Perhaps no worthier story has remained more hidden than that of Latinos and baseball. Marcos Bretón shows us the story has much to tell about the future–and past–of race and sport.
The conversation was with a nationally syndicated sports columnist.
I said: “Did you know that at the end of the 1999 season, nine out of the top ten hitters in the American League were Latino or had Latino roots?”
Silence….”I didn’t know that.”
This ignorance came as no surprise to me after having spent most of 1999 promoting my book Away Games: The Life and Times of a Latin Ballplayer, along with my collaborator José Luis Villegas. Despite an explosion of exciting new Latinos stars, the story of Latino baseball players in the major leagues is still grossly underreported.
Even more troubling is the invisibility of the realities behind this story.
Almost all the Latino stars in baseball today–now 25 percent of major league rosters and growing–come from overwhelming poverty, a reality that Major League Baseball (MLB) avidly exploits. For example: The focal point of my book–Miguel Tejada, shortstop of the Oakland Athletics–came from a destitute barrio in the Dominican Republic with no running water and little electricity.
Knowing he had no alternatives, the Athletics acquired Tejada’s considerable talent for a mere $2,000. By comparison, Tejada’s white American teammate, Ben Grieve, received a $1.2 million signing bonus. Similarly, the Texas Rangers acquired Sammy Sosa’s services in 1986 for $3,500–the exact amount the Brooklyn Dodgers paid to sign Jackie Robinson in 1946.
Every team in Major League Baseball exploits Latino baseball players. Dick Balderson, vice-president of the Colorado Rockies, frankly calls this the “boatload mentality”–sign a “boatload” of Latinos for little money and if only a couple make it to the big leagues, teams still come out ahead. “Instead of signing four [American] guys at $25,000 each, you sign 20 [Dominican] guys for $5,000 each.”
The justification for this “boatload mentality” used by baseball people is this: Tejada and other budding Latino players are fortunate that MLB affords them an opportunity to escape the third world poverty they grew up in. Baseball gives them a way out, a chance to get paid, eat regularly, sleep in clean beds, and, for the very best, a crack at fame and fortune.
After all, their reasoning goes, isn’t Sammy Sosa–a former shoe shine boy like Tejada–a perfect example of the rags-to-riches life only MLB can confer on Latino kids otherwise bound for the sugar cane fields or worse?
The answer is yes. And there is a fundamental truth to the notion that baseball was the only way for Sosa and Tejada to pull themselves and their families out of poverty.
But does that make it right for MLB to sign Latino ballplayers–whose talent is paying huge dividends for big league teams–for next to nothing? It is, after all, the same justification used by U.S. employers for their pervasive mistreatment and exploitation of Latino immigrant workers.
According to Major League Baseball, 90 to 95 percent of Latino players signed to contracts never reach the big leagues. The vast majority never get a chance to play in the U.S., not even in the minor leagues. And all but a few of those brought to the U.S. are released without ever playing major league ball.
Most of these discarded Latino players stay in the U.S. as undocumented immigrants rather than return as “failures” to a country that offers them little future. The lives these young men lead are often dangerous, destitute, and sad. Many go to New York because they have friends or family in what is the largest concentration of Dominicans in the United States.
José Santana was a Houston Astros prospect until he was released in 1995. Now he mops floors in a Brooklyn bodega and plays semi-pro on the weekends, all the while frantically placing calls to an American agent who once filled his head with dollar signs, but now can’t be bothered. Tony McDonald is a former minor league star who had the misfortune of being a third baseman in the Philadelphia Phillies organization at the same time Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt was in his prime. Today, McDonald works in a warehouse. These castoffs represent the underside of the Sammy Sosa story, the rule rather than the exception in the high-stakes recruitment of ball players from Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Talent Plunder
Baseball is investing millions in Latin America, sending scouts across the Caribbean basin in search of barefoot boys with quick reflexes, strong hand-eye coordination, and powerful arms.
