Each year, April 15 is a embedded in the minds (and wallets) of every tax-abiding American citizen.
Not only because millions in our country file and pay their taxes to Uncle Sam, but also once again we pause to reflect and mark the 72nd anniversary of Baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson becoming the first black baseball player who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball history during his unbelievable 1947 season with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The future of baseball was in his shoulders
As we all know, Robinson endured verbal, physical, and psychological abuse during his long and arduous journey not only during his first year but throughout his playing career.
The most challenging issue for Jackie was not being able to defend himself against the attacks of bigoted individuals who believed that black players were not worthy of being a part of organized baseball; in reality, there were white players who had far less talent to some of Jackie’s teammates who played in the Negro Leagues.
Although Moses Fleetwood Walker is credited for being the FIRST black ballplayer to play organized baseball in the 19th century, it was Jackie Robinson who became baseball’s first black player in Major League Baseball history as it is currently structured today. In the American League, Larry Doby would follow a few months after Robinson.
Many more followed in his footsteps. Some born in the United States like Monte Irvin, Sam Jethroe, and Ernie Banks and other players who were born in Latin-America like Minnie Miñoso, Carlos Paula, and Ozzie Virgil Sr.
I wonder if it’s simply a mental lapse, but then I remember that baseball is a sport that cherishes its history so unfortunately, I have concluded that Major League Baseball still has a double-standard when we celebrate baseball’s narrative on integration.
For some reason, Afro-Latino trailblazers (specifically Puerto Ricans who since 1917 are American citizens) still don’t receive the recognition they deserved. To this day, the Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t recognized Carlos Bernier as their first black player to play for their organization. Nino Escalera, the first black player to play baseball for the Cincinnati Reds (who in 2019 are celebrating their 150th anniversary) is usually forgotten when Chuck Harmon’s name is mentioned in Reds’ baseball history.
Less than a month ago baseball legend Chuck Harmon passed away and every major media outlet, even Hispanic ones mentioned him as the first black player to play for the Cincinnati Reds when in fact Nino Escalera went to bat before Harmon while playing in the same game.
What is baseball afraid of?
I am not sure if the primary reason MLB has turned a blind eye to Bernier is because they don’t want to deal with repercussions of the African-American community saying they are tarnishing Curt Roberts legacy as the first black player to play for the Pirates in 1954 when in fact Bernier suited up before in 1953. Some others might say Bernier wasn’t dark enough when you compare skin complexions or that he is of Latino ancestry.
Why some historians look the other way?
Nino and Harmon are recognized by the Reds as the first black players in their history; but for some reason, Harmon receives all the accolades and the black Puerto Rican just receives a footnote.
When I had the opportunity to ask Escalera why baseball remember Harmon and keep forgetting his name, he said:
“Harmon was a terrific baseball player, a star basketball player, he was famous and I wasn’t.”
April 17 will mark the 65th anniversary of Escalera and Harmon’s MLB debut as the first black players to play for the Reds. Both as pinch-hitters, Escalera would bat first and be the only one to collect a hit.
The Great One
During the Civil Rights Movement, Pittsburgh Pirates’ legendary ballplayer Roberto Clemente was asked about his own struggles and how he is perceived.
“First, I am black and then Puerto Rican,” Clemente said matter-of-factly.
Here is the question: Why are Latinos with black skin treated differently? Because they are not recognized in Major League Baseball as “black”? Or is it their struggles have more to do with their culture and adapting to speaking a different language?
We need to be more careful when we celebrate Jackie Robinson’s accomplishments at a time when we continue to turn an eye blind. Forgetting Nino Escalera and Carlos Bernier’s rightful place in Major League Baseball history makes Jackie Robinson’s celebration an empty one.
By Raúl Ramos
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