Ozzie Virgil Sr. (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Ozzie Virgil Sr.

This article was written by Ryan Brecker

Ozzie Virgil Sr. (THE TOPPS COMPANY)Ozzie Virgil was the first Dominican to play in the major leagues, as well as the first player of color for the Detroit Tigers. Spending parts of nine seasons in the major leagues as a utility player, Virgil forged a lifelong career in baseball by transitioning to coaching. “Virgil should be for my country as important as [Jackie] Robinson [is] to the African-American, I’d place his legacy up there that of those who established our republic,” Dominican slugger David Ortiz said in 2006.1

Osvaldo Jose Virgil Pichardo was born on May 17, 1932, in the small coastal town of Monte Cristi, near the Dominican Republic’s border with Haiti. During his playing career, his birth date was commonly listed as May 7, 1933; immigration paperwork would place his birth year as 1934.2

Virgil grew up with his father Henry Virgil, who worked as a boat pilot in the harbor of Monte Cristi.3 Seeking better conditions, Henry emigrated to the United States when Ozzie was still young. In the United States, “(h)e was a merchant marine, carrying cargo and stuff for troops overseas,” Virgil said. After the war was over, he sent for my brother Carlos and me.”4

The family included his mother, Isabel Pichardo, and older sibling, Carlos. Virgil’s father was a vocal opponent of the Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo, which led to the Virgils fleeing the Dominican Republic in 1947 for safety. They went briefly to Puerto Rico and settled in the Bronx later that same year.

Despite living in the Bronx, Virgil became a Brooklyn Dodgers fan primarily after his father secured World Series tickets in 1947. Virgil said, “I saw the great catch that Dodger outfielder Al Gionfriddo made against the Yankees in the 1947 World Series. My first baseball game was a World Series game!”5

Virgil attended the integrated Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, but did not play any sport for the school.6 He noted, “I did not make the baseball team in high school but did play sandlot ball. I played in a Puerto Rican league, which had eight or nine teams.”7 After graduating in 1950, Virgil joined the US Marine Corps. He was called up to active duty and served until 1952. He played baseball while in the military, for the team at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina.8

After his time with the Marines, Virgil went back to playing sandlot ball in the Bronx, where he was discovered by New York Giants scout George Mack, who signed Virgil to a contract for the 1953 season, with a $300 signing bonus.9 Virgil made his professional debut in Minnesota in 1953 with the Class-C St. Cloud Rox of the Northern League, batting .259.

Promoted to the Class-B Danville Leafs of the Carolina League for the 1954 season, Virgil got his first taste of the Jim Crow South. He later recalled, “When I played in Danville, Virginia, we couldn’t eat in the hotels, we couldn’t sleep in the hotels; we went to somebody’s home. Even in the major leagues, we couldn’t eat in St Louis in the restaurants. We had to get room service.”10 With Danville, Virgil displayed aptitude at the hot corner and increased his batting average to .291.

On January 29, 1955, Virgil married Maria Lopez. They had three children, including Ozzie Virgil Jr. in 1956; he later became a two-time All-Star catcher while playing parts of 11 years in the major leagues. Ozzie Virgil Jr.’s son, Jose, also played one year of minor-league baseball, after being drafted in the 18th round out of Oklahoma State University in 2003.

Ozzie Sr. advanced to the Double-A Texas League for the 1955 season, manning the hot corner for the league champion Dallas Eagles. He was named to the league all-star team and led the league’s third basemen in fielding percentage at .975. He was beginning to draw notice as a prospect, with Jack Schwarz of the Giants noting, “There never was any question about his fielding. I guess playing winter ball in Puerto Rico has helped Ossie’s (sic) hitting.”11 The New York World Telegram and Sun promoted him as the future solution to the Giants’ third-base needs.12

Virgil continued his ascent through the minor leagues in 1956, playing for the Triple-A Minneapolis Millers. He led American Association third basemen in putouts, assists, and double plays. He earned a late-season call-up to the Giants and made his major-league debut on September 23, 1956, at the Polo Grounds, becoming the majors’ first Dominican-born player. There are no known contemporaneous reports noting this achievement. Virgil later recalled of his debut:

“I can still remember my blood streaming furiously through my veins and adrenaline almost choking me on my first day in the majors. It was very hot and we were playing the last game of a series of three against Philadelphia. I was placed on third base and went 0-4, but felt as if I’d finished 4-4. I had been upgraded from the minors two or three days before, and I knew I would be the first of my small country to arrive in the best baseball league in the world. But what I never suspected was that in time, it would become something ordinary.”13

Virgil played in two more games that year, with a total of five hits in 12 at-bats. His strong showing was enough to keep him on the Giants roster for all of the 1957 season, although he was unable to break into the lineup as an everyday player. Virgil played in 96 games and began to highlight his versatility with appearances at both shortstop and the outfield in addition to third base. On April 27, 1957, he hit the first home run of his career, off future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts. He was noted in the local papers as “a polite, good looking chap” who “seems to be a good ballplayer, but not the kind that makes a big impression.”14

The offseason brought a change of scenery as Virgil was traded to the Detroit Tigers along with first baseman Gail Harris for Jim Finigan and $25,000. Somewhat bewildered by the trade, Virgil later recalled, “I thought the Giants needed a third baseman at that particular time. I knew that the Tigers did not have any black players on their roster nor had never invited one to spring training. I wondered what they were going to do with me.”15 The Tigers, along with the Boston Red Sox, were the only teams to have not integrated yet.