Miguel Tejada was one of these boys. Born and raised in a miserable barrio in the Dominican town of Bani, Tejada’s family was displaced by a hurricane when he was three. For the next five years, the family lived in homeless shelters until settling in a shanty town on the outskirts of Bani. Tejada was shining shoes by the age of five.
He quit school to work full-time at the age of eleven. His mother died when he was 13. At about the same time, his father left to find work in another town, leaving Tejada and his older brother to fend for themselves. For the next four years, Tejada lived a hand-to-mouth existence.
But it turns out that Miguel had baseball talent, and he was signed by the Oakland Athletics in 1993 when he was 17. He was sent to a “baseball academy” the Athletics built in a Dominican jungle, where signees are drilled in baseball fundamentals all day every day. At the academy, Tejada ate balanced meals for the first time in his life. He was given English lessons every night. And he was taught to steel himself for competition.
There were 70 other Miguel Tejadas at his camp alone, all of them from backgrounds similar to his, all with the same intense desire to stand out–not just for the love of the game, but for survival.
And all were signed for almost no money. Most big league teams run academies in the Dominican Republic because it costs a small fraction of what it takes to field minor league teams in the U.S. The best of the best get sent to America. The ones who aren’t good enough or “cooperative” enough are sent back to the poverty they’ve always known. These academies are baseball factories producing big league talent at subminimum wages.
Tejada started his first summer league game on the bench, watching other players the Athletics thought had more talent. Then he got his first at-bat: he hit a home run. Soon, this destitute, uneducated kid was being shipped to the U.S. as a “prospect.”
Speaking no English, he put aside intense homesickness to make a name for himself on the field in far-flung towns like Medford, Oregon, Modesto, California, and Huntsville, Alabama.
He came alive only when he was on the field. Off the field, he had few friends, no transportation or understanding of the world around him. Like all Latino minor leaguers, he led a lonely life in the U.S. From 1995 to 1997, Tejada spent his off-field time isolated in his room watching Spanish-language novellas on TV, cooking Spanish rice and beans, and listening to his music.
On the field, he played among American players of far less talent who had signed for far more money than he. With his skills, Tejada would have easily commanded a seven-figure signing bonus were he an American.
A bright young man despite his lack of formal education, Tejada knew exactly where he stood in baseball’s hierarchy. He somehow managed not to let it get him down, but other Latinos burn with rage at the inequities they face at the hands of MLB.
When Tejada reached the big leagues in August of 1997, his dream was realized and baseball people could rightly say that the game had given a wonderful life to a kid with no options. But Tejada was the only survivor from the dozens of Dominican kids signed at the same time he was. While those other young men have been forgotten, numerous eager young Latino players have been signed to take their place.
Meanwhile, Tejada has secured his spot in the Athletics infield. He is now a fan favorite with a bright future. And he is coming of age at a time when Latino players like Sammy Sosa, Ivan Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers, and Pedro Martinez of the Boston Red Sox are dominating the game. I call their story “the last great, untold story of baseball.”
Gunboats and Baseball
Few Americans realize that Tejada’s Dominican Republic, the greatest producer of Latino players today, was invaded and occupied by U.S. forces twice in this century and has been bullied and dominated by the U.S. ever since.
It was those invading U.S. forces, and the employees of the big American companies that followed, that taught Latinos the game of baseball. The sport spread from Cuba, to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, and Nicaragua as the U.S. flexed its muscles throughout the Western Hemisphere in the 20th century. The way Dominican players like Tejada are recruited is an extension of that history of exploitation.
Latino players have been in the majors since 1902, a full 45 years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. At least 45 Latinos, mostly Cubans, played big league ball between 1902 and 1947, the year of Robinson’s historic breakthrough. Some, like Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans–signed by the Cincinnati Reds in 1911–were forced to sign pieces of paper stating that they were of European and not African descent.
