Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Black" Latino Pioneers

I recently read an article by Kevin Hunter on the Throughthefencebaseball.com website called Who Was The Last Team To Integrate? and after doing so, I starting thinking about the members of the list. As history states, Jackie Robinson was the first black man to break the color barrier when he debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947 and the last black man to integrate was Elijah Jerry “Pumpsie” Green debuting for the Boston Red Sox on July 21, 1959. You might be asking yourselves: Why Does This Apply to a Latinoball blog? Let me post the list and I'll point out the Latino perspective in the list:

Brooklyn Dodgers – Jackie Robinson (1947)
Cleveland Indians – Larry Doby (1947)
St. Louis Browns – Hank Thompson (1947)
New York Giants – Hank Thompson (1949)
Boston Braves – Sam Jethroe (1950)
Chicago White Sox – Minnie Minoso (1951)
Philadelphia Athletics – Bob Trice (1953)
Chicago Cubs – Ernie Banks (1953)
Pittsburgh Pirates – Curt Roberts (1954)
St. Louis Cardinals – Tom Alston (1954)
Cincinnati Reds – Nino Escalera (1954)
Washington Senators – Carlos Paula (1954)
New York Yankees – Elston Howard (1955)
Philadelphia Phillies – John Kennedy (1957)
Detroit Tigers – Ozzie Virgil (1958)
Boston Red Sox – Pumpsie Green (1959)

Here goes the Latino point of view. On the list are four players who are Latino: Saturnino Orestes Armas "Minnie" Miñoso Arrieta , Saturnino Cuadrado " Nino" Escalera, Carlos Paula Conill, and Osvaldo Jose Virgil Sr. (Pichardo). The reason why they are considered pioneers in being the first "black" players on their respective teams though based on our modern day view of color, Miñoso and possibly Paula could be considered black due to the color of their skin. But prior to 1947, if a player was dark skinned or of African descent then they were not allowed to play in the Major Leagues, often playing in the Negro Leagues and in the Caribbean leagues where a person of faced less resistance due to his race and heritage.

The irony is that Latinos were playing in organized Baseball since 1869 with Esteban Bellan and in the Major League since 1902 with Luis Castro of the Cincinnati Reds (For more information on who the first Latinos in Baseball were, refer to my blogpost 1st Latino Pioneers). As per Matt Welch in his article The Cuban Senators by 1950, a total of 43 Cubans and 11 other Latinos had appeared in the Major Leagues. The reason that there were so many Cubans was that the major leagues teams were tapping into the Cuban talent similar to how many major league teams have academies in the Dominican Republic and other Latino countries today. Once Fidel Castro turned Cuba into a full fledged Communist state, the pipeline of professional players coming from Cuba closed. No longer were professional sports a part of the fabric of Cuba's athletics. Amateur sports became the dominant form of athletics with the Cubans dominating Amateur baseball for decades. With that talent stream closed, new ones opened up in The Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama and Mexico. But I'm geting ahead of myself.

I wanted to give a brief descriptions of the four "black" Latino pioneers that crossed the color barriers within the Major Leagues. Of the four, Cuban Minnie Miñoso can be considered having the most successful career. Miñoso started his professional career in the Negro Leagues and after debuting in the Majors with the Cleveland Indians in 1947 he would become the Chicago White Sox's player to integrate in 1951 and he would go and play in the Majors in five different decades, finally retiring in 1980 at the age of 57. His best season was in 1954 when Miñoso batted .320 with 19 HR and 116 RBI. In 568 AB, Miñoso had 182 hits (29 2B/18 3B/19 HR) with 46 strikeouts, 77 walks, 18 stolen bases. and an OPS of .946 (.411 OBP/.535 SLG). In total Miñoso was a 7-time American League All-Star (1951-1954, 1957, 1959-1960) and a 3-time Gold Glove Winner (1957, 1959, 1960).

In contrast to Miñoso, Nino Escalera's career was limited to only one Major League season. A native of Puerto Rico, Escalera debuted with the Cincinnati Reds in 1954 and appeared in only 73 games. Escalera appeared in 1,556 minor league games batting a career .293. He would later work as a major league scout for the San Francisco Giants and the New York Mets. In a bit of baseball trivia, according the blogger J.G. Preston in his post The forgotten left-handed throwing shortstop, Escalera (as the title of the post states) is the last left-handed throwing shortstop in the major leagues.

Though his career was not as brief as Escalera's, Cuban Carlos Paula also had a relatively short Major League career. Debuting with the Washington Senators in 1954, Paula played for a total of three seasons with his best season being 1955. In that season, Paula batted .299 with 6 HRs and 45 RBI in 351 AB. Paula retired from the Major Leagues at the end of the 1956 season.

Ozzie Virgil bears the distinction of not only being the first black player to play for the the Detroit Tigers in 1961, more importantly, Virgil is the first player from the Dominican Republic to play in the major leagues. Virgil debuted with the New York Giants in 1956 and played a total of 9 season with 5 teams from 1956-1967. Virgil's best season was 1957 when he batted .237 with 4 HR and 24 RBI in 226 AB. Virgil is also the father of former major league player Ozzie Virgil Jr.

So there you have it. As I come across more interesting blogs and articles that relate to Latino ballplayers, I'll do my best to add to their stories.