This article was written by Stephen R. Keeney
This article was published in The National Pastime: Baseball in the Sunshine State (Miami, 2016)
Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans, who played for the Cincinnati Reds 36 years before Jackie Robinson came along, should be credited with crashing the color barrier.
Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans, who played for the Cincinnati Reds 36 years before Jackie Robinson came along, should be credited with crashing the color barrier.
—Felipe Alou[fn]Felipe Alou and Herm Weiskopf, Felipe Alou: My Life and Baseball (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1967). Quoted in Nick C. Wilson, Early Latino Ballplayers in the United States: Major, Minor, and Negro Leagues, 1901–1949 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2005), 25. Alou played 17 years
and managed 14 years in the major leagues and was the manager of the Dominican Republic team for the 2009 World Baseball Classic.[/fn]
On April 15, 1947, the story goes, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers became the first black American to play baseball in the major leagues.[fn]See Endnote 32 for the definition of “major leagues” as used in this paper. More recent research suggests that the first black American to play in the major leagues, as herein defined, was actually William Edward White, who played one game as a substitute for the National League’s Providence Grays on June 21, 1879. White’s father was a white slave-owner, and White’s mother was one of his slaves. While White was legally black, he could pass for white, and his death certificate lists him as “white.” See John R. Husman, “June 21, 1879: The Cameo of William Edward White,” SABR.org, http://www.sabr.org/gamesproj/game/june-21-1879-cameo-william-edward-white, last accessed May 31, 2016, and Peter Morris and Stefan Fatsis, “Baseball’s Secret Pioneer: William Edward White,” Slate.com, http://www.slate.com/articles/sports/sports_nut/2014/02/william_edward_white_baseball_s_first_black_player_lived_his_life_as_a_white.single.html, last accessed May 31, 2016.[/fn] This is often the first image that comes to mind when people think about the color line in baseball. The moment is so important to baseball’s popular psyche that fifty years later, Commissioner Bud Selig retired Robinson’s jersey number, 42, throughout Major League Baseball.[fn]Players who were already wearing the number were allowed to keep it until their retirement.[/fn]
Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in the same way Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. Both did something that nobody else had ever achieved. But both also benefitted from the trials, the failures, and, certainly in Robinson’s case, the suffering of pioneers before them. Like the light bulb, Robinson’s place on the Brooklyn Dodgers’ roster was “the kind of innovation that comes together over decades, in pieces.”[fn]Steven Johnson, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World (Riverhead Books: New York, 2014): 209.[/fn] Inventors across the globe had been inventing incandescent light for 80 years before Edison’s breakthrough made it available to modern masses.[fn]Ibid, 206.[/fn] Each new discovery and innovation built upon those before it. The same is true of baseball’s color barrier. Black players began playing with white players as early as the nineteenth century. But at the sport’s pinnacle, the major leagues, it was Cuban players who gradually blurred baseball’s color line before Jackie Robinson could cross it.[fn]See Endnote 32 for the definition of “major leagues” as used in this paper.[/fn] Cuban players entered the league with gradually darker complexions, laying the groundwork for the idea that a black American could play alongside whites in baseball’s top echelon. Jackie Robinson playing in the major leagues was not the beginning of integration in baseball, but another step in the evolution of racial integration that began decades earlier with the introduction of baseball to Cuba and the introduction of Cuban players to the United States.
