SABR

Alex Pompez

This article was written by Brian McKenna.

Alex Pompez, a Cuban American, was among the most influential owners in black baseball history and his New York Cuban Stars were among the top teams for more than three decades. He was a significant link between the Negro leagues and the Caribbean and later proved to be instrumental in linking organized baseball, black baseball and Latin America. The major lasting effect of this connection was the opening and mining of Dominican Republic talent. He was the first to establish an organized scouting plan to bring the best Dominican players north.

Few realize that Pompez was involved with the game for nearly sixty years. He was among the very few black club owners who owned exclusive rights to a ballpark, the Dyckman Oval, which enabled him to skirt the typically domineering booking agents who in a way controlled much of black baseball in the east. Before the game integrated, Pompez secured a lease from New York Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham for permanent use of the Polo Grounds. When integration ushered in, Pompez assisted Stoneham by offering advice on and scouting black talent. The Cuban Stars even joined the Giants’ organization, becoming the only black club ever to formally aligned with a major league club. After the Cuban Stars folded, as would eventually happen to all the black clubs, Pompez became a scout for the Giants and eventually was named Director of International Scouting. He worked for the club for over 25 years, judging talent and easing the transition of black and Latin ballplayers into organized baseball and into American culture itself.

Outside the game, Pompez oversaw an illegal lottery business in Harlem for a decade and a half. He ran it so well that famed gangster Dutch Schultz swooped in and seized it for himself. After Schultz was killed, New York special prosecutor Thomas Dewey turned his full attention on Pompez and other numbers kings who had quickly reestablished their business. The day Dewey raided his office Pompez was alerted and fled the country. He hid in Mexico until being dragged back to face criminal charges. Instead, he testified against a Tammany boss and was granted probation.

Alejandro Pompez was born on May 3, 1890 in Key West, Florida to Cuban-born parents, Jose Gonzalo Pompez and Loretta Perez Pompez. Baseball fans and friends would predominantly know Alejandro by the name Alex or Alexander. Alejandro’s father, Jose Gonzalo Pompez arrived in Key West from Havana sometime during the 1870s. He moved around the country a bit, ultimately settled in Key West and obtained a law degree. He also opened a cigar factory there and was heavily involved in local politics in support of Cuban independence. In 1893 he was elected to the Florida State Assembly from Monroe County.

In 1894 Jose moved his family to West Tampa after being offered acreage and $1,000 by the city to relocate his cigar factory. He immediately delved into local politics, landing the position of city clerk the following year. Unfortunately, Jose died unexpectedly in 1896. Further distressing to his family, he left his entire estate to help fund insurgents fighting for Cuban independence. The cigar factory and family home had to be sold to cover the pledge. Loretta and her children became destitute, living off local benefactors. As a result, she returned to Havana with her brood around 1902.

Pompez played ball in Tampa but his fever exponentially intensified for the sport in baseball-crazed Havana. In 1910 at age twenty he returned to Tampa, finding work as a cigar maker and played baseball in his free time. By the end of the year, he took off for New York City, where he would reside for the rest of his life. There, he found employment making cigars for $20 a week. Within a year or so Pompez opened a cigar store at 2122 Seventh Avenue in Harlem. He maintained the store until his death.

Out of that cigar shop, Pompez soon began running numbers for the local, illegal lottery. The lottery typically paid 600 to 1 odds, though the actual odds were 999 to 1. Harlem residents could bet as little as a penny each day.

Pompez, variously listed as black or mulatto in official documents, befriended a local white businessman named Nat Strong. Strong controlled a great deal of sports scheduling, known as booking, throughout the New York City area due to the fact that he had exclusive rights at the most popular venues including Ebbets Field, Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. In this position Strong was a central figure in black baseball history, controlling scheduling for all the major local clubs and many of the minor ones as well. He extracted heavy fees for doing so. Strong even used his leverage to virtually bankrupt the Brooklyn Royal Giants; he then swept in and purchased the club for a rock-bottom price.

The Pompez-Strong relationship was a mutually beneficial one. Strong gained access into the Latin American market and community through Pompez and in return Pompez gained Strong’s experience and contacts and thus increased his opportunities exponentially. As a result, Pompez became the strongest link between Latin ballplayers and organized black baseball. As Adrian Burgos writes in Playing America’s Game, “His work as a team owner, Negro-league executive, and talent scout places him alongside Rube Foster, Gus Greenlee, J.L. Wilkerson, Effa Manley, and Cum Posey as one of black baseball’s most significant executives. Considered within baseball’s transnational circuit, his longevity and contribution stand alone. He was present at the creation of Negro-league baseball and was there at its end, and as a major-league scout, he helped shape its historical legacy.”

