Author details history of Latino players in Major League Baseball

By Chris Shores


Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in April 1947 by becoming the first African-American to play professional ball. But the story of race in early 20th century baseball is more complicated when it comes to players from Latin America, according to Adrian Burgos Jr., author of “Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line.”

Burgos – an associate professor of history and Latina/Latino studies at the University of Illinois – was at the University of Massachusetts last Friday to talk about his most recent book, “Cuban Star: How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball.” Before his evening talk, he spoke with a UMass class studying the history of baseball about how “we can understand the place of Latinos in U.S. society by looking at baseball.”

Burgos said that Latinos have always had an “invisible presence” in the game. Even before Robinson joined the league, owners were willing to have these players join their teams – if they looked white enough, said Burgos.

Burgos recalled the entrance of Major League Baseball’s first Cuban players in the World Series era, Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida, in 1911. In order to ease fans’ fears of Cubans playing on their team, Burgos said that the Cincinnati Enquirer published the following: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have in our midst two descendants of a noble Spanish race, both of no ignoble African blood to place a blot or spot in their escutcheons. Permit me to introduce two of the purest bars of Castilian soap that ever floated to these shores, Senors Alameda [Sic] and Marsans.”

Burgos said that in terms of skin color, Marsans and Almeida could blend in with the rest of the team. But the same could not be said for Orestes “Minnie” Minoso, the “first black Latino” who, according to Burgos, “didn’t have the luxury of whiteness to fall back on.”

People were constantly throwing pitches at Minoso and testing him, Burgos noted. They wanted to see if “this ‘hot blooded Latin’ would erupt,” said Burgos. “He faced a combination of cultural and racial challenges as a black Latino.”

The Latino’s place in the game was never clear, said Burgos. He noted that Roberto Clemente, the first Latin American to be named to the Baseball Hall of Fame, once said that he felt doubly discriminated in the United States for being black and for being from Puerto Rico.


Even today, Burgos noted, the confusion still exists. He began his lecture by quoting MLB outfielder Torii Hunter, who said in March 2011 that Latino players were not black, but rather “impostors.”


“People see dark faces out there, and the perception is that they’re African-American. They’re not us. They’re impostors,” said Hunter. “Even people I know come up and say: ‘Hey, what color is Vladimir Guerrero? Is he a black player?’ I say, ‘Come on, he’s Dominican. He’s not black.’”

Burgos acknowledged that Latino players are accepted in today’s game, but said that a discrepancy still exists between the signing bonuses of these players and those graduating from American colleges.

“The goal [of many MLB organizations] is to find good talent cheaply,” said Burgos.

Teams would try to find players and sign them as 16-year-olds before they had reached their peak potential and value, he said. He cited the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 1988 acquisition of a 16-year-old from the Dominican Republic for $50,000 to illustrate his point. That same year, he noted, Andy Benes, a 21-year-old from the University of Evansville was selected first in the MLB draft and signed by the San Diego Padres for $68,000.

Benes went on to pitch for 14 seasons, finishing his career with a record of 155-139 and an earned run average of 3.97. But the teenage pitcher from the Dominican Republic, Burgos said, was none other than Pedro Martinez – a three-time Cy Young award winner, who’s pitched in eight MLB All-Star games.

The pattern has continued 23 years later, said Burgos. The average Latino signing bonus is $20,000, he said. Last year, the Washington Nationals signed Bryce Harper, the top overall pick in the MLB draft, to a five-year contract of $9.9 million, when he was only 17-years-old.

Burgos received his doctorate in U.S. history from the University of Michigan in 2001. He joined the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign faculty in the fall of that same year.

It was announced last week that Burgos will join a 12-person committee that will examine the origins of baseball. The committee is to be headed by baseball historian John Thorn and will also include filmmaker Ken Burns, author Doris Kearns Goodwin and journalist George F. Will.

Chris Shores can be reached at [email protected]