BASEBALL IN CUBA
Baseball first came to Cuba in the 1860s. Some credit Nemesio Guillo, who returned to Cuba in 1864 after studying and learning baseball in the United States, with bringing the first ball and bat to Cuba.[fn]Luis Hernández, cited in Eric A. Wagner, “Sport in Revolutionary Societies: Cuba and Nicaragua,” Sport and Society in Latin America: Diffusion, Dependency, and the Rise of Mass Culture, ed. Joseph L. Arbena, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988), 118.[/fn] Most scholars, however, say that it was a combination of many Cubans returning from American universities, United States Navy sailors and Army soldiers, and sheer proximity to the United States.[fn]Samuel O. Regalado, Viva Baseball!: Latin Major Leaguers and Their Special Hunger (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 10; Thomas Carter, “Cuba: Community, Fans, and Ballplayers,” George Gmelch, ed. Baseball without Borders: The International Pastime (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2006), 147–59.[/fn]
The first official game between two all-Cuban teams took place in 1874 and saw the Habana (Havana) Reds beat their soon-to-be archrival Matanzas by a score of 51–9.[fn]Some sources (see Regalado, 10) put this game’s date as 1868.[/fn] In 1868 Cuba had begun its first of three wars spanning thirty years, which ultimately led to independence from Spain in 1898.[fn]For more on the culture and history of baseball in Cuba, see Roberto González Echevarría, The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball (Oxford University Press, 2001).[/fn] In 1878, when the first war came to an end, the Pact of Zanjón declared independence for any slaves who fought in the war on either side, and on October 7, 1886, a Spanish royal decree officially abolished slavery in Cuba.[fn]J. A. Sierra, “End of Slavery in Cuba,” History of Cuba. http://www.historyofcuba.com/history/race/EndSlave.htm.[/fn]
During the wars of independence, the ideas of interracial cooperation and acceptance became battle standards for all who believed in freedom for Cuba. José Martí, one of the founding fathers of Cuba, wrote in the newspaper Patria (“fatherland,” or “homeland”), “Men are more than white, more than mulatto,[fn]Mulatto is a Latin American term generally used to describe people descended from a mixture of colonial Spanish and either native or black blood.[/fn] more than negro. On the battlefields of Cuba white and black have died and their souls risen together to heaven.”[fn]José Martí, “My Race,” Patria, April 16, 1892.[/fn] He also wrote about how dividing men by race was “a sin against humanity.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] This rings true in Cuban culture as well; Cuba as an independent nation has never had legal slavery, and Cuban baseball has always included whites, blacks, and mulattos playing side by side.
As baseball was growing in the United States during the mid-to-late-1800s, Cuba began to revolt against its colonizer, Spain. The struggle lasted for decades, and involved three separate wars. During this time, Cubans showed both Spain and the United States that the island wanted to be free from Spanish rule, and align itself with the growing United States. In a united act of cultural defiance, Cubans turned away from bullfighting, the Spanish spectator sport, and began making baseball, the top American spectator sport, the national pastime of Cuba.[fn]Louis A Pérez, “Between Baseball and Bullfighting: The Quest for Nationality in Cuba, 1868–1898,” The Journal of American History 81 (1994): 494, 506.[/fn] The United States, looking for a pseudo-colony of its own, began to reach out to the Cuban people. As part of this cultural colonization process, by the end of the nineteenth century major league teams began playing baseball in Cuba against local teams.[fn]Stephen A. Riess, Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 193–94.[/fn] These tours brought major league baseball and Cuban baseball face to face for the first time, and the two influenced each other.
DRAWING THE COLOR LINE
Organized baseball in the United States was segregated before it was professional. During the 1860s, when baseball was really taking hold as the national game, whites and blacks sometimes played each other.[fn]Dean A. Sullivan, ed., Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825–1908 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995): 68.[/fn] But in December 1867, after the Pythians of Philadelphia, a black club, applied for membership in the National Association of Base Ball Players (“NABBP”), the first national organization overseeing the game, they were denied.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Not only was the Pythians’ application denied, but the NABBP’s Nominating Committee unanimously recommended “against the admission of any club which may be composed of one or more persons of color.”[fn]Ibid, 68–69.[/fn] The stated goal was to “keep out of the Convention… any subject having a political bearing.”[fn]Ibid, 68.[/fn] Being that this decision was made shortly after the Civil War and before the 14th and 15th Amendments were ratified, the issue of racial exclusion certainly had political bearing. Nonetheless, the NABBP and later major leagues maintained segregation in the game, officially or, more often, unofficially, for the next 80 years.
There had been a brief glimmer of hope that baseball’s color line might not last into the new century. At least 54 black players played on racially integrated teams between 1883 and 1898.[fn]Benjamin Rader, Baseball: A History of America’s Game (Urbana and Chicago, IL.: University of Illinois Press, 1992): 51.[/fn] In 1884 two black brothers, Moses and Welday Walker, played for Toledo of the American Association, a league which rivaled the National League in the 1880s and differentiated itself by “openly seeking the patronage of ethnics and workingmen.”[fn]Ibid, 51.[/fn]
But white players saw potential for economic loss within their own ranks. In the days before professionalism, teams would often offer players easy jobs with high pay, usually working for a rich friend of the club, to induce the players to join the team. For example, an 1868 job advertisement for a first baseman read “The National Club of Washington are looking for a first baseman about here…Terms—First-rate position in the Treasury Department; must work in the Department until three o’clock, and then practice base ball until dark.”[fn]Charley Rosen, The Emerald Diamond: How the Irish Transformed America’s Greatest Pastime (Harper Collins: New York, 2012): 22–23.[/fn] Once the best leagues in the country were professional, each roster spot given to a black player was potentially a spot lost by a white player.