Most of these Latino players had African, European, and indigenous blood flowing through their veins. Their appearance defied America’s narrow, black or white, definition of race. In fact, José Acosta and Jacinto Calvo, both Cubans, pulled an amazing feat–first playing in the old Negro Leagues in 1915 and then “passing” in the segregated big leagues five years later.
Why have they been forgotten?
Because many early Latino players, with their “un-American” skin colors, were treated like novelties and slipped under the U.S. racial radar. But the best Latino players, whose African ancestry was evident, were barred from the big leagues, along with legendary Negro Leaguers like Hall of Famer Josh Gibson.
Those who slipped into the big leagues were sworn to lie about their African heritage and barely made a dent in the public consciousness before fading into oblivion. For centuries, the U.S. refused to forthrightly deal with the raism it visited upon African Americans. And Latinos were rendered invisible.
Once Robinson entered the game, all things racial in baseball were overtaken by his story. But historians have never given Robinson credit for opening the doors of opportunity for the best players Latin America had to offer–men who were black as well as Latino.
Minnie Minoso, Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, and others took baseball by storm in the 1950s, and changed the game.
Chico Carrasquel, a Venezuelan who starred with the Chicago White Sox, transformed the shortstop position into one of artistry and flair in the early 1950s, ushering in today’s era of dazzling Latino shortstops. Vic Power, a Puerto Rican, won seven Gold Glove awards at first base in the late 1950s and early 1960s by pioneering the one-handed catch.
Because of this and because Power–who was also black–refused to be cowed by Jim Crow segregation, sportswriters coined a new phrase to describe him: “the showboat.” Other negative labels soon followed: “moody,” “hot-tempered,” and, worst of all, “not a team player.” These labels were rooted in negative white perceptions of Latinos, labels that took hold and became a burden even the great players had to carry.
The now legendary Roberto Clemente, who died in 1972 in a tragic plane crash while rushing emergency aid to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua, railed at the negative labels placed upon him by reporters in the 1960s and early 1970s. Reporters branded him a “malingerer,” an injury faker, and worse. They mocked Clemente’s English skills. Unable to deny Clemente’s talent, they added the now familiar racist caveat: the “troubled,” “angry” star.
In a game where mythology and the clever quote spawn legends, Latino players saw their on-field talents ignored because of their inability to communicate with reporters. Even milestones, such as when Cuban shortstop Zoilo Versalles was the first Latino named Most Valuable Player while with the Minnesota Twins in 1965, were scarcely noted.
And when Latinos get injured or pass their prime, they are quickly abandoned. “It happens to all of us,” said Tony Oliva, a Cuban and the American League batting champion in 1964, 1965, and 1971. “We all get released….To the Americans, we are like some stray dog, like a rudderless ship at sea.”
Ready or Not
Sports, it is often said, is a mirror of society.
What does baseball tell us about the 40 million Latinos in this country?
We can say: it’s time their story made it onto the cultural radar screen because–ready or not–Latinos have arrived. We are not just a black-and-white country anymore.
It’s time for this country to come to grips with the harrowing road traveled by Latinos, ballplayers and workers alike, because Latinos are becoming a major force in baseball and the broader society.
In 1998, Latino players swept the Most Valuable Player awards. And in 1999, eight of the 12 players selected to the Associated Press’s All-Star team were Latino. Sammy Sosa is leading a Latino wave that is energizing the game, just as African American players did in the 1950s.
But, so far, only Sosa has registered in a meaningful way with the American people–and he had to hit nearly 130 home runs in two years to do that. As Tejada’s story shows, there is much more to baseball’s Latino story than Sammy Sosa.
Whether that story and the exploitation of Latino prospects ever becomes known or debated remains to be seen. Right now, it’s MIA on our sports pages.
Theirs is part of a story that eluded us in the 20th century. Hopefully, this new century will be different.
Marcos Bretón is a senior staff writer at the Sacramento Bee and author of Away Games: The Life and Times of a Latin Ballplayer. He is currently writing the authorized autobiography of Sammy Sosa for Warner Books.