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The Latino Pioneers of American Baseball By: Louis Cepeda In many ways, I've been lucky.

Over the last five decades plus, I've had the opportunity to watch on television or in person most of the Latinos that have played the great game of baseball on a professional level. Although many had short and forgettable careers, the overall contribution of Latinos to the grand old game cant be diminished or understated. Today, these talented athletes from all parts of Latin America dominate the major leagues, and for the most part, are accepted as celebrities by the American public. They grace the pages of Sports Illustrated, help announce important games on television, and contribute to the ongoing dialogue on ESPN during the baseball season. And some are even considered among the very best who ever played the game. But it wasn't always that way. Especially for the early Latino pioneers of the game, who had the courage to leave their own countries and cultures to come to a strange and often unfriendly land to make a living at what they did best. They came to America as many immigrants do; poor, uneducated and unable to speak English. They came in pursuit of a better tomorrow, and in the process, some even became household names by the time their careers were finished. For a teenager like me at the time, a few even elevated themselves to heroes. My first Latino hero in baseball was a guy named Vic Power, real name Victor Pellot. He came up to the majors

with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1954, was traded to Kansas City in 1955, and later spent time in both Cleveland and Minnesota. Vic wasn't a great player, but he did manage to bat over .300 on two occasions and ended his career with a respectable .288 lifetime batting average. There were other Latin players in the majors by then, but what appealed to me most about Power was his flair for the game. In a time when flashiness was frowned upon, Vic caught pop-ups and ground balls one-handed. At the plate, he would grin confidently at opposing pitchers, almost daring them to get him out. While other Latin players acted as if they were intimidated by their new surroundings, Vic seemed to relish the idea of playing in the big leagues. Vic, a black Puerto Rican, and other Latin players like him, owed a great deal for their major league careers to Jackie Robinson. Before Robinson entered baseball in 1947, the same rules that prohibited Blacks from participating in the sport were applied to dark-skinned Latinos. Up to the time Robinson crossed baseballs color line, only light-colored Latinos were allowed to play in the major leagues. At first, most of these Latino pioneers were exports from the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico. The new prospects often came from barrios where hunger and poverty were a way of life. To pass the time away, these youngsters played baseball year around as a distraction to the misery surrounding them. For the few who excel and were lucky enough to be noticed by an American scout, their lives changed forever. Signed cheaply for a chance at a better future, they were shipped to America alone and unprepared.

What most of them found was cultural shock, fueled by a language barrier, different foods, and plain old racism. American baseball fans saw them as outsiders and treated them accordingly. To many of these young players, what was once fun to play was now playing havoc with their existence. Caught between two different cultures and constantly berated or put down because of their language difficulties, the early Latino players felt isolated and unappreciated. There was no need to tell them that they weren't considered on the same level as their Anglo counterparts. Everywhere they went American fans as well as other players made them feel inferior. One of the earliest Latino stars was second baseman Bobby Avila. Bobby, already a major attraction in the Mexican leagues, signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1947 for a $7,500 bonus. In 1954, Avila became the first Latin American to win a major league batting title with a .341 average. But even his status as a star didn't prevent Avila from suffering indignities and verbal abuse from both his teammates and members of other teams. To his credit, Avila had a strong enough desire to save money and retire comfortably that he was able to endure this sort of treatment and ulcer problems for eleven years before calling it quits in 1959. He left baseball with a .281 lifetime average and returned to Mexico as a hero to his people. Another Latino player to join Bobby Avila with the Indians was an outfielder with the curious name of Minnie

Minoso. Minnie, his real name being Saturnino Orestes Armas Minoso, was a Cuban that came to the big leagues in 1949. He was a wonderful, colorful character full of enthusiasm and genuine appreciation for the game. Minoso loved playing baseball and showed it on and off the field. But Minnie was more than just the first Latino goodwill ambassador of baseball; he was a good fielder and a solid, better than average hitter. Traded to the Chicago White Sox in 1951, he went on to bat over .300 eight times in his career. He also became part of the first major league team to field four Latino players as starters. Along with Minoso, the 1952 White Sox had Chico Carrasqual at shortstop, Hector Rodriguez at third base, and Jungle Jim Rivera in right field. By 1954, Latinos from the Caribbean as well as Mexico and South America were well represented in both the National and American leagues. Players like Mike Garcia, Hector Lopez, Pedro Ramos, Camilo Pascual, Sandy Amoros, Ruben Gomez and Luis Arroyo were already making a name for themselves and preparing American baseball fans for the next wave of Latino players. A new wave that would include some of the greatest players ever to participate in the game. Latino players were not only appearing on more and more team rosters throughout both major leagues, but a few were already helping their teams to championships. In Cleveland, for example, both Mike Garcia and Bobby Avila were instrumental in leading the American League champions to the most wins by a club ever. The Indians won a total of 111 games that season, but in one of the biggest