When white players perceived a threat to their economic opportunities, from what Sporting Life referred to as the “mania for engaging [hiring] colored players,” [fn]Rader, 51.[/fn] they acted out of both racial prejudice and economic fear. On September 11, 1887, the St. Louis Browns were scheduled to play the Cuban Giants, an all-black barnstorming team that rarely had more than a couple Cubans on the roster at any given time.[fn]The rest of the players were black Americans. Many Negro League teams used the word Cuban to play on the differences in treatment received between the black American players and the Latin American players. Some teams in the Negro Leagues had Native Americans on their rosters.[/fn] But the day before the game, while eating dinner at the Continental Hotel in Philadelphia, St. Louis’s President, Chris von Der Ahe, received a letter signed by the majority of the players on the team. The letter stated that the players “do not agree to play against Negroes to-morrow,”[fn]“A Color Line in Baseball,” The New York Times, September 12, 1887.[/fn] but they would “cheerfully play against white people at any time.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] This “established the precedent that the white players must not play with colored men.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] At the game’s highest levels, the precedent was enforced by unofficial, unwritten agreement among the owners to not sign black players.
EARLY CUBAN PLAYERS IN AMERICA
Esteban Bellán is believed to be the first Cuban-born player to ever play professional baseball. He began playing in the National Association for the Troy Haymakers around 1870, right around the same time the Cincinnati Reds became the first openly all-professional baseball team.[fn]There seems to be some disagreement among the sources as to when Bellán started playing professionally. See Wilson, 3 (1871); Brian McKenna, “Steve Bellán,” SABR.org, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/78dbf37d, last accessed June 1, 2016 (1868); and, “Steve Bellán,” Baseball-Reference.com, http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/bellast01.shtml, last accessed June 1, 2016 (1871).[/fn] Troy became a founding member of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, which had split from the all-amateur National Association of Base Ball Players to become the first professional baseball organization.[fn]Benjamin Rader, Baseball: A History of America’s Game (Urbana and Chicago, IL.: University of Illinois Press, 1992). 37.[/fn] In 1875, a few of the best teams left the professional association to form the National League, which began play in 1876 and is part of Major League Baseball today.[fn]According to Major League Baseball, the National League was the first officially recognized professional baseball league. David Pietrusza, Major Leagues: The Formation, Sometimes Absorption and Mostly Inevitable Demise of 18 Professional Baseball Organizations, 1871 to Present (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 1991).[/fn]
But Cubans did not start coming to the major leagues regularly until many years later, once major league teams decided that playing exhibition games in Cuba would help build their brands abroad while also giving them a warm climate in which to prepare for the upcoming season. It was in Cuba, during a 1908 tour, that the Cincinnati Reds first encountered the men who would become the first Latino players in modern major league history, despite being suspected by many as having “Negro blood.”[fn]Throughout this paper, when I refer to the major leagues, I am referring to the National League, the American League, the Western League (forerunner to today’s American League), and the current MLB organization. As far as determining the first Cuban major leaguers, this interpretation is supported by the sources. See “Baseball Notes,” The New York Times, June 30, 1911 (Marsans and Almeida are “the first Cuban players to be signed by a major league club.”). See also, Regalado at 3–4, and Wilson at 23–26, both referring to the introduction of Marsans and Almeida as the beginning of Cuban baseball in the major leagues. For reference to public perception of ancestry, see Eric Enders, “Armando Marsans,” SABR.org, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/f2c0b939, last accessed June 2, 2016.[/fn] In a game against a Cuban team, the Reds encountered three outstanding local talents: Rafael Almeida, Armando Marsans, and José Méndez. Marsans scored the game’s only run, and in fact had already turned down one offer to play professionally in the United States the year before.[fn]Wilson, 23.[/fn] Méndez, a pitcher, shut out the Reds.[fn]Wilson, 7–9.[/fn] In fact, in that 1908 season, from his first pitch against Cincinnati, to a series against a team from Key West, and ending with a game against Habana, Méndez racked up forty-five straight scoreless innings.[fn]Wilson, 7–9.[/fn]
Méndez’s pitching was the standout performance of the day, and all three players had the talent to play with any major league team. But one big difference made Almeida and Marsans more signable than Méndez. Almeida and Marsans descended from European families, which meant that their skin color was very light, and indeed almost white.[fn]Marsans was of Spanish ancestry while Almeida was reported by papers at the time as “a scion of Portuguese royalty.” Wilson, 23–24.[/fn] They were “of ‘swarthy’ complexion, which meant definitely white, but darkish in a Spanish or Italian sort of way.”[fn]Erardi, F1.[/fn] Méndez, however, was of mostly African heritage, and he was black. Even his Cuban teammates nicknamed him “Congo.”[fn]Wilson, 8.[/fn] His nickname changed to “Black Diamond” once he became a national hero in Cuba because of his talents on the field.[fn]Wilson, 8.[/fn] Quite simply, Méndez was too dark-skinned to play in the major leagues.
