Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Big Papi and a History of Immigration in Baseball

The other day I was looking at the sports page and noticed the name David Ortiz (David Américo Ortiz Arias).  I learned that Ortiz was second in the American League in batting average as well as second in runs batted in.  He was a star player on Boston Red Sox teams that won three World Series Championships.  He is having one of his best years, but he has announced that he will be retiring at the end of the season.  I should also say that Ortiz was born in the Dominican Republic and came to this country as an immigrant.

A mentor to Ortiz has been the ace pitcher Pedro Martinez.  It was Martinez who convinced the Red Sox to recruit Ortiz.  Pedro Martinez also was born in the Dominican Republic.

President Obama has been deporting about one thousand immigrants for every day he has been in office.  Thousands of these deported immigrants have children who were born in this country.  When their parents are deported, the children are sent into foster care with no effort made to unite them with their parents. 

Donald Trump isn’t satisfied with that number of deportations and says he will deport millions of immigrants if he is elected.  However, the idea of preventing David Ortiz from ever coming to this nation, or deporting him after he arrived, would be tantamount to fighting words for the baseball fans of Boston, Massachusetts.

Aside from the fact that Ortiz is an outstanding player, he always appears to have a positive attitude.  His positive attitude has helped to unite the Red Sox, and he has always been popular with his teammates.  This is one reason why he is affectionately known as the Big Papi.

The press has made a big deal of the fact that in Ortiz first World Series Championship, he helped to break the so-called “Curse of the Bambino.”  This refers to the idea that the Boston Red Sox hadn’t won a World Series championship since the team traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.

Well, there was a much more relevant reason why the Red Sox were not able to win a championship.  The team was the last to hire a Black ball player.  In fact, the Red Sox had the opportunity to recruit Willie Mays, but declined.

There has been a lot written about the difficulties Black players have had in breaking into the so-called Major Leagues.  However, very little has been written about the history of immigrants in baseball.  So, this column will give just a few facts attempting to uncover this truly inspiring history.  I will begin this narrative with someone who was born in Cairo, Georgia in 1919.  His name was Jack (Jackie) Roosevelt Robinson and he wore the number 42.

Jackie Robinson

Why would I begin a history of immigration in baseball with Jackie Robinson who was born in this country?  In order to answer that question, first I will point to a few facts.

Jackie Robinson was a college educated young man who served in the United States military in Fort Hood, Texas.  After boarding a bus, someone ordered Robinson to vacate his seat and go to the back of the bus.  Years before Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, Jackie Robinson also refused to vacate his seat.  Both Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson were arrested for their acts of defiance.

Jackie Robinson was tried in a military court and forced to wear chains.  He wasn’t sent to prison for his defiance, but the military discharged him from the so-called service.  Had he been of a previous generation, the likelihood is that Robinson would have been lynched for his act of defiance.

Many of Robinson’s fans have seen the film 42 that is a biography of his life.  In the film, there is a scene where Robinson was practicing during spring training in Florida.  A racist approached the home where Robinson resided and threatened him with bodily harm if he remained in that city.

In another scene of the film, Robinson was playing a game in a state where Jim Crow segregation was the law.  A police officer, waving a nightstick, ordered Robinson off the field because he was in violation of the Jim Crow laws.  At that time, Jim Crow meant that it was illegal in some states for Black people to compete against Caucasians.  

I mention these facts to show that while Jackie Robinson was born in this country, he didn’t have citizenship rights here.  If he had citizenship rights he wouldn’t be asked to sit in the back of the bus.  If he was threatened, he could have gone to the police and demanded protection.  In those days, many police officers were members of the Ku Klux Klan.  If someone tried to prevent Robinson from playing baseball with Caucasian players, that person would be arrested.  This is how Robinson would have been treated if he had citizenship rights in this country.

Branch Rickey was the owner of the Dodgers team that recruited Jackie Robinson to the majors.  In the film 42 Rickey is portrayed as a heroic figure because of this gesture.  Well, there is another side to this story.

The Brooklyn Dodgers were the lowest paid team in baseball at that time.  Rickey wanted a championship team without having to pay a lot of money to the players.  His answer was to recruit some of the best players who happened to be Black.  This is the driving force behind racial discrimination.  When employers can pay Black people or women less, they can have more in terms of profits.

Isabel Wilkerson wrote her book The Warmth of other Suns.  Wilkerson’s family was a part of the Great Migration of Black people from the Jim Crow states to the states where Black people had some legal rights.  She got the idea for writing her book from living in Washington D.C. amongst immigrant children who’s families came here from other countries.  She found that many of her family’s stories of migration and adjustment to a new life were similar to the experiences of her immigrant friends.

