Interview: Adrian Burgos, author, Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line

Interview of Adrian Burgos, author of Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line By Ishmael Nunez Originally posted on19 November 2010. 


1-A single Latin-American was not voted to the all-century team?

Does that still hurt, still mad?


The absence of Roberto Clemente from the all-century team is a major issue on several levels. One matter is a logistical argument about how Major League Baseball (MLB) officials skipped over Clemente in naming Stan Musial the 25th player to the all-century: Clemente had secured more votes among outfielders than Musial. Another more significant issue is that MLB (as well as many voters) chose not to recognize the beyond-the-statistics dimension to what Roberto Clemente represents to the history of the game and as a 20th century figure.

Clemente was a transformative figure who pushed for respect of Latinos and their culture on and off the playing field specifically in his willing to openly denounce racist and cultural bigoted beliefs that predominated during that time inside of baseball circles as well as in US society. Whether Clemente is the greatest outfielder or rightfielder in baseball history is a debatable matter, but whether he is one of the most important baseball figures of the 20thcentury is without debate. An all-century team without Clemente and all he represented to the game’s history is just not right. The fact that MLB had the discretion to address this oversight and opted not to is telling of the need for an understanding of baseball history through a Latino framework.


2-Focusing on the book, one thing people are not aware is that there were Latinos playing baseball long before Jackie Robinson.  Why we are not given the credit for opening the doors for other peoples of color?


The full story of Latinos in US professional baseball is unknown to the American baseball public. Many do not know that over fifty foreign-born and US-born Latinos performed in the Majors from the 1880s through 1947, when Jackie Robinson began the dismantling of organized baseball’s color line. Fewer realize that the overwhelming majority of Latinos who played in the States during the era of baseball’s segregation performed in the Negro Leagues, over 250 Latinos played in the Black baseball circuit starting in 1900.


In Playing America’s Game I argue that the manner that Major League team officials manipulated racial understandings served as a template for how Branch Rickey would approach the official launch of the racial integration of Major League Baseball: he like they placed fellow owners in the odd position of having to publicly express opposition to the inclusion of these players. Indeed, officials for teams such as the Cincinnati Reds, Boston Braves, New York Giants, and, most notably, Washington Senators, brokered access for lighter-skinned Latinos in the 1900s and by the mid-1930s began to allow increasingly darker, more racially ambiguous Latino players into the Majors. However, these Latino players were not given the same exact treatment as Jackie Robinson did, because these officials were not engaged in trying to overturn the color line system of racial division but rather to manipulate it for their own gain—signing talented Latino players for lower salaries than what they would earn if they were white Americans.


3-In your book you describe the many obstacles Latino Ballplayers had to face.  For example speaking English!  Do they still face these problems?


Language continues to be a prominent obstacle that Latinos encounter as they enter the US playing fields. This especially since MLB organizations continues to scour the Dominican and Venezuelan landscape in search of young, malleable talent. Fortunately, a number of organizations such as the Tampa Rays, Boston Red Sox, and New York Mets have developed more sophisticated approaches to dealing with the cultural adjustment that these teenagers face as they become men as minor leaguers in the United States. Even still the ability to overcome the rigors of cultural adaptation proves just about as significant a challenge as mastering hitting (or throwing) a big league curveball.


Learning to navigate the English-language press remains an extremely challenging obstacle once they “make it” in the United States. It is in the press coverage of Latinos we continue to see how Latino difference as racial beings constantly in production. For example, during last year’s American League Divisional Series Manny Ramirez became embroiled in a controversy after stating that he was not worried whether the Red Sox would defeat Cleveland, because his team had been down before and had overcome a 3-game-to-none deficit in defeating the New York Yankees a few years earlier. Some stated this was another example of “Manny being Manny,” but what really perturbed me was hearing a prominent ESPN reporter stating that Manny did not know what he was saying because he lacked mastery over the English language. What?! Manny came over from the Dominican Republic at ten years old and was schooled in the United States before graduating from George Washington High School in Washington Heights (NYC). But this reporter lumped all Latinos into a familiar stereotype, and then he used that to frame his analysis. And thus continues a practice of portraying Latino players as ignorant, dumb, or not as smart as the white American player, a practice that dates back to the earliest era of Latino participation in organized baseball.


4-Ken Burns “Baseball” documentary didn’t mention anything about the contribution of Latinos.  What should’ve been done, it’s not the first time Latinos have been excluded from his documentaries. True!


A friend once observed that in the entirety of Burns’ “Baseball” approximately five minutes focused on Latinos … and three of those were strictly about Clemente. The analogy I often make is that while the Negro Leagues received about a half inning of focused attention, Latino baseball got a couple warm-up pitches.


However, what Burns missed in 1994 is rightfully receiving its due attention. Next May the National Baseball Hall of Fame will open a permanent exhibit on Latino baseball Viva Baseball! (A project I and a number of other Latino baseball experts consulted on). Also noteworthy PBS aired an episode of American Experience on Roberto Clemente this past April. There are a number of documentaries on Latino baseball that have aired over the last several years on networks such as Spike and ESPN. And there are a few in production that are addressing this gap, including El Beisbol directed by AP Gonzalez and Nancy Ooey. Importantly, Gonzalez and Ooey’s project is seeking to present a historical interpretation of baseball through a Latino-centered focus, much like my book, they are hoping to convey how does baseball history look differently when we see Latinos as central to the story of its evolution and not as tangential where Latinos are presented are newly arrived and lacking a history.