But for the two players from that 1908 team who happened to be close enough to white, they were able to rise through the ranks of professional baseball. Both players made their way to the New Britain team in the Connecticut League, from which Cincinnati signed them.[fn]“Baseball Notes,” The New York Times, June 30, 1911.[/fn] In May 1911, before the Reds had officially purchased the rights to Marsans and Almeida, team ownership underwent a massive public relations campaign to try to convince the fans that these two players “had earned their opportunity to compete against white ball players.”[fn]Wilson, 23.[/fn] The goal of the marketing campaign was to convince the public of the “whiteness” of the two players.[fn]Wilson, 23. The Reds also tried to play up their political allegiance to the United States, often embellishing or creating stories about how the players fought with the Cuban rebels against Spanish rule. It was hoped that this allegiance would take the edge off of the color issue.[/fn] This “whiteness campaign” tried to convince the general public that both players were “born of the best, and whitest families in Cuba.”[fn]Wilson, 24.[/fn] Club President Gary Herrmann even took it upon himself to write a friend in Cuba to confirm that Marsans had no African ancestry.[fn]John Erardi, “Coming Home: Reds Open Stadium and a Native Son’s Aboard the Titanic,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 8, 2012, F1.[/fn]
On July 4, 1911, Almeida and Marsans both debuted with the Cincinnati Reds, becoming the first Cuban players in the major leagues.[fn]Eric Enders, “Armando Marsans,” SABR.org, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/f2c0b939, last accessed June 2, 2016.[/fn] Both players went 1-for-2 in substitution efforts against the Cubs in Chicago.[fn]“National League Box Scores,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 5, 1911.[/fn] The only mention of Marsans and Almeida in their first game was two sentences in the Cincinnati Enquirer which stated that both “appeared to be very fast on the bases and equipped with strong throwing arms.”[fn]Jack Ryder, “The Morning Game,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 5, 1911. This may have in fact been part of the “whiteness campaign” because it did not promote them too much but it also was complimentary. However, I have found no direct evidence of this.[/fn]
In Cuba, both players were “mulatto,” of mixed Spanish and African-Cuban blood. American society classified both players as “colored.” Unlike Cuba, where your skin color could fall anywhere on a long spectrum of racial combinations, in the United States of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries you could only be “white” or “colored.” To many, both players were “colored” and nothing more. Both Reds fans and opposing fans constantly taunted and harassed Almeida and Marsans for their color.[fn]Wilson, 23–25. For more on Almeida and Marsans, see Wilson, 23–37.[/fn]
While Almeida and Marsans were being scouted by and playing for the Reds, the pitcher from that 1908 game was making his own impact in the baseball world. José de la Caridad Méndez was born in Cardenas, Cuba, in the late 1880s.[fn]Various sources listed his birthdate as January 2, 1885 or March 19, 1887. See “José Méndez,” Baseball-Reference.com, http://www.baseball-reference.com/nonmlbpa/mendejo99.shtml, last accessed June 2, 2016 (lists birthdate as January 2, 1885); “José Méndez,” BaseballHall.org, http://baseballhall.org/hof/mendezjose, last accessed June 2, 2016 (lists birth year as 1885); John B. Holway, “Cuba’s Black Diamond,” SABR.org, http://research.sabr.org/journals/cubas-black-diamond, last accessed June 2, 2016 (lists birth year as 1887); “José Méndez,” (assigned but not completed biography page) SABR.org, http://wwwdev.sabr.org/node/27084 (lists birthdate as March 19, 1887); and Wilson, 7 (lists birthdate as March 17, 1887).[/fn] He began pitching when he was 16 years old, and in 1908, when the Cincinnati Reds played in Cuba, Méndez pitched an impressive complete game one-hit shutout in the previously mentioned 1–0 win over the Reds.[fn]Wilson, 7–9.[/fn] But while Almeida and Marsans were playing professional baseball at the highest level in the world, the legendary arm of Méndez was barnstorming with Negro League teams and devastating major league hitters from outside their ranks.[fn]Barnstorming is when teams would travel to many other cities to play local opposition for long stretches of time, somewhat similar to the Harlem Globetrotters. The term also describes the way many American teams would play in Cuba, when they toured the country playing against local teams.[/fn]