This is why I begin my narrative of the history of immigration in baseball with Jackie Robinson.  Immigrants need to get citizenship rights in this country.  When Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball, he gained some of those citizenship rights.

Willie Mays and the San Francisco Giants

I was raised in Newark, New Jersey.  Most of my friends were fans of the New York Yankees or the Mets, the teams closest to Newark.  I was a fan of the San Francisco Giants.  My hero was Willie Mays who was born in Westfield, Alabama.

Like David Ortiz, Willie Mays was an outstanding ball player.  He also usually appeared to have a positive attitude.  People associated Mays with the saying “Say hey.”  I’ve heard some analysts of the game argue that Willie Mays may have been the best all-round player of all time.

However, Willie Mays was joined by other Hall of Fame players on the Giants team.  These included Juan Marichal who was born in the Dominican Republic, Orlando Cepeda who was from Puerto Rico, and Willie McCovey who was born in Mobile, Alabama.  Among Marichal’s teammates were his childhood friends from the Dominican Republic, the Alou brothers, Felipe, Jesus, and Mattie.

While Jackie Robinson broke into the so-called Major Leagues in 1947, the Jim Crow laws remained until the mid 1960’s.  This was when the Civil Rights movement forced the government to adopt the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.  What did this mean?

This meant that all the players I’ve mentioned on the Giants team were not allowed to use the same facilities as their teammates in the Jim Crow states.  They needed to reside and eat their meals in the segregated Black areas of town, while their Caucasian teammates might be teeing off on a golf course.

So the story of Willie Mays’ San Francisco Giants is another story of people who gained some citizenship rights in this country because of struggle.

Roberto Clemente

Roberto Clemente has to be considered one of the best baseball players of all time.  He had 3,000 hits during his life, a milestone many great players never reached.  He was the best player on two Pittsburgh Pirates teams that won the World Series.  Both these teams were not favored to win.  However, he prided himself in his fielding abilities, and felt he could throw out any player from right field.

Pittsburgh used to be known as a steel city.  Black smoke poured out of furnaces that manufactured steel.  During those years it was difficult to see because of the thick smog of the city.  Someone wearing a white shirt would see it turn black from merely walking in the city.  When Roberto Clemente arrived in Pittsburgh there was no Latino community.  

Aside from his baseball record, Clemente felt the need to aid those who didn’t have his advantages.  He felt that if you have a chance to help people and don’t, you are wasting your life.

David Maraniss wrote a wonderful biography of Clemente and gave this appreciation of this aspect of his life:

“if something touched him, he reacted deeply, immediately, and took you in as part of his family.  It didn’t matter who you were to the rest of the world,­–Jewish accountant, Greek pie maker, black postman, shy teenager, barefoot Puerto Rican wonderer–if Clemente saw something, that was that.  Family was everything to him.”

When the Pirates toured the country, Clemente routinely visited children’s hospitals.  In Nicaragua, he visited Julio Parrales who had lost his legs in an accident.  Clemente appealed to the Puerto Rican and Cuban teems to contribute to a $700 fund so that Parrales could have artificial legs.  Clemente contributed half of that amount and told Parrales that he would see him as a batboy when he returned to Nicaragua.

It was this reputation that has made Roberto Clemente the second most popular ball player in history, next to Mickey Mantle.

Roberto Enrique Clemente was born in San Antón, in the state of Carolina in Puerto Rico.  His father did the unimaginably horrendous work of cutting sugar cane.  This meant bending down under the hot sun all day to cut the sugar cane.  We can get and idea of what this work was like by taking a look at the origin of the world zombie.

Before the Haitian Revolution that island nation was a French colony where slaves produced the most lucrative sugar crop in the world.  The conditions of the slaves were so horrendous, many committed suicide, while others lived a very short life.  The African word zombie was used to describe those slaves who committed suicide.  The belief was that those slaves would not enter an afterlife and have a status of the living dead.

Clemente’s father became a manager of the cane cutters and raised his large family on a salary of about eleven dollars per week.  The family had access to electricity, but relied on the rain for water.

Clemente’s mother cooked for the workers at their modest home.  She was a strong woman and was able to carry the carcass of a cow and butcher it.  Clemente felt that he inherited his strong right arm from his mother.

