As ‘America’s Pastime’ enters its 151st season, finally the game officially recognizes an extraordinary milestone as the Negro Leagues celebrate their centennial. Not only did the Negro Leagues play on American soil albeit in a segregated fashion from their baseball counterparts, Black ballplayers traveled throughout Latin-America searching for work and to play the sport they loved.
Destinations such as Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela, and yes…Puerto Rico would be some of the locals the Negro Leaguers would play during the winter months.
They would finally be respected – treated as human beings – and in some instances treated like royalty throughout these enchanted islands and welcoming countries.
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico of Cuban parents and after reading a rather thought-provoking piece about the globalization of the Negro Leagues by MLB Network commentator Jon Morosi, I was saddened and extremely disappointed to not see my country even mentioned in this narrative.
Please don’t take me wrong
Morosi actually wrote an excellent article and there’s a possibility he didn’t do a thorough investigation into the history of the Negro Leagues playing this beloved sport in Puerto Rico.
It’s not necessarily Morosi’s fault; it is OUR fault because we haven’t done a better job to educate baseball fans, writers and historians about how these African-American players enjoyed playing on the island. The influence of the Puerto Rican diaspora became engrained within the mindset of these ballplayers who arrived during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
And we could go back as far as 1916 when the N.Y. Cubans Stars owner Alex Pompez (2006 Hall of Fame Inductee) toured Puerto Rico along with future Baseball Hall of Famers José Mendez and Cristobal Torriente.
No other league had more stars
Recently Jorge Colón Delgado, the Official Historian of the Puerto Rico Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League, tweeted that, “225 Negro Leaguers played in Puerto Rico, among them, 16 HOF’ers, the highest amount in Latin-America.”
The following day, he also stated on his Twitter account how in 1950 Jackie Robinson actually signed a contract to manage the Mayagüez team in Puerto Rico. The late Happy Chandler, The Commissioner of Major League Baseball, nixed the idea on what truly would have been a historic moment for baseball and even the Puerto Rican Winter League Baseball.
Very South of the border
During the 1930s, Leon Day, Satchel Paige, and Josh Gibson visited the island for the first time as part of barnstorming teams.
In 1938, once the winter baseball professional league commenced, more and more black players looked towards the Puerto Rican Winter League as a place where they could compete with welcoming arms.
In 1939, Josh Gibson became the player-manager of the Santurce Crabbers. He left his mark leading the league in home runs and runs batted in. The monstrosity of his homers became something for the ages. His .480 batting average during the 1941-42 season is the highest ever accomplished.
Latin American baseball legend, “Perucho” Cepeda, introduced Gibson to his son Orlando (the ‘Baby Bull’ and 1999 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee) with these words: «No one hits the ball harder than him [Gibson].»
Aguadilla was in his heart
Future Baseball Hall of Famer Leon Day played four seasons (1939-40, 1940-41, 1941-42 and 1949-50). As history tells us, he was a prolific pitcher and phenomenal hitter. He once held the record for the most strikeouts in a game with 19. His bronze plaque in Cooperstown shows him wearing the Puerto Rican Winter League cap from the Aguadilla team, where he played three years. He mentioned several times that he loved Puerto Rico because the people made him feel like a “human being.”
Brown owns the highest lifetime batting average
Willard Brown won the nickname of «Ese Hombre» (The Man) because of his accomplishments in the Puerto Rican Winter League. In the 1947-48 season, he hit 27 home runs in 60 games and in 1947-48, he finished with 97 RBIs capturing the Triple Crown in both years.
The late Puerto Rican actress/comedian, Norma Candal, said when she was a child, she asked her mother to take her to see Brown in person. She just wanted to ‘touch him’ to prove that he was real.
Brown, who also was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, played for ten seasons in Puerto Rico.
Another legendary 1972 Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher and Negro Leagues legend Satchel Paige saw action in three seasons, two with Guayama and one with Santurce. In the 1939-40 season, he won 19 games, striking out 208 hitters. He also married Lucy Figueroa, a local lady from Guayama, Puerto Rico.
Former batboy Desiderio de Leon shared the story when some Negro Leaguers feared for their lives when carried in arms by some of the white Guayama fans after winning their first championship.
Later they understood the fans were embracing them as heroes and human beings. They cared.
They are numerous, baseball stories rich with history that needs to be shared with the English-speaking community in search of other fascinating stories that played a huge part of the multi-national baseball fabric commonly referred to as “America’s Pastime.”
Escrito por: Raul Ramos @ramosrauli
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As we celebrate this historic centennial, why Puerto Rican Baseball truly matters in Negro Leagues history