With the color line already having been drawn in the major leagues, the closest Méndez would ever was playing for the Cuban Stars and in the Negro Leagues, starting in 1909.[fn]Wilson, 7, and “José Mendez,” Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, nlbm.com, at http://coe.k-state.edu/annex/nlbemuseum/history/players/mendez.html, last accessed June 2, 2016.[/fn] After the world champion Philadelphia Athletics had been defeated by Méndez in two consecutive starts, the A’s veteran catcher Ira Thomas said that in his and his teammates’ opinions Méndez “ranks with the best in the game.”[fn]Wilson, 7.[/fn] But despite being one of the best pitchers of his time, Méndez was not given the same opportunities as his former teammates because he was black.
THE COLOR LINE GETS BLURRY[fn]Cuban baseball players played a major role in blurring the color line in baseball. However, it would be failing the goal of due credit to not mention two other distinct groups of players who helped make racial integration in baseball possible. The first is the Negro Leaguers who suffered abuse across the country with barnstorming teams, whose names often included the word “Cuban” in an attempt to improve the treatment of the players. The second is Native American ballplayers, who suffered a cultural prejudice similar to that suffered by Cubans, but were somewhat redeemed by their lighter skin and apparent willingness to “act” like white Americans. For more on the Negro Leagues, see Lanctot, note 4, and Leslie A. Heaphy, The Negro Leagues: 1869–1960 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. 2003). For more on the Native American experience of integration into baseball, see Jeffrey Powers-Beck, “‘Chief’ The American Indian Integration of Baseball, 1897–1945,” The American Indian Quarterly, v. 25, 508–38 (Fall 2001).[/fn]
Since Almeida and Marsans were close to white, they were the ones the Reds decided to sign. There were likely no underlying political or social motives to signing the players. Owner Garry Herrmann and manager Clark Griffith simply wanted “cheap talent and a chance to draw on the growing Latin community” to increase profits.[fn]Wilson, 23.[/fn] Much like Branch Rickey would do with Jackie Robinson decades later, Griffith and Herrmann merely exploited a market inefficiency by recruiting players other teams ignored out of racial prejudice.[fn]J.C. Bradbury, The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed (Plume: New York, 2008): 129.[/fn]
Even though black players were excluded from the top leagues, people in baseball knew just how good some black and Cuban teams were. During an exhibition series in Cuba, New York Giants manager John McGraw said that he would pay $50,000 each for Méndez and his catcher “Strike” Gonzalez if they were white.[fn]Wilson, 8.[/fn] Legendary Cuban broadcaster Rafael “Felo” Ramírez—member of the Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame and 2001 recipient of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award—spoke of a joke that went around Cuba that, “if they painted Méndez with white paint he would finally be good enough to be a superstar in the United States.”[fn]Wilson, 9. See also, “Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame,” Baseball-Reference.com, http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Caribbean_Baseball_Hall_of_Fame, last accessed June 2, 2016, and “2001 Ford C. Frick Award Winner Felo Ramírez,” BaseballHall.org, http://baseballhall.org/discover/awards/ford-c-frick/felo-ramirez, last accessed June 2, 2016.[/fn] A 1914 poster promoting a game between the Cuban Stars and Marshall, a professional team from Cleveland, tried to entice fans to attend by saying that “Méndez, considered by experts as the best pitcher in the world, will probably pitch.”[fn]Wilson, 7, 9.[/fn] While Méndez’s skill is more important to us now, in the early 1900s race was the only important issue.[fn]Wilson, 23–37.[/fn] By exemplifying, and often even creating, stories of whiteness about the early Latino players, the leagues and the owners were able to maintain their overarching goal of black exclusion, while also capitalizing on the availability of cheap nonwhite talent.[fn]Burgos, 141.[/fn] Despite his talent, team owners simply refused to sign Méndez because he was black.
