When a baseball fan glances at a box score these days it is not uncommon to see six or seven Hispanic sounding names amongst the list of players for a single team in a single game. What a change from a couple of generations ago when the Latin ballplayer suffered discrimination because of the darker color of his skin and also had to cope with a language barrier.
Only a few days ago I attended a Cincinnati Reds-New York Mets game and the event was billed as “Hispanic Heritage Day.” Before the game many people of Hispanic background paraded around the Great American Ball Park waving flags of their countries, wearing colorful garb, and performing dances special to their native lands.
One of the first things I thought of was what Minnie Minoso, Juan Marichal, Chico Carrasquel, or the Alou brothers would think of this flamboyant game kickoff.
Minoso, who is originally from Cuba, is 88. Last time I talked to him he was living in Chicago and reflecting on his early history in the majors. He broke in with the Cleveland Indians in 1949, but he had only 17 games on his resume when he joined the Chicago White Sox in 1951 and batted .324.
The dark-skinned Minoso is counted as the first black player for the White Sox, though many times his first language of Spanish was a bigger obstacle making progress in his new country. Minoso, who probably should be in the Hall of Fame, was embraced to the fullest by the Chicago fans right from the start. They enjoyed his pleasant personality, his enthusiasm on the field, his speed running on the base paths, and his timely hitting.
The occasion of Minoso’s first game for the White Sox was May 1, 1951. He hit a 439-foot home run against the New York Yankees and his first homer came before a more heralded player – Mickey Mantle – hit his first four-bagger that season.
“The most important game of my life,” is the way Minoso characterized that game. “I made a good impression on the fans. White Sox fans always liked me after that. I never heard any boos.”
According to Major League Baseball.com, 2014 opening day rosters of 25 players each, plus 103 players on the disabled list, showed that slightly more than 26 percent of big leaguers were born in 16 other countries. That represented 224 of the 853 players counted.
There were 83 players from the Dominican Republic alone. Those guys can thank 1950s Dominican pioneers such as Hall of Fame pitcher Marichal, Felipe, Matty and Jesus Alou, the brother trio that once completely filled the outfield for the San Francisco Giants, and Ozzie Virgil.
While not as famous as the others, Virgil, born in 1932, become the first Dominican to play in the majors when he broke in with the New York Giants in 1956. Dominican players dot the rosters of big-league teams in large numbers these days, but not 50 or 60 years ago. Virgil is so respected in his home nation he has an airport named after him.
There were also 59 players from Venezuela on opening day rosters or DL lists and 19 from Cuba. What makes the Cuba total notable is that those players left their home country without permission and had to defect to gain a pro baseball job.
When Jackie Robinson integrated baseball for African-American players, he also liberated dark-skinned Latinos, who until 1947 were also banned from playing. Some rare light-skinned Latino exceptions, notably Adolfo Luque, who won 194 games between 1914 and 1935, sneaked past the race police.
Although his career was not as long as many others’, shortstop Carrasquel from Venezuela, in 1951 became the first Latin American-born player to start in a Major League All-Star game, representing the White Sox.
New generation have trailblazers to thank
Many young players still come to the United States from Latin American countries who are challenged by English, but the difference now is that teams work to help those players adjust to American life and there are plenty of people around to translate for them.
On Hispanic Heritage Day it was noted that the home team Reds had 11 players who fit that category, and throughout the game, between innings, one Reds player, Brayan Pena, conducted interviews of teammates in Spanish with sub-title translations for fans, on an outfield video board.
That was something cultural insensitivity would never have allowed a certain number of years ago. Despite many loud voices crying discrimination – the U.S. remains imperfect – baseball demonstrates one way American society has become more inclusive.