In 1916 Pompez amassed a squad he called the New York Cubans. In the early spring they toured Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The use of the Cubans nickname particularly incensed Abel Linares, who operated out of Chicago and had long ago formed a squad of the same name. Incensed, Linares took his squad to Puerto Rico to battle for the honor of the nickname in March. Unfortunately for him, Pompez’s club won 3-2 and refused a rematch.

In 1917 the team’s name was changed to the Havana Cuban Stars and the following year to the now-familiar New York Cuban Stars. They were known by the latter name until the club disbanded in 1950 save one season, 1921, when they were called the All Cubans.

Throughout his time in baseball, Pompez traveled to the Caribbean throughout each year, though especially in the winter, to scout players and organize contests. He also had his players scout for him during their travels throughout Latin America and the United States. As a result, the Cuban Stars strictly employed Latin ballplayers until 1935 when they joined the Negro National League. The Cuban Stars were one of the main importers of Latin talent in baseball, fielding most of the top stars of the day including perhaps the premier player of the day, Martin Dihigo, who first joined the club in 1922.

At various times the Cuban Stars were subsidized by Pompez’s lottery money, of which there was plenty. Pompez was a big spender who lived in the top neighborhood in Harlem, drove the best cars and wore the finest clothes and of course smoked the best cigars. He resided in an exclusive community at the top of Sugar Hill.

Lottery bankers like Pompez were among the leaders of organized black baseball from its inception. Others involved during the early 1920s include Tenny Blount of the Detroit Stars, Dick Kent of the St. Louis Stars, and Baron Wilkins of the New York Bacharachs. Soon Smitty Lucas of the Philadelphia Tigers, Ike Washington of the Bacharachs, and William Mosley of the Detroit Stars, would follow. More popularly-known today, gambling capital also seeded the revised Negro National League in the 1930s. Such men as Gus Greenlee, Abe Manley, Rufus Jackson, Pompez and Jim Semler provided the funds.

The Cuban Stars remained independent like all eastern clubs until joining the Eastern Colored League in 1923. By the early 1920s, Pompez had secured a lease at the Dyckman Oval, located at 204th Street & Nagle Avenue just outside Harlem proper, as the club’s permanent home. The luxury of a permanent and exclusive home field was a rarity in black baseball. Typically clubs, especially in the east, were at the mercy of the booking agents who took a nice cut of the gate for their services. In 1924 Pompez helped negotiate the first-ever Negro World Series, which pitted the champions of the Negro National League, a western-based organization, and the ECL.

The Cuban Stars played in the ECL until the league disbanded in the early summer of 1928. With five other top eastern clubs the Stars joined the American Negro League the following year. The new league though lasted only that one season. The next successful league with a strong eastern contingent, the reinvented Negro National League, took the field in 1933. It was organized by Pittsburgh numbers king Gus Greenlee. Pompez and Greenlee were good friends. They traveled together at times, watching baseball games in Cuba. Pompez also helped Greenlee establish his lottery business.

Pompez didn’t immediately enter the Cuban Stars in the NNL, preferring instead to remain independent. He even thought about divesting from the sport for a time and for a while actually disbanded the club. Instead, he entered the NNL with renewed vigor in 1935. He undertook the expensive project of remodeling the Dyckman Oval. He reportedly spent $60,000 to increase seating capacity to 10,000 and modernize the park’s amenities, which also included a lighting system. As such, he was granted a three-year lease by the city parks commission.

Pompez then revamped his club. For the first time, he incorporated African-American players on the roster, though Dihigo remained the star. He also operated another club, the Havana Cuban Stars, as an informal farm team for the New York Cubans. The results showed almost immediately. The Cubans battled Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords for the NNL championship in 1935, losing the seven-game series.

To help offset his expenditures rebuilding the Oval, Pompez orchestrated several special appearances during 1935. Joe Louis appeared at the park and Babe Ruth, recently retired, brought his All-Stars for a doubleheader in September. The capacity crowd saw the Cubans sweep the contests, 6-1 and 15-5. Pompez also promoted baseball, boxing, wrestling, motorcycles races and other events at the park. Later, he would enter the boxing promoting business, signing such fighters as featherweight Joe Law.