Virgil found himself back in the American Association to start the 1958 season with the Charleston Senators. He got off to a hot start, batting .293 with a league-leading 34 RBIs through early June to earn a promotion to the Tigers on June 5.

Virgil was entering a racially charged situation in Detroit, amid increased protests over the Tigers’ lack of Black players, initially led by a Black newspaper, the Michigan Chronicle. A group led by the Reverend George Hill, known as the Boycott Committee, was formed as a result and met with Tigers leadership, advocating for integration. When the Tigers would not commit to a timeline, the Boycott Committee developed plans to picket Briggs Stadium starting May 31, 1957.16 The leaders of the Chronicle objected to this approach, and pushed for collaborative solutions instead, which led to a split in the Boycott Committee and cancellation of the picketing.

Less than a week after the planned picketing date, Virgil was recalled to the Tigers, though all parties denied that the timing was anything but coincidental. The Tigers’ general manager, John McHale Sr., said, “Look at the standings, we needed help at third base. Virgil is the best third baseman and has more experience than anyone else we have in our system.”17 This is supported by both a slump by Tigers third baseman Reno Bertoia and an injury to Harvey Kuenn, with the Michigan Chronicle noting, “The injury to Kuenn, Bertoia’s slump, and the club’s lowly position created the need for re-evaluation and immediate action.”18 The Chronicle also credited this move with avoiding the picketing: “Virgil’s elevation brought to a halt the boycott plans of two groups evolving from a larger organization which called itself the Briggs Stadium Boycott Committee.”19

Virgil joined the team in Washington, and was widely reported as the first Negro to play for the Tigers.20 His experience has been later recalled with some melancholy, with Virgil noting the challenge of the situation. “Unfortunately most of the people in Detroit did not accept me as a black player. They said I was a Dominican player and they wanted one of their own.”21 Virgil, like many Latino players of the time, found himself isolated from multiple sides. “One of the hardest parts was that we weren’t accepted within the black community, the African-American community. It was hard being ignored by both the white people and the African-Americans, who didn’t always consider us Latinos as black. We had to stick together.”22 For his part, Virgil attempted to stay above labels and focus on the game, remarking, “If they called me black, fine. If they called me white, fine. If they called me Latino, fine. I didn’t care what they called me – I just wanted to play.”23

Virgil made his Tigers debut in Washington on June 6, batting sixth and going 1-for-5. He acquitted himself well and was bumped up to the second spot in the batting order after two games. The road trip continued through Boston and New York before Virgil’s Briggs Stadium debut on June 17. With 11 days having passed since his promotion, a larger than usual crowd of 29,794 welcomed the Tigers home and Virgil did not disappoint. In what he often cited as his foremost baseball thrill, he went 5-for-5 in his home debut, earning a standing ovation.24

Ozzie Virgil Sr. (THE TOPPS COMPANY)Virgil was unable to keep up his hot start with the bat, and after hitting .244 in the 1958 season found himself back in the American Association in 1959, where he was once again an all-star, this time as a utility infielder. He earned his way back to Detroit in 1960 after hitting .381 in 59 games with the Denver Bears.

Traded to Kansas City in August of 1961, Virgil spent the majority of the remainder of his playing career in the minor leagues, finding himself back in Triple A with the Rochester Red Wings for the 1962 and 1963 seasons; he had a one-game appearance for the Baltimore Orioles.

Virgil grew into his role as a veteran player, and was recognized for his baseball acumen. Playing for rookie manager Sparky Anderson in Toronto of the International League in 1964, he was named a player-coach midway through the season at Anderson’s request, starting Virgil’s coaching career. He was also recognized in a poll of International League managers as a co-winner of the smartest player in the league.

Virgil signed with the Washington Senators before the 1965 season, but wound up spending the year with Pittsburgh after being selected in the minor-league draft. The following offseason saw him shipped back to his original team – the Giants – along with Joe Gibbon for fellow Dominican Matty Alou.

Virgil began the 1966 season in the minors, but returned to the big-league team in May. He went 0-for-3 in his first three pinch-hitting appearances; but getting the chance to start for the Giants for the first time in nine years, Virgil responded by getting three hits, including a home run, along with a stolen base, two runs, and two RBIs, in a 6-4, series-sweeping victory over the Chicago Cubs.

He stayed with the Giants organization in Triple A for the 1967 and 1968 seasons. Showing he wasn’t quite finished as a player, he made the 1967 Pacific Coast League all-star first team as a utility player, and also was named the Phoenix Giants’ most popular player. In 1968 he was named player-coach for Phoenix under manager Clyde King.