Roberto Clemente came to the mainland of the United States to play baseball in the 1950’s shortly after Jackie Robinson broke the color line.  Because Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, Clemente was officially a U.S. citizen.  However, he like other Black players faced routine discrimination, and wasn’t allowed to use the same facilities as his Caucasian teammates.

Clemente also faced another type of discrimination because he was Latino and his first language was Spanish.  He was infuriated when sportswriters ridiculed his Spanish accent.  This is what Clemente had to say about the press in the United States:

“I attack it strongly, because since the first Latino arrived in the big leagues he was discriminated against without mercy,”  “It didn’t matter that the Latino player was good, but for the mere fact of him not being North American he was marginalized…They have an open preference for North Americans.  Mediocre players receive immense publicity while true stars are not highlighted as they deserve.”

Clemente gave the example of Juan Marichal to prove his point.  He argued that Marichal had a better overall record than Sandy Koufax, who many argue was the best.  This is what he had to say:

“Koufax was a five-year pitcher,”  “Marichal has a notable regularity, He was a pitcher forever.”

The United States government decided to modernize Puerto Rico and there was a large infusion of billions of dollars called Operation Bootstrap.  This infusion of money changed Puerto Rico from a largely sugar producing colony, to a manufacturing and tourist based economy.

However, this transition was not designed to meet the needs of all Puerto Ricans, and millions continued to move to the mainland to find work.  Today, Puerto Rico is in the midst of an economic crisis and there are cutbacks to workers in every area of their lives.  This is in spite of the fact that powerful investors have reaped enormous profits from Puerto Rico over the years.

This transition happened during the life of Roberto Clemente.  In his later years he became attracted to the nation of Nicaragua.  He felt that Nicaragua reminded him of what Puerto Rico was like before Operation Bootstrap.

After an earthquake in Nicaragua, the nation was in need of foreign aid.  Clemente became obsessed with gathering that aid.  However, the dictator of Nicaragua at that time was Anastasio Somoza.  Somoza had been confiscating aid given for hurricane relief, and using it for his own personal benefit.  Somoza had been supported by the United States government.

For this reason, Clemente felt the need to escort the aid to Nicaragua to ensure that it went to the people who needed it.  In a plane that never should have left the ground, Clemente died as a result of the plane crash at the age of 38.

Tony Oliva

Tony Oliva was the American League Rookie of the year in 1964.  He also led the American League in betting average for three years.  For eight years he was voted to play in the All-Star Game.  Despite having initial problems with his consistency in fielding, he also managed to win a Golden Glove award.

Tony Oliva was born Pedro Oliva in the Pinar Del Rio province of Cuba.  He changed his name because his brother Antonio had a birth certificate that enabled Pedro to get a passport.  I have visited the area of Pinar Del Rio and found it to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

Pinar Del Rio is the tobacco-producing center of Cuba.  Oliva’s father grew tobacco as well as several other crops on his farm.  At that time, throughout Latin America, few rural small farmers had access to telephone service, electricity, or indoor plumbing.

While the family had food from the farm, obtaining manufactured goods was a challenge.  At times Oliva’s father would trade a cow for the things his family needed.

Oliva’s father played baseball and saw the potential of his son at an early age.  The young Oliva had a knack of hitting every ball that came across the plate.

However, most ball players from Cuba were in Havana about 100 miles away from Pinar Del Rio.  Tony Oliva managed to get into Havana and was recruited by a scout of the Minnesota Twins.

Initially Oliva joined a minor league team in Florida where he was cut after just a few days.  In what might have been one of the worst blunders in the history of baseball, someone argued that Oliva would never be able to hit major league pitching.  Oliva also experienced the vicious racial discrimination that he hadn’t known in Cuba.

Oliva managed to practice on another minor league team, but was not allowed to play in their games.  He was given a room and a three-dollar per day allowance for food.  Oliva didn’t want to pay for cab fare to the stadium, so he walked the five miles every day.

The Minnesota Twins were pioneers in recruiting Latin ball players.  Oliva had other Latin teammates that made his transition from Cuba easier.  These outstanding players included: Zoilo Versalles, Vic Power, and Rod Carew. 

Ironically Minneapolis is the coldest of the large cities in the United States.  Because the city didn’t have a Latin community at that time, there was no place to get the ingredients for the Caribbean food the Latin team members enjoyed.  So, Oliva would get in a car with his teammates, and ride more than 400 miles to Chicago where they could get the ingredients that reminded them of home.

Because of injuries, Tony Oliva needed to end his baseball playing career after fifteen seasons.  Although he was an all-star for most of those years, he hasn’t been voted into the Hall of Fame.  The only official reason for this jaded thinking is that Oliva didn’t play more years in baseball.

