Baseball, Race, and the Americas A new autobiography offers a fresh look at the black diaspora of baseball.

Alou: My Baseball Journey

By Felipe Alou with Peter Kerasotis (2018, University of Nebraska Press) 295 pages including photos, no index

“To realize now that I’m the first player to go from Dominican Republic soil to Major League Baseball humbles me.”

Alou: My Baseball Journey, (57)

 

It is a commonplace for any casual observer to note the number of Major League Baseball players who are from the Caribbean or Latin America. They are so numerous, and names like Martínez, Rodríguez, Ramírez, González, Pérez, and López have become so ubiquitous, that the sport has become the closest thing we have to a truly bi-lingual, multi-ethnic American institution. As of 2015, Latinos made up nearly 30 percent of Major League ballplayers in the United States. That is nearly three times the number of African American players, who once made up a bit more than 20 percent of MLB players in the early 1970s. Many, if not most, of these Latino players are black or have sufficient skin color for what passes for a Negro, to use an old-fashioned term, in the United States.

And herein lies a tale of how an aspect of the black diaspora in the western hemisphere has been shaped by the economic, social, and political dynamics of a major spectator sport, a sport that means as much for fans and aspiring youngsters and their parents in places like México, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Curaçao as it does in New York, California, or Missouri. Arguably, it can be said to mean even more south of the United States border because the stakes are higher: poverty is more wide-spread and the ways to escape poverty more limited. “Baseball,” as it is said in the Caribbean, “is a way off the island.” And no place in the world has the intersection of the black player and American professional baseball had more meaning, more impact good and bad, than in the tiny island country of the Dominican Republic.

As Alou writes about the early 1960s and the influx of black and Latino players, “You could deny awards and accolades, but you could not deny that our influence and at times our dominance in baseball were coming, and it was going to change the game.”

Alou is the autobiography of Dominican baseball legend Felipe Alou, a hard-hitting outfielder who broke into Major League Baseball with the San Francisco Giants in 1958, for whom he played for six years, and who went on to have a successful 17-year career with the Giants, the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, the Oakland Athletics, the New York Yankees, the Montreal Expos, and the Milwaukee Brewers. (He notes that as he got older and his skills diminished, he was flipped from team to team, not at all uncommon for a professional player coming to his end of days.) After his playing days, he was a successful minor and major league coach and manager with multi-year stints as the manager of the Montreal Expos (before they became the Washington Nationals in 2005) and the San Francisco Giants, where he managed the legendary Barry Bonds, whom he defends in his book.  As Alou notes, “[Ozzie Virgil, Sr.] is the first Dominican native to play in Major League Baseball, and I’m the first to have gone from the Dominican Republic to Major League Baseball. He is also kind enough to refer to me as the first everyday player from the Dominican Republic.” (58) Virgil, who left the Dominican at the age of 13 to live in the United States, was a journeyman player. Alou, in his best years, was a star, one of the best hitters in the era when blacks and Latinos grew to dominate the elite ranks of the sport. As Alou writes about the early 1960s and the influx of black and Latino players, “You could deny awards and accolades, but you could not deny that our influence and at times our dominance in baseball were coming, and it was going to change the game.” (79) In this instance, talent is political and part of the wave of change that swept the 1960s.

Alou was signed by the Giants in 1955 at the age of 20. He was the first of three brothers to have fruitful Major League careers, as he was subsequently joined by Matty and Jesùs. All three brothers came up in the Giants system and had a chance to play together for a time. “Baseball history documents that the Alou brothers first appeared in a game on September 10, 1963. … Playing the New York Mets in the old Polo Grounds, we batted consecutively in the eighth inning, with Jesus and Matty stepping to the palate before me as pinch hitters. … It is the only time in baseball history that three siblings hit in the same half-inning. It was five days later, on September 15, 1963, at Pittsburgh Forbes Field, when the three of us first manned an outfield together.”  (125) There were, of course, other famous trio siblings in baseball: the DiMaggio brothers (Vince, Dom, and Joe) and the Molina brothers (Yadier, Bengie, and José) but none who played altogether on the same field on the same team at the same time.

In the early 1960s, with shortstop José Pagán, starting pitcher Juan Marichal, first baseman/outfielder Orlando Cepeda, and the Alou brothers, the Giants had more Latinos than any other Major League ball club. In fact, in 1961, the Giants had 11 Latino players in their spring training camp. As Alou relates, their presence prompted new manager Alvin Dark, a white Southerner, to take them aside and tell them he did not want them to speak Spanish while in uniform. “‘Some of the guys don’t like it when you speak Spanish,’” he said. (89)  The players predictably rebelled against this unenforceable edict and so Spanish became both a cultural and political issue, a cultural and political identification for Latino players. It was one form of syncretism that bounded them together no matter where they were from in the Spanish-speaking world. They became both distinct and homogenized as a group in the United States because of their language.