5-In the book you mentioned Alex Pompez, who was elected the Hall of Fame.  Pompez was involved with organize crime figures, gambling.  Yet Pete Rose has been banned, excluded from the Hall.  Is there a difference?


Indeed there are important differences in terms of historical moments, racial status, and baseball.

Rose played his entire career in baseball’s integrated era, and as a white American did not have to endure what those who pioneered integration in organized baseball did or much less deal with the reality of the color line (in the negative sense) as African Americans and the overwhelming majority of Latino players did. On the other hand, Pompez participation in US professional baseball spanned the different eras of baseball. He launched his Cuban Stars team in 1916 and participated in the Negro Leagues until 1950 at which point he disbanded his team and was hired as a scout by the NY Giants, a position that evolved into becoming their director of international scouting and which until his death in 1974.


The rules against gambling were spelled out for Rose by the Major Leagues; he knew them and knowingly broke them—something he admitted to after over a decade of adamant denials. Pompez was not alone among owners in the Negro Leagues in using proceeds from the numbers scene to bankroll his baseball operation; it was a reflection of the impact and pervasiveness of racial segregation in American society and how it so shaped economic opportunities.


6-The New York Cubans won the Negro League Championship in 1947.

Same year which was the start of from 1947-57 a New York City Baseball team would win a title. Hardly no talk about this team why?


The NY Cubans were one of three NYC-based teams to enjoy a banner season in 1947, and yes they are the least discussed in part because the other two were the Brooklyn Dodgers and NY Yankees. So there is the issue of timing. The NY Cubans enjoyed their greatest success in the Negro Leagues during the same year that Jackie Robinson initiated the dismantling of organized baseball’s color line system.


Another part of the reason the Cubans team suffers today from a lack of attention is the misperception that they were not a significant team in the Negro Leagues or in New York. Much to the contrary, a look at two main Black weeklies published in NYC (the New York Age and Amsterdam News) one sees that the Cubans and not the NY Black Yankees were celebrated as “Harlem’s Own”. This also arises in the recovery of Negro League history and in the revival of interest, much of the story of Black baseball is told as just that of African Americans, leaving out the Latinos who participated in the Negro Leagues from its inception and the vital (one can even argue foundational) role that Latin American leagues had in the shaping of Black baseball in the United States. Moreover, the NY Cubans (and its predecessor the Cuban Stars) were trailblazers in bringing in talent from throughout the Americas. While operating these teams, Alex Pompez introduced the first Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Panamanian players to play in either the Negro Leagues or the Majors. The NY Cubans represent a vital part of baseball history in the Americas for they offer a different approach to diversity in US professional baseball long before “Los Mets.”


7-One player on the team you talk about highly is Martin Dihigo?


Many former Negro League Players say he was the best!


Dihigo is quite a unique figure in the annals of baseball history because he was an ace pitcher and a fabulous everyday player (and a pretty good team manager on top of that). Think of someone who was on a Hall of Fame level as a pitcher in Black baseball (the Smokey Joe Williams, Jose Mendez, and Satchel Paige type pitchers) and then think of the very best everyday players from the Negro Leagues, put that together and you begin to imagine El MaestroEl Inmortal, Martin Dihigo.


8- Roberto Clemente’s number 21should it be retired?


I am of two minds on this question. For one, I want Latino players to be a living memorial to the meaning and significance of Clemente to all Latinos. The best memorial is seeing a great Latino player chose to take the number 21, and demonstrate mastery on the field and also grace, dignity, and a willingness to speak for the cause of social justice off the field. However, I am concerned that this generation of Latino players may be losing sight of what Clemente did for them and all of baseball. How many Latinos spoke out on behalf of African American Latroy Hawkins who wanted to honor Clemente by wearing 21 and was being harassed by Yankees fans not for daring to honor Clemente but for wearing what they viewed as Paul O’Neill’s jersey number? I am distressed that Jorge Posada (born and raised in Puerto Rico) did not speak out on Hawkins behalf—what would have Clemente done on behalf of a teammate in such a case.


No greater example has been set for all of those involved in any capacity within organized baseball than what Clemente did, the ability to see beyond himself and speak for those who did not have the platform he could create—and I say could create but indeed it took proactive work. How best do we recognize that vital historical lesson? I am for a living memorial, the Latino players keeping his (and our) story on the field for all to see.

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One Comment

  1. elfego

    May 4, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    I agree that the off the field side of Clemente is/was ignored,but what troubles me more is the ‘statistics’ of Clemente when evaluated properly far far exceed those of Musial or others on that all century team…I do feel Musial should have been on that squad however. I’m waiting for Pete Rose or any of the non outfielders who were voted on the team (infielders/catchers) to man up and say NO WAY should I be there before Roberto Clemente.
    Google: Roberto Clemente br bullpen or google: Yes, Roberto Clemente really did have excellent power. In short, Clemente is the greatest defensive outfielder ever,mostly due to that game changing arm, but more importantly he is the MOST successful hitter in history against hall of fame pitching…which to anyone who truly understands this game trumps all the sabermetric stats acquired against home run derby hurlers! Roger Angell said it all when he said Clemente played to a level none of us had ever seen before…in a world series of all places!!!

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