Yet, through all of this, Tony Oliva maintained his positive attitude and his fans remember his wonderful smile.

The Cuban Revolution

Tony Oliva had a problem that many other Latin players didn’t have.  Players from other Latin nations as well as Puerto Rico could live in their homeland during the off-season.  This was not the case with players born in Cuba.

The Cuban Revolution erupted in 1959.  The United States government had, and continues to have a policy of isolating governments of the world that it doesn’t like.  We know that some of the governments the U.S. has organized to overthrow include: the government of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, the government of Mosaddegh in Iran, and the government of Arbenz in Guatemala.  The U.S. government was confident that they could also overthrow the revolutionary Cuban government.  This didn’t turn out to be the case.

The U.S. government supported an invasion of Cuba called the “Bay of Pigs” or “Playa Giron.”  When this invasion was defeated, the United States threatened to use nuclear weapons against Cuba.  The excuse for this criminal act was that Cuba had accepted nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union.  The facts are that the United States has more nuclear weapons than any other nation in the world.

Because of the U.S. hostility to Cuba, relations with the United States government were a severe problem.  This meant that if Oliva returned to Cuba, merely to visit his family, he might never be able to return to a professional career in baseball.

The revolutionary government of Cuba also did away with professional baseball.  The government could not justify giving athletes high salaries, while the people lived in abject poverty.  This action, as well as many other actions, stemmed from the fact that Cuba has an underdeveloped economy.

Why did the U.S. government take such an aggressive stance against Cuba?  The Cuban government decided it was going to challenge the capitalist norms that continue to dominate the world.  In the First and Second Declarations of Havana this is what the Cuban revolutionary government had to say:

“The Submission of traitorous governments has made Our America a backyard of the Yankee empire.”

“We condemn the exploitation of man by man, and of the underdeveloped countries by finance capital.”

“The exploited of America have begun writing their history for themselves.”

We can see the accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution by the reality in Latin America today. 

Many of us viewed the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  In 2013 demonstrations erupted in Brazil.  That nation had experienced a cash windfall because of increased trade with China as well as the discovery of oil.  When that upturn in the economy reversed itself, working people were the ones to feel the consequences.  This is similar to what happened with the downturn of the Puerto Rican economy that I wrote about in this blog.

The Brazilians saw how most of the money that came into the economy went to Brazilian billionaires.  Two items these billionaires purchased with this money were the U.S. beer manufacturer, Anheuser Busch, and the ketchup manufacturer, Kraft’s Heinz Corporation.  Brazilian workers would have preferred that the fruits of their labor go into health care and education, rather than beer and ketchup.

The Cuban government has had to continuously struggle against an embargo put in place by the United States government.  However, even with this enormous obstacle, today Cuba has more doctors and teachers per capita than most other nations in the world.  Cuba is one of the world leaders in low infant mortality as well as a nearly 100% literacy rate.

However, Cuba also experienced a blow to their economy with the end of their favorable trade with the former Soviet Union.  While Cuba has recovered from that blow, Cubans continue to feel the effects of being an underdeveloped nation in the capitalist world.

To his credit, today Tony Oliva is in full support of improved relations between the United States and Cuba.  He visits Pinar del Rio every year.

The final story of this blog is about a little league game that I felt had a place in this history.               

The Perfect Game

William Winokur wrote a wonderful book about a seemingly impossible true story of how a little league baseball team won a world championship

Imagine yourself being a teenager in Monterrey, Mexico where the possibilities for a rewarding life appear to be remote at best.  The available jobs are in steel and glass where the work environment is excruciatingly hot, and the pay is barely enough to feed a family. 

However, children tend to have dreams that can be more powerful than the reality adults expose them to.  A few teenagers in Monterrey, Mexico in the year 1957 had dreams of being professional baseball players.  They identified with players like Sandy Koufax and Stan Musial.  But there was a problem.  They appeared to have no resources.

Then, they discovered Cesar Faz who once had a job cleaning locker rooms for the St Louis Cardinals.  Faz never had a chance at a coaching job in the majors because of his Mexican heritage. 

However, the young people from Monterrey wanted nothing more than Faz to be their coach.  The problem was that Cesar Faz had a grueling job in a glass factory and the young baseball players had no field to practice.  These were not insurmountable obstacles.

The young players from Monterrey cleared a field of rocks, weeds, and junk so they could practice.  Cesar Faz was inspired by the determination of these youngsters.  He agreed to coach the team and entered them in the little league championships that would take place in about four weeks. 

