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Getting it right

Honoring Latinos and integration pioneers

Every April 15 Major League Baseball commemorates Jackie Robinson and baseball integration. The 50th anniversary (1997) marked the apex of the commemorations with league officials uniformly retiring Robinson's uniform number of 42. The now annual ritual misses the mark by not educating the public about the work and the larger cast of actors (beyond Jackie and Branch Rickey) involved in the transformation of America's game. Continually left out are the contributions on and off the playing field of pioneering Latinos such as Minnie Miñoso, Vic Power, and Alex Pompez.

Today's dearth of African-American players and the howl raised by Gary Sheffield's comments in last June's GQ that baseball's Latino surge has come at their expense proves baseball still has much to do to properly address its racial past and present.

Historical amnesia has proven contagious in baseball circles when it comes to pioneering Latinos precisely at a time when Latinos have established themselves as baseball's majority-minority. Although journalists were quick to disassociate themselves from Sheffield's comments, their own laments about the declining number of Blacks in baseball have likewise excluded Afro-Latino players from among the inheritors of Robinson's legacy.

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Black Latinos and their African-American counterparts faced common obstacles placed before baseball's pioneering generation. They all dealt with Major League teams' search to find the "right kind of Negro," their hesitancy to field more nonwhites than whites on the diamond, or their avoidance of carrying an odd number of "colored" players so as to avoid "forcing" a white player to room with a "colored" teammate in their away hotels. The formerly excluded had to be twice as good to secure a roster spot: Not only good enough to beat out others at their position but to also beat out the other Black players for one of the coveted nonwhite roster spots.

Miñoso's story as baseball's first Black Latino has particular resonance here. The Cuban native traversed uncharted territory as the Majors' first Black Latino in 1949 and as the first to integrate a big league team (White Sox, 1951). His career reveals that it was not just the US-born whose careers were curtailed by the Major Leagues implementing integration haltingly and with extreme caution -- 12 years elapsed between Robinson's 1947 debut and the Boston Red Sox finally having a black player.

Quite tellingly of the historical amnesia or of the narrowed sense of who is Black, in a 2007 book (After Jackie) published to coincide with baseball integration's 60th anniversary, author Cal Fussman hails Ernie Banks as Chicago's first black star. This although Banks followed Miñoso by almost three full seasons and all of Chicago's dailies and Black weeklies celebrating Miñoso's pioneering accomplishment as it occurred.

The circumstances of Miñoso's pioneering season and other Black Latinos who entered as part of baseball's pioneering generation presents a twist on the better-known story of Jackie Robinson and African-American integration pioneers. Black Latinos heard it from all sides: too Latino to be Black; too Black to be Latino.

At times, even their African-American teammates questioned their racial identity. This happened to Miñoso when Cleveland Indians teammate Harry Simpson disagreed with the Cuban native's approach to U.S. laws and social customs about race. In a 1993 interview with historian Lisa Brock, Miñoso shared how he was "surprised and a bit amused to hear some black ballplayers tell me that I didn't understand prejudice and discrimination because I was Cuban, not black ... here in this country [U.S.], the signs in restaurants and buses prohibiting blacks applied as much to me as it did them."

The Cuba in which Miñoso grew up was no racial paradise. 1930s Cuba had its peculiar form of racial segregation that prohibited Blacks (including their mulatto President Fulgencio Bautista) from exercising the same social freedoms as their lighter-skinned compatriots. "Just as in the United States, there were many sections of Cuba, and many neighborhoods, where you only saw white people," Miñoso recalled. Cuban racial thinking was indeed powerful, coloring perceptions of fellow Cubans and their descendants. Consider former Cuban baseball league official Emilio de Armas's description of Florida-born Alex Pompez to Chicago journalist Bob Heuer in the 1980s: "El era mulatto pero todovia era buena gente," [He was mulatto, but he was still a good person].

Integration Matters

Integration changed racial matters throughout U.S. professional baseball and in the locker rooms. A sense of shared struggle was not automatic for African-Americans and Latinos pressed into the role of integration pioneers. Rather they were at times ambivalent and even embittered sojourners in the new social terrain.

Vastly more familiar with the idiosyncrasies of racial practice in the States, African-Americans became annoyed with darker-skinned Latino teammates who failed to turn to them for guidance about how to deal with segregation. Informed some "Latin Negroes" cry when faced with segregation for the first time, one African-American player told journalist Robert Boyle in a 1960 Sports Illustrated article: "I don't cry ... We don't cry, and we have it a hell of a lot worse than they do ... but we're conditioned, I guess." Yet, others formed close, lasting friendships like Hank Aaron and Afro-Puerto Rican Felix Mantilla did after rising through the Milwaukee Braves farm system, including pioneering the integration of the Southern Atlantic League in 1953.

Awareness of Latinos role in baseball's Civil Rights story, and especially within its integration chapter, remains elusive to even knowledgeable baseball aficionados, much less the average American. This has become abundantly clear as I traveled in support of my book, Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line. At various tour stops, African-American, Latino, and white audience members -- sometimes incredulous, other times surprised -- expressed they were unaware of the extent to which Latinos participated in the Negro Leagues or about their contributions to baseball integration. To this day, this remains one of the most overlooked chapters in baseball history.

This year's Civil Rights Game that pits the New York Mets (with its Latino general manager Omar Minaya and African-American manager Willie Randolph) versus the Chicago White Sox (with an African-American general manager Kenny Williams and Latino manager Ozzie Guillen) would be an appropriate stage to honor the entire generation of integration pioneers, on and off the playing field.

Organizers should cast a spotlight on the contributions of Afro-Latinos, illuminating their presence in Black baseball and how integration opened new possibilities. Such a commemoration would highlight that Afro-Latinos like Orestes Miñoso performed important social work as integration pioneers. This commemoration would thus showcase that integration was both a national and local story, with well-known stars like Robinson, Doby, and Miñoso and lesser-known figures like Pumpsie Green, and Ozzie Virgil.

Let the living integration pioneers have their day and give baseball's greatest generation their proper acknowledgement. In so doing, Major League Baseball would educate the American public that contemporary Latino stars such as Alex Rodríguez, Albert Pujols, Carlos Delgado, and Johan Santana, among others, are direct beneficiaries of the legacy created by baseball integration -- a process in which their forebears were crucial participants.

Dr. Adrian Burgos is an author and University of Illinois professor. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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