Monday, April 23, 2007

Cuidad Trujillo Dragons 1937

I’m going to take a bit of a different take on this week’s blog entry. I know that this blog is about Latin American baseball history. And trust me it is. But I’m going to mix in some Negro League flavor into the mix. Now the path of the Negro League baseball players and the Latin American baseball players is one that has been the same. Many of the Latin American players of color during the 1930’s and 1940’s were relegated to being able to play ball in the Negro Leagues due to “The Gentlemen’s Agreement” in Major League Baseball. Now, not that the Negro Leagues was a lesser league. The competition in the Negro League was on par with the competition in MLB but talent wise it might have been superior.

It was this superiority that led to 1937 tournament in the Caribbean nation of the Dominican Republic. We all know today that the effect of the Dominican baseball players is great. With the Dominicans making up the largest amount of foreign born players in the majors. But that was not the case in 1937. The Dominican Republic was considered vastly inferior to the Cubans in terms of not only Negro League talent but also Major League talent (Adolfo Luque of the Cincinnati Reds for one). I believe that before I go on, a little bit of background information is in order.

General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina (a.k.a. Trujillo) who presided as the absolute ruler of the country for a total of 31 years (1930-1961) was the engineer of the baseball tournament of 1937. He ruled the country with vicious precision, eliminating enemies without recourse. His high handed rule went hand in hand with a massive megalomania. Many a town was named after him including the capital city of the Dominican Republic (From Santo Domingo to Cuidad Trujillo). So it was within political climate that politics intermingled with baseball.

With the victory of the 1936 Dominican League of the team from San Pedro (Las Estrellas Orientales), Trujillo wanted to make sure that the teams from his city would not lose again. So for the next season, the two teams that played in the nation’s capital, Los Tigeres de Licey and Los Leones de Escogido, had their best talent raided by Trujillo who made one team, named Los Dragones de Cuidad Trujillo. In response, the owners of the other teams in the league brought in some high paid talent from the Negro Leagues and Cuba. Trujillo also realized that he would need to raise the stakes by bringing in some high-class talent of his own. Trujillo would not tolerate anything short of victory.

With the recruitment of Negro Leaguers, certain factors came into play. First of all, the Latin American leagues were usually limited in how many foreign players they could have on their teams. In doing so, they often paid top dollar for the talent. By signing with the Latin American teams, the Negro Leaguers made more money in Latin America than they would have in the United States. Secondly, the potential of more pay went hand in hand with a racial environment that was different than they were used to. Unlike the blatant racial segregation that was in place through much of the United States, they did not have to deal with that in Latin America, whose population was very much made of many races and cultures.

So, when Trujillo (with the aid of Dr. Jose Aybar who ran the Cuidad Trujillo team) decided to recruit Negro League players, the action was done in earnest. Satchel Paige was the first to be approached. Then came Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Sammy Bankhead, Cy Perkins, Leroy Matlock and Harry Williams. Also on the team was Puerto Rican baseball player named Perucho Cepeda, the father of Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda. Countering the power play of the Cuidad Trujillo team, the Santiago team (Las Aguilas Cibaeñas) countered with Negro Leaguers Horacio Martinez, Luis Tiant, Sr., Chet Brewer and Martin Dihigo (Baseball Hall of Famer). The San Pedro team was made up of a mix of Dominican and Cuban players. The Negro Leagues in contrast, had to play their 1937 season without it’s biggest and best drawing players. Those Negro leaguers who played in the Dominican faced lifetime suspensions from the league. Played in the baseball-crazed environment of The Dominican Republic, the tournament is still being talked about on the island among the baseball old timers.

With games being played on weekend, the tournament came down to the final game. In a matchup between Cuidad Trujillo and Santiago, the game was moving along swiftly with the Santiago team leading 2-0. On the mound was Negro Leaguer Chet Brewer, who had only a week earlier thrown a 1 hit shutout of the Cuidad Trujillo team. By the 5th inning things were about to change. A series of hits, capped off by a Sammy Bankhead grand slam chased Brewer from the game. The Santiago tram was able to cut the lead of the Cuidad Trujillo team to two runs (8-6) before Satchel Paige came in close the game and win the tournament for the Dragons.

Professional baseball would never be the same on the island. Due to the great cost that was incurred by all of the owners of the Dominican teams, professional baseball would not return to the island until 1951. That did not mean that there was no baseball. Amateur games were being played in the schools and among the sugar mill workers throughout the island. Also, the military had their own teams that played throughout the island. This led to the future advancement of The Dominican Baseball player in Major League Baseball with Osvaldo Virgil being the first Dominican Baseball player in the Majors (1952) and the arrival of such players as the Alou Brothers and Hall of Famer Juan Marichal. As for the Negro Leaguers, the lifetime ban was not a prudent move. They were allowed to return to their respective team by paying a week’s worth of salaries as fines.
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