Viva Baseball Essay, Research Paper
HISPANIC American baseball players; BASEBALL — History
Hispanic, Apr99, Vol. 13 Issue 4, p42, 2p, 1c
Regalado, Samuel O.
Details the history of Hispanic American baseball players. Trials and tribulations that
parallel the Hispanic community; Hunger of the Hispanic Americans for recognition in
the field of baseball; Importance of the Latin contingent in American baseball;
Language barrier; Racism; Expansion of baseball’s Latin contingent in baseball;
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Latin Major Leaguers and Their Special Hunger
The successes of today’s Hispanic ballplayers are not surprising. Consider the home-run race
between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, which took place during the 1998 baseball season.
While McGwire may hold the record, Sosa’s achievements were equally noted and received wide
Latinos, however, have not always been welcomed by America’s favorite game. In Viva Baseball!
Samuel O. Regalado documents the history of Latino ballplayers, chronicling trials and tribulations
that parallel the Hispanic community itself. The history begins in 1871 and delves into the stories of
many great players.
Regalado, the nephew of former major leaguer Rudy Regalado, is a professor of history at the
California State University, Stanislaus. He has had articles published in Journal of the West and
Baseball History. Reprinted from Viva Baseball! Latin Major Leaguers and Their Special Hunger,
by Samuel O. Regalado. Copyright 1998 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
Used with the permission of the University of Illinois Press. (Available with a new Afterword in
Chapter 1 That Special Hunger
They come from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and Venezuela, mostly, but they might as
well come from the same place. The same thing drives them. They don’t want to go back home to a
standard of living they tried so hard to leave. They all had the “special hunger.”
–Octavio “Cookie” Rojas
Dodger Stadium reverberated with excitement on the warm evening of May 14, 1981. Dodgers
fans had come to see a young pitcher’s attempt to establish a major league record for the most
consecutive wins by a rookie at the start of a season. Moreover, they came just to see him. None
of the 56,000 seats was empty as patrons sat impatiently in the ballpark awaiting their hero’s
attempt to capture his eighth straight victory. As the Dodgers took the field, the roar of the crowd
reached a crescendo when Fernando Valenzuela, the twenty-year-old Mexican star, popped out of
the dugout on his way to the mound. Throughout the stadium fans shouted encouragement in both
Spanish and English as Helen Dell, the Dodger Stadium organist, used the “El Toro” theme instead
of the more familiar “Charge” for that evening’s battle cry.
In the press box, journalists from around the nation jockeyed for space as they sought to cover the
phenomenon dubbed “Femandomania.” Behind their microphones, Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully
prefaced the contest with a dramatic analysis of Valenzuela while Jaime Jarrin, the “other voice of
the Dodgers,” did the same for his Spanish-speaking listeners, which numbered well into the
millions. Indeed, in the next several weeks similar scenes occurred in other National League cities
when Valenzuela pitched. The native of Etchohuaquila in Sonora, Mexico, had captured national
attention. Fans clamored to get his autograph; reporters groped for new information on him.
English-speaking baseball followers were captivated by the young man from a humble background
who seemed to spin magic on the pitcher’s mound. Their Spanish-speaking counterparts saw
him–and the surrounding delirium–as symbolic of Latin influence in the United States. Latins had
Clearly, the attention directed toward Valenzuela was a watershed in the history of Latins in
America’s national sport. Although prior to 1981 Latins had never received such nationwide
acclaim, Fernando Valenzuela was nonetheless simply the most celebrated representative of a
distinguished group of athletes who have helped shape major league baseball and American culture.
Talented stars such as the Alou brothers, Luis Aparicio, Jorge “George” Bell, Orlando Cepeda,
Roberto Clemente, Adolfo Luque, Juan Marichal, Dennis Martinez, Orestes “Minnie” Minoso, and
Ruben Sierra were prominent during their respective years of play. Most were driven by a
desperate desire to succeed–what Octavio “Cookie” Rojas described as that “special hunger. …. I
knew it was going to take a lot of hard work, desire, and determination [to succeed],” reflected
Dominican Manny Mota in 1982. “When I came to the United States to play professional baseball,
I wanted .something that nobody was going to give me. I had to go and get it myself.”
As these baseball pioneers explored their frontiers in search of stardom and the financial rewards
often denied them in their native lands, they expanded the American national pastime into a truly
international sport. Latin ballplayers coming to the United States entered a sporting institution that
personified the American dream of opportunity, upward social mobility, and success. They brought
to major and minor league baseball not only their remarkable skills but also flair and charisma that
enhanced the game’s spectator appeal. Ultimately, their achievements motivated clubs and the
American media to modify their infrastructures, such as expanding scouting regions and employing
The importance of the Latin contingent in American baseball, however, transcended the sport.