The mere presence of two “swarthy” Cubans in the major leagues was enough to alarm some observers. An undated article from the Negro League Museum asked, “Is Baseball To Lower Color Line?”[fn]Reproduced in Wilson, 29.[/fn] The article headline claimed that the signing of Marsans and Almeida by the Reds was a “Step Towards Letting in the Negro.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
…it has always been understood that no Negro should play in the major leagues…Griffith has signed two Cubans who may or may not be part Negro. These particular Cubans may be of Spanish descent and they may be of African…the peculiar social conditions of the island making it mighty hard to determine the exact standings of most of the natives regarding color.[fn]Wilson, 29.[/fn]
Articles like this showed that “some within baseball circles perceived the Cubans as occupying an inbetween space along the color line as neither black nor white.”[fn]Adrian Burgos, Jr., “Book Reviews: Wilson, Nick C. Early Latino
Ballplayers in the United States,” Journal of Sport History, v. 32 (2005): 266–67.[/fn] By creating and occupying a space between black and white, Cuban players found their way onto major league rosters which were no longer just white.
TREATMENT OF CUBAN PLAYERS
After the introduction of Almeida and Marsans in 1911, and the success of Marsans in the league, more Cuban and other Latino players followed. “Latin American players came to the United States with growing regularity, and with each wave their impact on the major leagues enlarged.”[fn]Regalado, 3.[/fn] The first true Latin American star was Cuban Adolfo Luque (1914-1935), who led all pitchers with a record of 27–8 and an ERA of 1.93 in 1923 with the Cincinnati Reds.[fn]Cesar Lopez, “Adolfo Luque,” Cubanball, http://www.cubanball.com/Images/Majors/MajorsHL/LuqueA/luquea.html and “Dolf Luque,” Baseball-Reference.com, http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/l/luquedo01.shtml.[/fn] Between 1900 and 1950, 43 Cuban players made their debuts in the major leagues.[fn]Regalado, 7.[/fn] Most of them entered the major leagues by signing with the Cincinnati Reds or the Washington Nationals.[fn]Regalado, 3–4.[/fn] Clark Griffith was largely responsible for signing Cuban players, which he began with the Reds and continued with the Nationals.
Even though the color line was being blurred by Cuban players in terms of roster spots, American society and baseball culture continued to enforce racial divisions by how they treated players. Cuban players faced aggressive pitching, taunting by the fans, and worst of all, taunting from their own teammates. One of the most troubling aspects for many Latin American baseball players in the decades to come was that they had expected to find the “American dream” where “success came by virtue of merit,” but instead they found mostly racism that mirrored the larger American society.[fn]Regalado, 3.[/fn]
In a 1940 Collier’s article, sportswriter Bob Considine wrote about baseball’s racism toward the Cuban players in an article entitled “Ivory from Cuba.”[fn]Bob Considine, “Ivory from Cuba,” Collier’s, August 3, 1940: 24, 19. For full article see pages 19–24.[/fn] He called Cuba a “gold mine of baseball players” and wrote about how Cuban players often did not receive “just salaries.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] He also told us that Cuban players were “handicapped by a rather widespread inability on the part of the American ballplayers to differentiate between Cuban and Negro athletes.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Racism among baseball players often included throwing at batters on purpose. Considine admits that such actions were sometimes strategy and not racism. For example, Cuban Roberto Estalella was known to crowd the plate, so sometimes pitchers were merely backing him off as they would a white batter. However, Considine goes into further detail about the general treatment of Cuban players:
They get beanballs thrown at their heads by closed-shop (and closed-brained) rivals. They face pitchers who willingly throw away their arms bearing down on them in an effort to escape the “ignominy” of yielding a hit to them. They get a measure of grass-singeing abuse from the “jockeys” on the enemy bench. From their own team they get rock bottom pay, and from their own teammates they get a wintry ostracism. Those who want to befriend them are halted by the differences in languages.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
Thus, Cubans playing baseball in the United States often suffered from racial, cultural, and linguistic isolation.
