Baseball Latin Style

This article was written by Robert Obojski

This article was published in 1977 Baseball Research Journal

  Baseball as played in the Caribbean Winter Leagues is of top-notch caliber, with many of the players themselves admitting the competition can be as tough as it is in the majors. This should not be too surprising because baseball has had a long history in Latin America, and the players produced there, from Dolf Luque to Rod Carew, attest to this high quality. Baseball has been played “south of the border” almost as long as in the U.S., although organized professional leagues are of more recent vintage.

  The Triple A Mexican League of today traces its origins as a professional circuit back to 1925, with elaborate 50th anniversary celebrations having been held in 1975. Cuba has been an important part of this history at least until Fidel Castro came to power 18 years ago.  Havana was represented in Organized Baseball in both the International League and the Florida International League, and it is possible, with a change in the political climate, that Cuba could someday get back into the professional baseball establishment. Each province in Cuba today has two baseball teams. They are technically called “amateurs” but the standard of play is quite high.

The Caribbean Winter Leagues operated as professional circuits of one sort or another long before World War II, but they really began coming into their own in the latter half of the 1940’s. The first Caribbean Series was played in 1949 and it has continually grown in stature, though the make-up of the Winter Leagues has undergone many changes. In that first Series, participating teams came from Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

Championship teams from leagues in these four countries continued to play in the Caribbean Series through 1960 when Cuba dropped out of competition. Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela continued to conduct the championships without Cuba in the early 1960’s, with the Series being temporarily renamed the “Inter-American Series.”  The Nicaraguan League helped to fill the gap for several years beginning in 1962 when it sent its top teams to the championships, and soon after clubs from the Dominican Republic entered the competition.

After the 1966 season, however, there were no formal championship series of any kind played for the rest of the decade, though the Winter Leagues continued to operate without a break.

Then in 1970, a full-fledged Caribbean Series (the old “Las Series del Caribe”) was again commenced, with participating teams coming from circuits in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.  The next year the Mexican Pacific League (commonly referred to as the “Mexican Winter League”) joined the competition, and these four leagues have sent their pennant winners to compete in the Caribbean Series ever since.

Why is baseball so popular in the Caribbean region? There are many reasons. First of all, the Latins have a natural inclination for sporting competition. And then what better way is there for a poor boy to work his way up the social ladder than by becoming a baseball star?

Ballplayers are perhaps idolized more in Latin America than they are in the United States today. Stars in the Winter Leagues are heroes, even if they never reach the U.S. big leagues, but if they are lucky enough to crash the majors, then their names are really magic.

For example, Ozzie Virgil, a native of Monte Christi, D.R., starred in the Dominican league early in his career and then had a relatively brief playing tenure in the majors. Virgil may have batted only .231 in the Big Time, but that doesn’t make any difference-the fact is that he did hit the majors and today he remains a baseball hero on the island of Hispaniola.

  To update my long-standing interest in Latin  baseball, I flew down to the Dominican Republic to see the annual Caribbean Series in February 1976. This is a real baseball classic with the Latins getting as excited about the Caribbean Series as “we Yankees” become emotionally involved about the World Series.

  One team from each of the four Winter Leagues took part in the round robin series, with games being played at Santo Domingo’s Quisqueya Stadium and at Santiago’s Cibao Stadium.

  When Hermosillo of the Mexican Pacific League won the series by defeating Aragua, Venezuela 6-1 in the deciding game at Santo Domingo, it meant that Hermosillo ranked as the premier team of the total of 26 participating in the 1975-76 Winter League season.  Aguilas of Santo Domingo in the Dominican League and Bayamon of the Puerto Rican League also competed in the round robin playoff.

  In previous years, teams from Nicaragua and Panama used to compete in the Winter Leagues. “What happened to baseball in those two countries?” we asked Fred Rehm, the young and energetic baseball writer for the San Juan Star.

  “That’s hard to say, but there could be a lot of reasons,” came the answer. “Enthusiasm for baseball may have waned a bit in Nicaragua – don’t forget they had that big earthquake in 1972, and soccer is a big thing down there. Also, heavy winter rains used to play havoc with the Panamanian league schedules. However, don’t count Nicaragua and Panama out of Winter League play permanently. Revived interest could bring them back into the fold at any time,” Rehm concluded.

  According to the present Winter League set-up, each circuit has a playoff at the conclusion of its regular season to determine its champion. With the regular season now running to 64 games (from November to February), the teams that go to the Caribbean Series play another 12 post-season contests for a total of 76. Dave Concepcion, shortstop for Aragua, generally plays a full Winter League schedule in addition to the 1 50 games he plays for the Cincinnati Reds during the regular season, plus, of course, the Championship Series and World Series games. No wonder Dave is so slim; playing 230 or so games a year can wear a man out.

Concepcion is sometimes criticized for not going all out on every  play in the Caribbean circuit, but most careful observers feel he may  be just plain tired on certain days.

Concepcion continues to suit up for Aragua for at least two good reasons. First, he’s a native of Aragua and he ranks today as Venezula’s best known and most idolized ballplayer. Then he’s one of the highest paid performers in the Caribbean circuit. In the Winter Leagues, a relatively small coterie of top stars make the big money, while the second-liners get very little, less than $200 per month in some cases.