Players often bridged gaps between Latin America and the United States–and their distinct and
often conflicting cultures. Throughout most of the twentieth century, major league rosters included
those from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and other
Central and South American countries. Brothers joined brothers and sons followed fathers as
generations of Latin players gave America’s national pastime an international composition. Often
heroes in their own lands, they sought to exhibit their national pride on the diamond. Most Latin
players saw themselves as “ambassadors” representing their respective countries and frowned at the
stereotypes that homogenized all Latins. At the same time, their Spanish-speaking tongue was a
crucial bond between players in spite of their varied nationalities. Their language both shielded them
from criticisms and served as an impediment in their quest for recognition.
Moreover, the language barrier highlighted the difficulties of Latin acculturation into the United
States. Separated from family and home, players struggled daily with loneliness and the pitfalls of a
foreign cuisine. For many, such problems were sometimes complicated by the starting points of their
American careers. While some Latins landed in areas with large Hispanic enclaves, others were less
fortunate. Rico Catty traveled to Yakima, Washington; Juan Marichal went to tiny Michigan City,
Indiana; and Zoilo Versalles was a seventeen-year-old in Elmira, New York, places with almost no
Latin residents. In addition, political tensions all too often disrupted the lives of Latin players. In
1961 broken diplomatic ties virtually eliminated recruiting in Cuba, which up to that point had been
an important source of talent.
But according to Latin American baseball players, their most troubling encounter was with racism.
Brought to the United States because of their skills, most Latin players believed in the great
American dream. And they assumed that success came by virtue of merit. Too often, however, they
learned otherwise. Professional baseball in the United States mirrored the larger American society.
The major leagues had excluded African American players from the late nineteenth century until
1947. After the color barrier was breached, the turbulence created by the civil rights movement in
the ensuing decades proved unsettling for Latin players on and off the field. Often singled out
because of their background, Latins repeatedly felt the stings of American racial prejudice and
discrimination. Finally, while Latins and American blacks confronted racism together, Latins alone
dealt with the additional trauma of acculturation.
Yet for many players from Spanish-speaking countries, their negative experiences faded into the
background when compared with the poverty found in their own countries. Baseball for many was
clearly the only way out. Furthermore, it embodied the Latin virtues of individualism, personal
honor, and integrity.
Starting in 1911 Latin players came to the United States with growing regularity, and with each
wave their impact in the major leagues enlarged. From 1911 to 1947, they entered the majors
almost exclusively via the rosters of the Cincinnati Reds and the Washington Senators, who fostered
scouting efforts to recruit low-cost talent, primarily from Cuba. But after Jackie Robinson joined the
major leagues, black Latins poured into the United States during the integration years of the 1950s
and 1960s. The influx reflected expanded scouting efforts that drew players from Latin regions well
beyond Cuba. By the 1970s and 1980s, as incoming talent from Cuba diminished, major league
programs, such as those found in the small Dominican town of San Pedro de Macoris, were
created to develop talent and orient players to U.S. culture. Early Latin pioneers such as Felipe
Alou, Santos Alomar, Tony Oliva, and Manny Mota served within the major league framework to
help coach the future stars seeking the gold and glory that their predecessors had achieved.
Moreover, Roberto Clemente’s legacy proved to be an important inspiration.
Like their African American counterparts, Latins played magnificently. From Roberto “Beto” Avila
in 1954 to Jose Canseco in 1988, Latin players captured the Most Valuable Player award six
times, in addition to seven Rookie of the Year titles, three Cy Young trophies, and seventeen
batting championships. By the end of the early 1990s the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted five
Latins: Luis Aparicio, Roberto Clemente, Juan Marichal, and Rod Carew were honored for their
outstanding careers in the major leagues while Martin Dihigo, a Cuban player, represented the
American black leagues
The expansion of baseball’s Latin contingent in baseball mirrored the growing importance of Latin
cultures in the United States. Victims of racial and cultural stereotypes prior to World War II,
Spanish speakers struggled to gain a foothold in mainstream U.S. culture. As the Hispanic
population increased, social and political organizations developed to address a variety of urban and
rural issues. Benefiting from the gains of the activism of the 1960s, a greater number of second- and
third-generation Latins, armed with education and advanced skills, entered the larger corporate and
media markets. Many were determined, however, to maintain their cultural heritage. Most certainly
the successes of Latins gave rise to optimistic thinking; one Latin leader eagerly announced that the
1980s would be the “Decade for Hispanics.”
The achievements and turmoil faced by Latin players coincided with major developments in the
larger Spanish-speaking world. Other Latins sought to maintain cultural ties in an unfamiliar and
arbitrary environment. The struggle to achieve recognition and parity in the major leagues was part
of the larger Latin quest for equality in the United States. Indeed, the experiences of Latin players in
the major leagues provided a unique perspective and often brought into clearer focus the larger
PHOTO (COLOR): Viva Baseball
By Samuel O. Regalado
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Source: Hispanic, Apr99, Vol. 13 Issue 4, p42, 2p, 1c.
Item Number: 1783747
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