turnarounds in baseball history, they were swept in four games by Ruben Gomez and the New York Giants in the 1954 World Series. In 1955, the last place Pittsburgh Pirates added to their roster a rookie outfielder from Puerto Rico. For the next 18 years, Roberto Clemente would not only become one of the greatest players to play the game, but he would also set lofty standards of performance for every Latino player who followed him into the majors. He represented a new breed of Latinos in baseball, an impact player who could turn a franchise around. Clemente's brilliant career with the Pirates included some memorable feats of hitting. He won the National League batting crown four times, and hit .300 or more in thirteen of his eighteen year career. Clemente smashed three home runs in one game twice, stroked three triples in another game, and once batted in all seven of his team's runs. He batted .414 in the 1971 World Series, and in back to back games with the Los Angeles Dodgers in August 1970, banged out ten hits, including two doubles and a homer. But if Clemente's hitting was extraordinary, his defense was equally impressive. He was a perennial Golden Glove in right field, winning the award twelve times, and possessed one of the strongest arms in baseball history. In fact, respect for Roberto's arm was so prevalent throughout the National League that few players ever attempted to take an extra base on him. Those that did usually paid the price of finding the ball arriving to the base before they did.

On September 30, 1972, Clemente collected his 3000th hit. Three months later, this very proud, very special man was dead. He died in a plane crash on a mercy mission to help the homeless devastated by an earthquake in Nicaragua. The normal five-year waiting period was waived, and in 1973, Clemente became the first Latino player inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame. In 1956, another Hall-of-Famer-to-be made his initial appearance in the major leagues. Luis Aparicio was a Venezuelan, who joined the Chicago White Sox as the starting shortstop that year. By 1959, Aparicio's running and airtight defense helped the White Sox win 94 games and get into the World Series. In 1966, he played an important role in making the Baltimore Orioles world champions. By the time he retired, Aparicio had played more games at shortstop (2,581) than any other player at that position. He won nine Gold Gloves and led the American League in stolen bases nine times. He ended up stealing more than 500 bases in his career. In 1984, Aparicio joined Clemente in the Hall of Fame. In 1958, the San Francisco Giants brought up a Puerto Rican rookie that was to equal Willie Mays' popularity with their fans. Orlando Cepeda's rise to stardom was quick and spectacular. He won the National League's Rookie of the Year, and in 1961, had an unbelievable season with 46 home runs, 142 RBI's and a .311 batting average. But with the addition of Willie McCovey to the team, the Giants had a dilemma: two great players who were both first basemen. The Giants tried playing Cepeda and McCovey

at different positions for a while with some degree of success. But both players seemed unhappy at having to learn a new position, and in 1965, the organization made a tough decision. They traded Cepeda to the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1967, the Cardinals, inspired and rejuvenated by Cepeda's leadership, ran away with the National League race. Cepeda hit .325, drove in 111 runs, and hit 25 home runs to win the league's Most Valuable Player award. Cepeda had arrived as the Latin world's first superstar slugger. Cepeda ended his great career with a .297 batting average, 379 home runs, 1365 RBI's and 2351 hits. Hall of Fame numbers to be sure, but an arrest on drug trafficking after leaving baseball prevented Orlando from early entry. In 1999, he was finally voted in. Clemente, Aparicio, and Cepeda were products of the late fifties, and became three of the most productive and talented athletes Latin America has ever produced. But in 1961 another Latino began to make his mark on baseball. He was a lanky, high-kicking pitcher from the Dominican Republic, who came to be known affectionately among his fans as the "Dominican Dandy". Juan Marichal was only 20 years old when the Giants summoned him to San Francisco in July of 1960. He had just won eleven games for Tacoma, when he was called up and tapped to make his starting debut that same night against the Philadelphia Phillies. Marichal struck out the first two batters, then went on to pitch no-hit ball through seven innings before giving up his only hit in the eighth. The one-hit, 2-0 win that day was an auspicious beginning

for the Dominican Dandy, who was soon to become one of the most dominating pitchers of his era. In 1966, Marichal had a record of 25-6 with an ERA of 2.23 per game. Two years later, he went 26-9 with an ERA of 2.43, and in 1969, he won over 20 games for the sixth time in his career. But a nasty bat-hitting incident with the Dodgers catcher, Johnny Roseboro, tainted his reputation with some fans and baseball writers. Arguably the best pitcher of the sixties, Juan Marichal never came close to winning the Cy Young award. The Roseboro incident was to hurt Marichal even after he left the game. He ended his fabulous 15-year career with the kind of numbers any pitcher would envy. By the time Marichal retired in 1973, he had pitched 50 shutouts, completed 235 games, struck out 200 batters or more six times, and was selected to eight All-Star teams. He won 243 games and accumulated a winning percentage higher than Cy Young himself. Still, in his first two years of eligibility, Marichal was denied entry into the Hall of Fame. Finally on January 12, 1983, the membership of the Baseball Writers Association of America came to their senses, and Juan became the 180th player inducted into the Hall of Fame. By any measure, Clemente, Aparicio, Cepeda, and Marichal were great players on par with the very best major leaguers of their time. As Latino pioneers of American baseball, they overcame prejudice, indifference, and often a hostile media with grace and professionalism. In the process, they set the kind of high standards that modern Latino superstars like Pedro Martinez, Pudge Rodriguez,

Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and many more are still being judged against today.