Hermosillo, managed by Cananea Reyes, featured on its roster for its 1975-76 championship season a number of players well known to American fans, including pitchers Ed Acosta, Vicente Romo, and George Brunet, infielders Celerino Sanchez and Eddie Leon, and outfielders Jerry Hairston and Chet Lemon. According to latest reports, George Brunet, now 41 and a veteran of 24 years in Organized Baseball, still pitches for Hermosillo and spends his summers with Poza Rica of the Triple A Mexican League. Brunet, a lefthander, still has a pretty good fastball, though he relies more now on savvy than on speed. His pitching played a key role in Hermosillo’s victory in the 1976 Caribbean Series.

During my week-long stay in the Dominican Republic, I followed most closely the fortunes of the team from Aragua, Venezuela. (The team is named for the state of Aragua, but is actually based in the state’s capital, Maracay, a city of some 1 75,000 population not far from Caracas.)

Aragua, managed by Ozzie Virgil, longtime San Francisco Giants coach, and now a coach with the Montreal Expos, was loaded with U.S. big leaguers, past and present, including pitchers Bill Campbell, Willie Prall and Aurelio Monteagudo, infielders Duane Kuiper and Manny Trillo, outfielders Enos Cabell and Terry Whitfield, and catcher Tim Hosley-plus shortstop Concepcion, as we’ve already indicated.

Duane Kuiper, Aragua second baseman who’s a regular for the Cleveland Indians, won the 1975-76 Winter League batting crown with a potent .357 average. Duane, a lefthanded hitter, just concentrates on meeting the ball and sprays his hits to all fields.

When the Caribbean Series moved up to Santiago for a round of games, I had the opportunity of riding on the Aragua team bus, and thus had the chance to interview some of the players at length, with several of them being especially eager to expound on their views of the game of baseball. (Santiago, the Dominican Republic’s second largest city with 125,000 population, lies some 100 miles northwest of Santo Domingo.)

  I found Terry Whitfield to be particularly impressive as a ballplayer and as a personality. He is one of the many young Americans who roam the Caribbean circuit in order to sharpen their skills. A 24-year-old outfielder, he has been with Syracuse of the International League during the 1974-76 seasons, and in each of those three campaigns he’s also played a few games for the parent New York Yankees.  Terry stands 6′ 2″, weighs 195, bats lefthanded, has power and runs like a deer. Gabe Paul, club president, feels Terry is the ideal type of player for Yankee Stadium with its inviting right field seats.

Random Observations

  Latin American fans are reputed to be among the most knowledgeable in the entire baseball spectrum, being capable of understanding the game’s slightest nuances. There is support for this contention.

  “American big leaguers who think they can `dog it’ a little in the Winter Leagues are quickly exposed,” Adriano Miguel Tejada, a Santiago baseball writer, told us. “They have to go all out in every game, or they’ll really get their ears bent by the fans,” he continued.

  Tejada also emphasized: “Too often U.S. players come down here for the prime purpose of `working on their game’-that is, they want to learn a new position, experiment with a new batting style, or develop a new pitch, and all that sort of business. The fans don’t go for this at all, and a player, even if he’s an established big leaguer, can easily draw a release for not measuring up to our standards, which we think are quite high.”

  I’ve worked in press boxes all over the U.S.A. at both the major and minor league levels and have worked in just about every press box in the Japanese big leagues-and in this, my first trip to the Latin leagues, I found something a little different in press box operations-rum is served to the sportswriters before, during and after the game!  At both Quisqueya and Cibao stadiums, a red-jacketed waiter hands you a rum cocktail from a fancy tray as you enter the press box.

Don’t misunderstand me-I’m not criticizing my hosts for their  hospitality, but I’ve never seen and heard such raucous press boxes in my life. Also, in most of the parks in the Winter Leagues, liquor is sold right out of the bottle by vendors in the grandstand. But there’s a reason for all this. Rum is a major industry in the Caribbean region, with some of the big name producers like “Bermudez” and “Don Q” owning controlling interests in several teams.

As interesting as the Winter Leagues are to me, they really don’t get very much attention in the U.S. sporting press. The Sporting News used to devote considerable space to Caribbean region baseball, but once the major league season is over it now chooses to devote its space to sports like football, basketball and hockey. Even TSN’s annual “Official Baseball Guide” no longer has any coverage on the Winter Leagues.

Before I went down to the Dominican Republic to view the 1976 Caribbean series, I telephoned the sports editor of one of the New York City metropolitan dailies and asked him if he wanted any coverage of that event. I reminded him that Felix Millan, Mets second baseman, was scheduled to play for Bayamon, and that should be of local interest.

The sports editor, a friend of mine, replied: “Call us only if something unusual happens.”

“What do you mean unusual?” I queried.

“Oh, if someone throws a bomb in the ballpark.”

“What if Felix Millan hits four home runs and knocks in ten runs in one game?”

Don’t call us on that one, but let me know if he breaks an arm.”

That was enough to kill the conversation. And, unfortunately, that seems to be the attitude of U.S. sports editors in general toward the Winter Leagues.

How important are the Winter Leagues in the over-all baseball picture? We’ll give only two examples: When the Cleveland Indians hired Frank Robinson as baseball’s first black major league manager, they bore in mind that Robinson had for five seasons successfully managed the Santurce Crabs in the Puerto Rican Winter League. And then former San Diego infielder John Sipin, who played in the Caribbean for several seasons, and who became a slugging star for the Taiyo Whales in Japan, recently told me: “I’ve seem major leaguers cut from teams in the Caribbean leagues, and as good as Japanese baseball is today, I feel the overall quality is better in the Winter Leagues.”

  No question about it-baseball in Latin America is an important part of the total picture.