Fortunately, there were also players and people around baseball who saw the absurdity in the game’s racism. It was easy for most people to “deal with” the Cuban presence at first because most of the Cuban players came by way of only two teams, the Reds and the Nationals. With articles like Considine’s and the success of Cubans in the major leagues, the number of Cubans continued to grow. This forced baseball culture to begin to “deal with” the changes, eventually leading to understanding and acceptance in the game.
BLACK PLAYERS REACT
Despite the progress made by Cuban players, most black players were in no rush to try to cross the color line themselves. The treatment of the “almost-white” Cubans was bad enough to make most black players fear how bad their lives in the major leagues could be.[fn]Neil Lanctot, Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 213.[/fn] The black players on non-major league and Negro League rosters found a way to “deal with” the gradual inclusion of the Cuban players and the continued exclusion of black American players. While Cuban players were blurring the color line, black American players were blurring the nationality line.
American society recognized Latinos as something outside of the sharp racial divisions of black and white that had existed for so long in the United States. For white Americans, the biggest distinction between Cubans and black Americans was language. Armando Vásquez, a dark-skinned Cuban playing in the Negro Leagues in the 1940s, recalled how he would conveniently “forget” any English he had picked up.[fn]“Armando Vazquez,” Baseball-Reference.com, at http://www.baseballreference.com/register/player.cgi?id=vazque000arm.[/fn],[fn]Adrian Burgos, “Making Cuban Stars: Alejandro Pompez and Latinos in Black Baseball,” Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 112–37.[/fn] He would go to restaurants that did not serve blacks and begin speaking Spanish, and the restaurants would often serve him.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Despite his black skin color, by speaking Spanish Vásquez become something else. Once he opened his mouth, he was no longer just black—he was a foreigner.[fn]Ibid.[/fn]
This distinction was enough to get many Cuban players better treatment in segregated parts of the country. Other Negro Leaguers began to notice. Many teams made sure to have at least one Latino on their roster so that he could order for the whole team in whites-only restaurants, while the other players pretended to not speak English. That way, they could all be served.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Black players pretended they were Cuban by intentionally speaking broken English with a Spanish accent, or actually speaking Spanish if they knew enough of it.[fn]Ibid, 137.[/fn] This practice spread to the larger black community. Black poet and statesman James Weldon Johnson, in his autobiography Along This Way, describes several instances where speaking Spanish and masquerading as a Latino helped him and his family get better treatment on trains and other segregated facilities.[fn]Jason A Pierce, “James Weldon Johnson, 1871–1938,” Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries, http://www.sc.edu/library/spcoll/amlit/johnson/johnson.html.[/fn],[fn]Burgos, 137–8.[/fn] So not only did Cuban baseball players help blur baseball’s color line, but they also provided black Americans a pathway, absurd though it was, to better treatment in certain parts of the country.
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In the years following Bob Considine’s article, the idea of racial acceptance in baseball became more of a reality. Exactly five years to the day before Jackie Robinson’s major league debut, Hiram “Hi” Bithorn became the first Puerto Rican to play major league baseball.[fn]Jane Allen Quevedo, “Hi Bithorn,” SABR.org, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/0ebf1b32, last accessed June 1, 2016.[/fn] The color line had blurred enough for Bithorn, who was light-skinned but still “dark” by major league standards, to be able to play at baseball’s highest level.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] In 1947, Robinson’s entrance onto the major league stage paved the way for more black Americans to play at the highest levels, but it in no way ended the racism in baseball.
Just like any culture, baseball has been steadily changing—and integration increasing—since the game’s inception. To use the old baseball phrase, Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Dodgers did not just come out of left field. It was partially the work of Cuban players, who suffered extreme resistance and racism, that made it possible for players like Jackie Robinson to not just play the game at its highest levels, but to become heroes to generations of people of all races.
STEPHEN R. KEENEY is a lifelong Reds fan and a new SABR member, joining in early 2015. He graduated from Miami University in 2010 with degrees in History and International Studies, and from Northern Kentucky University’s Chase College of Law in 2013. After passing the bar exam he moved from his hometown of Cincinnati to Dayton, where he works as a union staff representative and lives with his wife, Christine.