Soon though, Pompez’s legal difficulties started taking up much of his time. By the mid-1920s, he was one of the leading numbers kings in New York City, controlling the majority of bets in Harlem. In later testimony he claimed to gross between $6,000 and $8,000 a day in 1931 which would easily place his annual sales above $2,000,000. Others thought he was making considerably more than this.

Towards the end of the 1920s, Dutch Schultz, a top New York gangster, started honing in on the local numbers kings. He waged an often violent campaign which forced many of them to join his organization, retire or perhaps face dire consequences. At one point Pompez went into hiding within the Harlem community. Shultz though was undeterred; he wanted Pompez’s route. Pompez described the confrontation that changed his business, “I was ordered to visit the home of Dixie Davis in West End Avenue in 1932. The Dutchman came after I got there. He took me in a small room and placed a gun on the table.” After that, Pompez was relegated to being a mere agent for Schultz. He was given a salary of $250 a month and supposedly a percentage of profits on his former bank. Not unsurprisingly, he claimed to have never seen a dollar in commissions.

New York City special prosecutor Thomas Dewey became very interested in the numbers business after Schultz revamped the network. Dewey was single-mindedly building a case against Schultz until the gangster was gunned down by rivals in October 1935. With Schultz out of the way Pompez and others reclaimed their business. Pompez joined with Big Joe Ison to oversee the Harlem numbers lottery. The transformation was swift and profitable. Reports, later seized in a raid, showed that the pair was grossing over $5,000,000 a year, as much as $34,000 on some days.

Dewey was dismayed by how fast the business was reestablished; consequently, he started focusing on the numbers kings, including Pompez, and building a case. Worried,

Pompez periodically went into hiding starting in 1936. Immigration records show him fleeing to Europe via Canada from April to August. In early January 1937 Dewey obtained an indictment against Pompez. He then obtained a warrant and headed to Pompez’s Lenox Avenue office to arrested him and search his office on the 15th. Pompez was out at the time. He soon returned to the building with Juan Mirabel, his former pitcher turned right-hand man, and hopped in the elevator. The elevator operator shot the pair some facial gestures which tipped them off that something was amiss. They exited the elevator a few floors below their office, climbed down a fire escape and fled. Dewey’s men though confiscated a large horde of cash and boxes of records. Ison was captured and imprisoned that day.

Pompez landed in Mexico within a day or two, traveling under the name Antonio Moreno. Reports indicate that he was making cocky statements while in hiding, claiming that New York authorities couldn’t touch him. Two months later though, he was arrested in Mexico City on March 28, 1937 while getting into a bulletproof car with Chicago license plates. Pompez didn’t go quietly; he strenuously fought extradition. However, Dewey prevailed and extradition was finally granted on October 26. Two detectives then escorted Pompez back to New York City just days before Election Day, a day on which Dewey won the post of District Attorney of Manhattan.

Pompez ultimately agreed to turn state’s evidence in the trial of Tammany boss James Hines to receive near immunity for his offenses. He was kept under police protection until the second trial of Hines found him guilty in 1939. For their testimony, Pompez and Ison were granted probation and suspended sentences on their pleas of guilty of conspiracy on May 16, 1939. Pompez further vowed to keep to the straight and narrow and stay out of the numbers business.

He was eagerly welcomed back by the Harlem community. There, he was seen as a community benefactor rather than some seedy criminal. The numbers kings provided numerous jobs in the community, spent freely, provided sorely-needed loans and also donated to needy causes.

The New York Cubans ceased operating while Pompez worked though his legal difficulties. Black baseball, as well, had no qualms about his reentry into the business. However, the city, perhaps out of spite, leveled the Dyckman Oval and made it a parking lot; thus, Pompez became like virtually all other black club owners, dependent on booking agents. The club was readmitted to the Negro National League in 1939. Pompez later served a vice president of the league during the 1940s.

Pompez was well-liked within the black and Latin communities. For example, in June 1939 Arturo Polly Rodriquez, a white Cuban infielder, was offered a contract to join the major league New York Giants with assignment to the Chattanooga Lookouts. He turned the National League club down to remain with the Cubans. He stated, “Pompez, my friend, he brought me here. With Pompez I can do a lot of things. I know the offer from the Giants might mean more money and greater fame, but I like playing with my own people and for Pompez.”

