 1994, he was named N.L. Manager of the Year, after the Expos finished with the best record in a strike-shortened season. Alou would return to San Francisco to manage the Giants in 2003, when he led the team to the N.L. West title.
Alou was followed as Major League manager by his countrymen Luis Pujols in Detroit and Tony Pena in Kansas City; Pena was named A.L. Manager of the Year in 2003. And the latest Dominican manager in the Majors is Manny Acta, a skipper of great promise with the Washington Nationals.
IN THE FRONT OFFICE
In 2002, Omar Minaya became general manager of the Montreal Expos, becoming the first Dominican GM in the Major Leagues. Two years later, he would take the same position with the New York Mets, and in 2006 his team won the N.L. East and would come within one game of reaching the World Series.
The influence of the Dominican Republic in the Major Leagues has gone from a few players signed in the '50s by a limited number of teams to an enormous presence of stars that are front and center, establishing records and winning individual awards seemingly every season. The impact is so great that there are sure names and moments left out, precisely because it's practically impossible to include them all.
And it's not necessary here to go into the great accomplishments of the likes of Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz, Sammy Sosa, Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada, Manny Ramirez, etc. Their exploits are well known, and their stories have yet to be completed.
The history of the Major Leagues since 1956 would never have been as rich as it has been without the tremendous influx of Dominican talent, and that is something to be celebrated. The eastern half of Hispaniola's island will continue to be a great source of quality baseball players, and in order to fully appreciate the present and future stars, it's important to look back at those who arrived first and opened the door for the next generation.