For Latino baseball players, the color line excluding them from pro baseball in the 20th century was fuzzy at best.
In September of 1944, three years before Jackie Robinson cracked professional baseball’s infamous color line, Robert Ortiz of the Washington Senators decided to do something about the racial taunting that was coming his way from the opposing team’s dugout.
The St. Louis Browns’ players had been harassing Ortiz and other Latino players on the Senators, saying they were African, not Latin, and hurling a nonstop barrage of insults. Finally, Ortiz stormed over, planted himself in front of the Browns’ dugout, and challenged the player leading the verbal attack.
The result was an all-out brawl between both teams.
This incident illustrates the ambiguous position in which Latino players found themselves through most of baseball’s history, says Adrian Burgos Jr., an LAS professor of history. Officially, Ortiz was not considered black or else he would not have been allowed on the playing field; nevertheless, he still received his share of abuse for being “too black.”
The story of Latinos in professional baseball is often a forgotten tale, says Burgos, who has served on the Baseball Hall of Fame committee selecting Negro League inductees. He points out that the typical storyline about baseball and race has focused on two narratives—the complete exclusion of African American players and the eventual integration, or redemption, of baseball beginning with Robinson.
“I think one of the reasons why the story of Latinos in baseball has been ignored,” Burgos says, “is because it complicates those two narratives. What we have is the partial inclusion of Latinos.”
In other words, the story about race in baseball is not just about black and white. It is also about brown.
More than 50 Latino players from various countries in Latin America broke into the major leagues between 1902 and 1947, says Burgos, who chronicles this history in his book Playing America’s Game. But for Latino players, the color line in major league baseball was fuzzy, and the decisions about whether to admit them could be as exasperating and subjective as an umpire’s call of strikes and balls. Dealing with the color line became a game in itself.
The shade of a person’s skin was a dominant factor in deciding which Latinos could cross the color line, so most of the major league Latinos in the first half of the century were light skinned. But ethnic background also played a big role. Nowhere was this more obvious than with the case of the Cincinnati Reds, who signed two Cuban players—Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans—in 1911.
The Reds’ management argued that Almeida and Marsans were pure Spaniards, for they were well aware that American society placed the Spanish on a higher plane than other Latinos. When Marsans and Almeida joined the team, the Cincinnati Enquirer called them “the purest bars of Castilian soap that ever floated to these shores.” The phrase, “purest bars of Castilian soap,” conjured up two images of whiteness—soap and the Castilian region of Spain.
“To be of a Castilian ethnic background is to connote a higher breed, more European, more white,” Burgos explains. “Therefore, to say they are the purest bars of Castilian soap is to say these guys are white. They’re all right.”
Ironically, he notes, what the Cincinnati writer didn’t realize is that Castilian soap is actually black.
According to Burgos, the very first U.S. Latino to break into major league baseball was Vincent Nava, who played in the National League in 1882. The color line barring African American players was not fully established until after Nava, in 1889; but in the early part of the new century, organizations began experimenting with the inclusion of players who were not fully white, nor fully black.
“It is true that the doors of organized baseball are open to Indians, Cubans, Porto Ricans [sic], Hawaiians, etc., but only if their skin, hair, and features will pass muster as evidence of membership in the white race,” said one New York Age columnist in 1939.
In the 1930s and ’40s, the economics of baseball opened the door to more Latinos, Burgos explains, because Latin America was a good source of cheap talent. And although many Latino players were harassed for being “too black” during those years, the first actual black Latino player in pro baseball, Minnie Miñoso, did not arrive until two years after Jackie Robinson.
The Cleveland Indians signed Miñoso in 1949, but after a brief appearance in the majors, he remained mired in the minor leagues for two years because of a color barrier of a different sort. If Miñoso had started for the Indians, he would have been the fifth black player in the lineup; in other words, more than half of the nine starters would be black, and that would not be allowed.
Miñoso was eventually traded to the Chicago White Sox, and in 1951 he became Chicago’s first black player—although some people today consider the Cubs’ Ernie Banks the first black player in Chicago. Because of Miñoso’s Latin heritage, they do not believe he qualifies as a black player.
The irony is that in the early part of his career, Miñoso was considered too dark-skinned to play; and in the 21st century, he’s not considered black enough by some to be recognized as the first black player in Chicago.
“The credit that Miñoso deserves as an integration pioneer gets minimized and diluted, not in the ’50s or ’60s or ’70s, but in the 2000s,” says Burgos. “But Miñoso was not just the first black Latino to break into the league. He was also the first to star.”
Highlighting the role of these Latin pioneers—giants in the game of baseball—does not diminish the role that Jackie Robinson played in finally breaking down the color barrier in baseball, he also stresses. What Robinson did was unique.
“Robinson took on the weight of dismantling the racial barrier,” Burgos says. “Everyone focused on him.”
Burgos says that to decisively break down the barrier, it took an unambiguously African American player. “We needed a Jackie Robinson to destroy any semblance of ambiguity.”
Nevertheless, whether they were perceived as black, Latino players had an aura of “foreignness” that still made them a target. As Burgos points out, “In the era of Minnie Miñoso, pitchers did not say, ‘Hey Minnie, are you Cuban or black?’ Either way, they tried to bean him.”
By Doug Peterson