However, there were more obstacles.  The team would need funding in a town where workers barely had enough resources to eat.  The team would have four weeks to practice for a competition against the best teams in the little leagues. 

In order to play in their first game, the team would have to walk ten miles from the Mexican border to McAllen, Texas.  Norberto Villarreal cut his foot in Monterrey before the long walk.  He walked the entire distance with this injured foot because he didn’t want to be cut from the team.

Although Cesar Fax trained his team well, he didn’t think they had a chance to win  their first game.  He made arrangements with his girlfriend to meet her family after he expected his team to loose.  But they won that game.  The team continued to win in Texas.  The press in that state wanted their teams to get even with Mexico for the defeat of Texas in the fortress called the Alamo.

The little league team from Monterrey continued to surmount all the seemingly insurmountable challenges on and off the field.  They made it to the final game that they would play against the team from La Mesa, California.  La Mesa had been demolishing all their opponents by many runs.  La Mesa’s players were about five inches taller than the players from Monterrey. 

The workers of Monterrey had become inspired by the accomplishments of their little league team.  Hundreds of workers went on a candle light march to the owner of the steel mill.  They informed this owner that they would be taking an afternoon off in order to listen to the game between La Mesa and Monterrey.

La Mesa proved to be a worthy adversary and Monterrey was held scoreless for four innings.  However, Angel Macias was pitching a perfect a perfect game against the hard-hitting team from La Mesa.
Then, in the fifth inning Monterrey broke the game open and scored four runs.  On the final out of the game Angel Macias pitched three consecutive balls.  Cesar Faz walked to the mound and had a talk with his pitcher.  He complained that this was the first time he needed to wake up from his nap during the game. 

After this talk, Macias threw three strikes and the game was over.  This was the only perfect game in the history of the little leagues.  We should also mention that Enrique Suarez was the other pitcher who contributed to this championship.

The team then had meetings with the presidents of the United States and Mexico.  However, one of their most thrilling moments after their victory was when they viewed a Brooklyn Dodgers game and met with the players.

Back in Monterrey, the team was greeted by 500,000 fans in one of the most momentous events in the history of the city.  The Mexican government gave every member of the team lifetime scholarships to continue their education.  Unfortunately many players needed to care for their families and this made it impossible for these players to take advantage of their scholarships.

This story is particularly relevant today when the United States government has a wall aimed at preventing Mexican people from immigrating to the United States.  The story of The Perfect Game demonstrates that in a fair game young people from the United States and Mexico can not only compete, but they are capable of inspiring people throughout the world.

The Perfect Game, published by Kissena Park Press, Copyright 2008 by William Winokur.

This book was made into the 2010 film The Perfect Game directed by William Dear.


This blog isn’t just about The Big Papi, or merely about immigration.  This is a story about two worlds.  In one world, the people have very little and struggle to survive.  Then, there is the world of the so-called Major League Baseball.  This is the story about individuals who beat all the odds and went from one world into that very different world. 

We may have noticed that several of the athletes I’ve mentioned where known to have wonderful smiles as well as positive attitudes.  We might wonder why they had this positive attitude, when they faced so many obstacles in life.

Clearly, I haven’t interviewed any of these athletes.  However, I will offer my opinion of one possible answer to this question.  These athletes understood that while they experienced enormous problems, they managed to overcome these problems and gain recognition for their achievements.  Clearly, this is something to smile about.

For a moment, I would like people to step back and think about another issue.  While these are clearly stories of heroically overcoming obstacles, baseball is only a game.

We all depend on immigrants or people who live in other countries for literally everything we need and want.  I’m talking about the food we eat, prepared by farm workers, meat packers, and restaurant workers.  The clothes we wear, made by garment workers.  The homes we live in, made by construction workers.

For twenty-one years I worked for two auto parts manufacturing companies.  For the past ten years I’ve worked in health care.  During all those years I’ve had the real privilege to work with people who were born in virtually every part of the world.  This would include: Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America.  All these immigrants have contributed to providing people with the goods and services people need and want.

The labor movement was built on the saying that, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”  When the government talks about the need to deport immigrants, I believe that we need to look at this story as well as many other stories in order to see how immigrants have made living in this country a much richer experience.

The struggle for immigrant rights is the same as the struggle against the discrimination of Native Americans, women, and Black people.  Most of the population of the world is made up of working people.  We all have the same ideal, that human needs are more important than profits.       

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