During spring training 1942, the Cubans defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in Havana three times in a much-heralded four-game series. The following year Pompez struck a deal with New York Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham for permanent use of the Polo Grounds. In 1947 the Cubans won the championship of the NNL outright and defeated the Cleveland Buckeyes of the western-based Negro American League in the World Series. However, due mainly to integration, the Cubans were running at a loss by 1948. He started selling his players to make up the losses, including four of them to Norfolk for $5,000 in June. Pompez then signed a working agreement with Stoneham, thus joining the Giants’ organization and becoming the only black club to formally align with a major league franchise.

The Negro National League folded after 1948 and the Cubans joined the Negro American League from 1949-50, continuing to use the Polo Grounds. In 1949 Pompez sold Ray Dandridge, Dave Barnhill and Ray Noble to the Giants for $20,000. Ultimately, the Cubans folded after the 1950 season due to lack of fan support.

As integration set in, the Giants took a different route than the other major league clubs. The club’s scouting director Jack Schwarz suggested to Stoneham that Pompez be hired as a scout since the Cubans had recently folded, as all Negro league clubs would. It seemed liked a good fit since Pompez had already been dispensing advice on Negro league talent and scouting for the Giants on an informal basis. He had advised Stoneham to sign Monte Irvin and also to sign Hank Aaron; however, negotiations with Indianapolis Clowns’ owner Syd Pollock for the latter fell through.

Pompez was hired for his knowledge and contacts in Latin America and within black baseball. He was a rarity in the baseball business at the executive level. He was bilingual and could easily move between the culturally distinct baseball worlds, organized baseball, black baseball and the Caribbean.

Pompez soon became a caretaker for the club’s black and Latin players, as the Giants quickly realized the cultural adjustments the new talent would require. Pompez, the ambassador, was ever-present at spring training and throughout the organization seeing to the needs of the minority players. He scheduled room assignments, supervised living quarters, gave cultural lessons, helped with communication and interaction of the new players with teammates, fans and the media and otherwise attempted to ease the transition.

Pompez was responsible for scouting and signing, either directly or through his network, quite a few quality ballplayers. The list includes Felipe Alou, Jesus Alou, Matty Alou, Sandy Amoros, Damaso Blanco, Ossie Blanco, Marshall Bridges, Jose Cardenal, Orlando Cepeda, Tito Fuentes, Gil Girrido, Monte Irvin, Sherman Jones, Willie Kirkland, Coco Laboy, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Minnie Minoso, Manny Mota, Ray Noble, Jimmy Rosario, Jose Santiago, Jose Tartabull and Ozzie Virgil. Many reports also cite Pompez having a hand in the signing of Willie Mays.

Perhaps Pompez’s most significant contribution to the history of organized baseball was the opening and mining of the Dominican Republic market. Soon after joining the Giants, he hired his former shortstop Horacio Martinez to assist him in the country. Martinez helped put the Dominican Republic on the baseball map as the baseball coach at the University of Santo Domingo. Marichal, Mota, and the Alou brothers were signed through Martinez.

Pompez had a special standing with the Trujillo government in the Dominican Republic, which enabled him to do what many couldn’t. Naturally, the first Dominican ballplayers to enter the majors came through the Giants organization. As Lawrence D. Hogan put it in Shades of Glory, Pompez “engineer(ed) the opening of the Dominican pipeline.” Actually, Pompez signed six of the first twelve Dominican major leaguers: Ozzie Virgil, 1956; Felipe Alou, 1958; Matty Alou, 1960; Juan Marichal, 1960; Manny Mota, 1962; Jesus Alou, 1963.

Pompez maintained a relationship with the Giants for 25 years, working for the club as late as 1971. He was eventually named Director of International Scouting. When the National Baseball Hall of Fame started considering Negro league players for induction, he was a member of the first four election committees starting in 1971. Pompez himself was elected in 2006.

Pompez married a woman named Margarita before World War I and later married Ruth Seldon Pompez circa 1924. He died on March 14, 1974 at age 83 at St. Johns Hospital in Flushing, Queens, New York and was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, New York.

Sources

Ancestry.com

Burgos Jr., Adrian. Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2007.

Chicago Defender

Christian Science Monitor

Findagrave.com

Hogan, Lawrence D. Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball. Washington D.C.: National Geographic, 2006.

Holway, John. The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues: The Other Half of Baseball History. Fern Park, Florida: Hastings House Publishers, 2001.

Lanctot, Neil. Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

New York Amsterdam News

New York Times

Pittsburgh Courier

Riley, James A. The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1994.

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