King was promoted to manage the San Francisco Giants for the 1969 season and, familiar with Virgil’s high baseball IQ, made him his third-base coach. The 1969 season also saw Virgil’s last appearance as a player, as he made one pinch-hitting appearance while filling a roster spot for catcher Bob Barton while Barton was on a two-week tour of active duty in the Army Reserve.

Virgil remained the Giants’ third-base coach through the 1972 season, keeping busy in the winters managing winter-league teams, winning the Dominican League pennant with Aguila in the winter of 1970-1971, and managing Caracas in the Venezuelan winter league the following offseason.

Virgil left the ballfield for the first time since his initial signing with the 1973 season, working as a Giants scout in Latin America. He missed the game action, however, and was brought back to coach third base for the Giants in the 1974 and 1975 seasons; he left for the same position with the Montreal Expos for the 1976 season.

Virgil remained with the Expos in 1977 as manager Dick Williams took the helm. They forged a fast friendship, and Virgil was Williams’s third-base coach for the next decade, following him to San Diego in 1982 and Seattle in 1986 before Williams’s retirement in 1988. Highlights during Virgil’s tenure as Williams’s top lieutenant include winning the 1984 National League pennant with the Padres, and coaching third base in the 1985 All-Star Game. A particular highlight of the All-Star Game was the chance to coach his son, Ozzie Virgil Jr., who was named to the game as a reserve catcher and had a two-run single in the National League’s victory.

While 1988 was Virgil’s last season as a major-league coach, he remained active in the game, coaching in the short-lived Senior Professional Baseball Association, and continuing to coach and manage in Latin American leagues. Starting in 2007, Virgil worked part time for the Mets, primarily overseeing catching instruction in the Dominican Summer League.

Ozzie Virgil Sr. (TRADING CARD DB)Virgil has become increasingly recognized for his role as the first Dominican in major-league baseball. He was elected to the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014 and the Rochester Red Wings Hall of Fame in 2015. He was an honorary coach for the New York Mets late in the 2018 season. In 2006 the Osvaldo Virgil National Airport opened in his hometown of Monte Cristi.

Extremely humble, Virgil always expressed gratitude and respect for his role as a pioneer, looking back on his trailblazing career and noting:

“I have always felt grateful and fortunate to have been chosen by God to open the doors of MLB for my countrymen, considering that hundreds with more talent than me hadn’t been given the chance.”25

Another time he said, “I may not have been the most talented, and I may not hold the records or any huge numbers, but I’ll always have a special number: number one! And I’m glad that I was able to be that person that opened the door for many other Dominicans after me, especially considering there are many others more talented than me.”26

Last revised: May 5, 2021

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com.

Notes

1 Enrique Rojas, “50 Years Ago, Ozzie Virgil Made Baseball History,” ESPN.com, September 22, 2006. espn.com/espn/hispanichistory/news/story?id=2598606, accessed October 4, 2018.

2 National Baseball Hall of Fame Player File; Topps Baseball Cards. For the 1934 date, see the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, libertyellisfoundation.org/passenger-details/czoxMzoiOTAxMTg2NTkxNTkwOSI7/czo5OiJwYXNzZW5nZXIiOw==, accessed November 17, 2018.

3 Interview with Ozzie Virgil by Julio Rodriguez on December 13, 2018.

4 William Anderson, “Ozzie Virgil Breaks the Color Line with the Detroit Tigers,” Michigan History Magazine, September/October 1997: 50.

5 Anderson.

6 Biographical information included in Virgil’s National Baseball Hall of Fame player file.

7 Anderson.

8 Anderson.

9 See Virgil’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Enrique Rojas.

10 Kevin Oklobzija, “Ozzie Virgil Sr. Made History in MLB and with the Wings,” Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle, August 14, 2015: D2,

11 Zander Hollander, “Next Stop Peoria!” New York World Telegram and Sun, July 26, 1955.

12 Hollander

13 Rojas.

14 Bill Roeder, “Virgil New Forgotten Man at PG,” New York World Telegram and Sun, May 2, 1957.

15 Anderson, 49.

16 Anderson.

17 Anderson.

18 Bill Matney, “Exclusive Report on Tigers’ Hiring Policy!” Michigan Chronicle (Detroit), July 14, 1958.

19 Matney.

20 Detroit News, June 6, 1958; Michigan Chronicle, June 21, 1958; Detroit Free Press, June 6, 1958.

21 Anderson, 53.

22 “Living History: Ozzie Virgil.” sportsmbablog.com/living-history-ozzie-virgil/, accessed 10/3/2018.

23 Jodie Valade, “Like Jackie, Virgil Just Wanted to Play,” Detroit Free Press, July 5, 1997.

24 Rob Edelman, “Ozzie Virgil Biography,” biography.jrank.org/pages/2436/Virgil-Ozzie.html, accessed October 3, 2018.

25 Rojas.

26 “Living History: Ozzie Virgil.”

Full Name

Osvaldo Jose Virgil Pichardo

Born

May 17, 1932 at Monte Cristi, Monte Cristi (D.R.)

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