At SABR 46 on July 30, 2016, in Miami, our Latino Baseball Authors Panel discussed the Latino baseball experience, with an emphasis on baseball in Cuba and how current events are affecting the game abroad and in the U.S.
Panelists included César Brioso, a digital producer for USA Today and the author of Havana Hardball: Spring Training, Jackie Robinson, and the Cuban League; Peter C. Bjarkman, one of the foremost authorities on Cuban baseball history and the author of Cuba’s Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story; Adrian Burgos Jr., a professor of history at the University of Illinois and the author of Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line; and moderator Anthony Salazar, chairman of SABR’s Latino Baseball Research Committee and editor of its newsletter, La Prensa del Béisbol Latino.
- Video: Click here to watch highlights from the SABR 46 Latino Baseball Authors Panel (YouTube)
- Audio: Click here to listen to highlights from the SABR 46 Latino Baseball Authors Panel (MP3; 54:54)
Here are some highlights from the Latino Baseball Authors Panel:
ON THE CURRENT STATE OF CUBAN BASEBALL
- Bjarkman: “The Cuban story over the past 4-5 years is one of the really ugly sides of the professional baseball. … A number of the high-profile [Cuban] players who are now in the major leagues left Cuba through a process that can be described as nothing short of human trafficking. … The Cubans are trying to keep their league together; it’s hugely important to them, socially and politically. Players have left in droves. We have about 150 players who have left in 12 months. … The fans have lost interest. So the sport is collapsing down there right now. … The bottom has fallen out of the market for Cuban players; you’re not going to have any more $70 million contracts like you had for Rusney Castillo. … I think there’s so much baseball talent and so much baseball culture in Cuba, at some point it’s going to come back. But in what form, we don’t know.”
- Brioso: “One of the reasons for the communication that’s going on now between [MLB] and Cuba is trying to preserve what’s there, and how do you do that? If there was a system put in place where players play for a certain amount of time in Cuba and then a pool of them are made available for Major League Baseball, obviously they would have to return money to the Cuban government, I would imagine. And one of the things the Cuban government is going to want is some way of preventing guys who defect from actually playing.”
ON PLAYERS OF COLOR CHOOSING OTHER SPORTS OVER BASEBALL
- Burgos: “Bob Gibson was already playing baseball in the 1950s. He actually went to Creighton on a basketball scholarship and he played with the [Harlem] Globetrotters before he went to the [St. Louis] Cardinals. But for the most part, his generation was still playing baseball. … Now, here’s a personal anecdote which I think captures how things had changed by the 1980s. I went to high school in Pompano Beach, about 40 miles from here. We were a powerhouse in football and predominately African-American. One of the football coaches, I knew him as Coach Evans — I did not learn who he really was until I was in graduate school at Michigan and Jim Riley had published a biographical encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues. My Coach Evans was Felix “Chin” Evans, an all-star pitcher in the Negro Leagues. He had retired from baseball and had come to a realization that as a stellar baseball player, he would have a bigger impact on the future of young African-Americans [by] helping them to become football players. He had nothing to do with the varsity baseball team that I played on! … On Signing Day, you had between 18 and 24 guys, every starter gets a Division I or Division II [college scholarship] offer. The lone African-American player on our baseball team ended up quitting the team. … That was a legacy of integration. Many African-American players realized that MLB did not want them for their skills beyond the playing field. And that’s what I worry about right now when you see the management of MLB, with the lack of Latino and African-American managers.”
ON THE GLOBALIZATION OF BASEBALL IN THE 21ST CENTURY
- Bjarkman: “The way integration played out in the late 1940s and the early 1950s was the destruction of a thriving institution competing with major-league baseball in the Negro League system, which supported young black ballplayers and whole black communities, and that went away overnight. So you had a few top talented players that make it in the major leagues and you have no more places for other African-Americans to play at a high level. … Unfortunately, what I think has happened, MLB has spent a lot of time talking about globalization [with] the World Baseball Classic. [That] has not really been an effort to globalize the sport but to advertise MLB’s role in some of these countries. MLB has to find a way to develop an infrastructure to alternative baseball universes outside of Major League Baseball, and not to see the Dominican or Cuba or Japan or anyplace else as a place to sell lots of Red Sox caps and televise lots of games and to bring all the young players out and put them in the minor-league system in the U.S. That’s not going to sustain an international game, and if they don’t do that … well, we already see that the sport is dying here in the U.S., forget about internationally.”
ON MEDIA COVERAGE OF LATINO PLAYERS
- Brioso: “It’s certainly better now, but there was a very low bar years ago. Some of the ways Latino players were referred to — for example, Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans, the first Cuban-born players in the majors in the modern era, they signed with the Cincinnati Reds in 1911. And there was this rush by U.S. newspapers to assure fans that they were white. One newspaper referred to them as ‘the two purest bars of Castilian soap ever floated to these shores.’ … And these were reputable newspapers, which would quote Latino players phonetically. When Adolfo Luque was talking about pitching, they would spell it out as ‘p-e-e-t-c-h’. And interesting enough, it wasn’t just the mainstream [white] papers, the black papers did some of this as well. … Or the anglicizing of first names or nicknaming, like Bob Clemente. … So it’s certainly better now. One of the things you’re seeing now, you do see more Latino writers covering baseball. All news organizations understand the importance of being able to communicate with [players]. You’re seeing the initiative to make sure there are Spanish-speaking interpreters on every team. This was a very good move by MLB.”
For more coverage of SABR 46, visit SABR.org/convention.
Originally published: August 15, 2016. Last Updated: July 27, 2020.