Another form of syncretism that took place in this diaspora was a particular formation that grew from white American color prejudice, what people today call racism. To whites in the United States, Alou was not a Dominican, he was a black man and he was treated as such. “I knew racism existed, but nothing prepared me for this—certainly not my upbringing, being the son of a white woman of Spanish descent and a black father who was the grandson of slaves who were likely ripped away from Africa in the early 1800s to work Hispaniola farms. …  In Lake Charles, Louisiana, I learned firsthand about racism,” writes Alou. “I didn’t know I would have to sit in the back of a bus. I didn’t know I couldn’t look at a white girl. I didn’t know I couldn’t eat in the same restaurants as whites. I didn’t know I couldn’t stay in the same motels. I didn’t know I couldn’t drink from the same water fountains. I didn’t know I couldn’t use the same bathrooms. On a road trip in Baton Rouge, I couldn’t even enter the stadium through the players’ entrance, much less the clubhouse. I had to sit in the bleachers in what was called the colored section. All of it was startling to me.” (33-34) It also angered him enormously. So Alou had to live with and socialize among American blacks during his early years as a professional ballplayer in the United States. And so another striking but uneasy kind of “colored” or black diaspora was born. For as Alou notes, because he was Latino, “I was viewed as a little less than equal in the black communities where I spent much of my time.” (34) Latinos and black Americans became a brotherhood united by color and divided by language.

Had Alou emerged before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball, he would have wound playing in the Negro Leagues, if he had played in the United States at all.

It was professional baseball, particularly during the age of racial segregation, that brought black Latinos and black Americans together in both the United States and in the Caribbean. As black Latino players, if they played in the United States, could only play with black American players, the Negro Leagues (1920-ca. 1950s) became a kind of meeting place of blackness, not idyllic and certainly not a melting pot, but a place where blacks from different countries met, traveled and played together, did business together, in short, interacted in a serious way that was not political but came about because of politics. Cuban Alex Pompez was one of the prime business leaders of the Negro Leagues, owning the New York Cuban Giants. Among some of the noted Latino players in the Negro Leagues were Horacio (Rabbit) Martinez (a Dominican), Martin Dihigo (a Cuban), Luis Tiant (a Cuban), Cristobal Torriente (a Cuban), Minnie Minoso (a Cuban), and Vidal Lopez (a Venezuelan?). I have only identified a tiny fraction of these players. Most were from Cuba, as that country has been in the 20th century a baseball factory but the Dominican Republic, since the game was introduced there in 1891, has been nearly as intense in its love of baseball. In fact, in 1937, Dominican Dictator-cum-President Rafael Trujillo’s team Cuidad Trujillo, began raiding the Negro League for star players (the inducements were not enough to get star white players) in order to win the Dominican Summer League championship. Such famous black American players as James “Cool Papa” Bell, Josh Gibson, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, and Leroy Matlock played for Trujillo’s team that summer. This raiding nearly destroyed the Negro Leagues. (Accounts of this can be found in Averell “Ace” Smith’s 2018 book The Pitcher and the Dictator: Satchel Paige’s Unlikely Season in the Dominican Republic; Neil Lanctot’s 2004 book Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution; Donn Rogosin’s 1983 account Invisible Men: Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues; and Alan M. Klein’s 1991 book Sugarball: The American Game, the Dominican Dream among many other sources.)  Had Alou emerged before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball, he would have wound playing in the Negro Leagues, if he had played in the United States at all.

Alou is one of the best baseball autobiographies of recent years because it offers the story of race and baseball not from a non-American perspective, but from someone who got to know the United States very well as both a resident and a subject of its foreign policy, as both insider and outsider. It tells honestly the story of being a successful male athlete, including the temptations of unbridled, easily obtainable sex, as well as making one’s living in a foreign country where one’s skin color is, at least, an inconvenience, if not, at certain points, an outright social crime and political disability, and where one’s language makes you a “foreigner” but cheered for playing the Great American Game. Alou also tells the story of the 1965 United States’ invasion of the Dominican Republic to prevent the election of a socialist and Alou’s fierce opposition to the invasion and his opposition to the brutal Trujillo, the dictator the Americans supported for many years who was assassinated in 1961.

 

Alou had to live with and socialize among American blacks during his early years as a professional ballplayer in the United States. And so another striking but uneasy kind of “colored” or black diaspora was born.

Alou, even during his time as a player, was forthright in his views about his country as well as his views about being a Latino player in the United States. How he overcame the language barrier, racism, and homesickness to become a success—an obsession that he owed in good measure to the pride he took in being an “exiled” Dominican in America—is a remarkable tale! Anyone familiar with the lives of young ballplayers hoping to make it in the Major Leagues can tell you that homesickness alone wipes out more guys, domestic and foreign, than insufficient talent ever could. His chapters on playing for Alvin Dark, on his friendship with star Pittsburgh Pirate outfielder Roberto Clemente, and on Braves outfielder Rico Carty (the “Beeg Boy” as he called himself and as the white sportswriters phonetically wrote it), are worth the price of the book. Here is a baseball book that might be of interest even to someone not terribly interested in baseball, but who might want to know the story of one type of border crossing that coincided with the rise of the civil rights movement and a new black self-awareness in the United States.