Latinos in the Negro Leagues
by Adrian Burgos, Jr.
“We are the Ship, All Else is the Sea,” was a motto Negro National League (NNL) founder Rube Foster used describe the Black baseball enterprise. The NNL’s successful launch in 1920 was not Foster’s first attempt at organizing a national league. Several of his earlier attempts included teams composed of Cuban players. The Negro Leagues he envisioned was inclusive of Black men from across the Americas, drawing talent from Cuba and eventually from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico, and elsewhere in Latin America.
That Latino inclusion was part of Foster’s vision for Black baseball in the United States has often been underplayed in accounts of Negro League history. Latinos were not an afterthought in the Black baseball enterprise. Foster envisioned Latinos as part of the ship; To him, Latin America was not a far off land in the sea that the ship would have to navigate to arrive at its destination.
Latinos were present at the formal organization of the Negro Leagues. Their impact would be immediate on the playing field with Cubans José Méndez, Cristobal Torriente, and Bartolo Portuondo starring in the NNL in 1920. Shortly thereafter, Latinos began making contributions as managers, team owners, and league officials, aiding in the expansion of the circuit’s fan base, talent pool, and impact within the baseball world.
The Making of Cuban and Latino Stars
Talent alone would not determine a successful transition for Latinos in the world Jim Crow made, however. Stardom in Caribbean or Latin American leagues did not automatically translate into success in the Negro Leagues. Success hinged not only on matching the quality of play in the Black baseball circuit, but also meeting the challenge of cultural adjustment. Jim Crow laws and discriminatory racial practices that players were unfamiliar with in their native lands made playing professionally in the United States much more stressful than playing in Latin America. The Negro Leagues were therefore a proving ground, not just of their baseball talent but also their mental fortitude.
Martin Dihigo encountered these challenges of on- and off-the-field adjustments in 1923 as an 18-year-old with Alex Pompez’s Cuban Stars in the Eastern Colored League (ECL). The Cuban native developed into a star: a triple threat who could defeat opponents with his bat, his baseball intelligence in the field or on the basepaths, or as a pitching ace. His offensive prowess, stalwart pitching, and versatility would result in Dihigo becoming one of the original nine Negro Leaguers elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Along with the distinction of being the first Latino from the Negro Leagues enshrined in Cooperstown, Dihigo’s success in other professional leagues during his baseball journeys would result in his induction into halls of fame in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Venezuela.
Not everyone who came north to play in the Negro Leagues enjoyed the kind of success that Dihigo did, of course. Nonetheless, it was in the Negro Leagues that Latinos found their greatest opportunities to have an impact on professional baseball in the United States during the era of affiliated baseball’s color line.
Latino Roots in the Negro Leagues
Latino participation in Black baseball predated formal organization of the NNL. Cubans came first, playing on the All Cubans and Cuban Stars in the 1900s. A decade later, Cuban baseball teams were regular participants in the Black baseball circuit that operated between May and September. By the 1916 season, two teams were playing in the circuit under the Cuban Stars name—baseball historians would later designate them as Cuban Stars West and Cuban Stars East although contemporaries did not use such designations.
Cuban baseball entrepreneur Abel Linares—who had been bringing Cuban teams since the early 1900s— operated his Cuban Stars out of the Midwest (primarily Chicago and Cincinnati). Pompez ran his team out of New York City. The two squads faced off in San Juan, Puerto Rico, early in 1916. Advertisement hailed the battle as one for the legitimate claim to the Cuban Stars name. Pompez’s newly formed team defeated Linares’ veteran squad. Linares demanded a rematch. Pompez declined. His Cuban Stars had to set sail for New York for the start of its inaugural season in Black baseball.
The “Cuban presence” in Black baseball came even earlier than the arrival of these pre-Negro League teams from Cuba. One of the earliest Black baseball teams to gain wide attention was the Cuban Giants of the 1880s. Managed by S.K. Govern, the team entertained guests at hotels from Babylon, Long Island, down to the Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, before becoming a fixture of the professional scene in the late 1880s.
The Cuban Giants had no Cuban-born players or Latinos for that matter, but rather its roster was composed of African American players. The team did play on a fact increasingly known among some baseball insiders: Cubans, who ranged from light- to dark-skinned in appearance, played baseball in their native island and had also played at colleges and prep schools across the Northeast and Southern US by the early 1880s. In fact, Cuban native Esteban “Steve” Bellán had already performed at the highest level of professional baseball in the States, playing in the National Association from 1871 to 1873. Even more, Cubans could be called the “apostles of baseball” for the manner in which they spread baseball wherever they migrated to during and between the three wars for independence on the island from the 1870s through the 1890s. By the time Cuba finally won its independence in 1898, baseball was already established as the Cuban national game.
Rube Foster knew about the passion for baseball among Cubans firsthand. In 1906, the Cuban professional league provided Foster an early experience in playing racially-integrated professional baseball. He witnessed Afro-Cuban ballplayers excel in the Cuban circuit. Cuban team owners operating their own league also inspired Foster. The Texas native’s efforts to organize a national league for Black professional teams in the United States thereafter would typically include a Cuban team.
All Latinos were welcome in the Negro Leagues based on their talent and not on the basis of their skin color or racial identity. This practice was largely the result of the early Cuban Stars teams operated by Linares and Pompez, respectively. Initially they filled their rosters with talent from the Cuban league which operated as a racially integrated league. Expansion into other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America continued this practice of Negro League executives signing any Latino believed to possess the ability to make the grade in the Black baseball circuit.
The Black leagues formed after the NNL, such as the Eastern Colored League (1923-28) and the Negro American League (1937-50), would often feature teams whose roster had strong representation of Latino players. Teams like the Indianapolis Clowns, Kansas City Monarchs, and Birmingham Black Barons would join the Cuban Stars teams in drawing talent from across the Caribbean and Latin America. Collectively, these teams made the Negro Leagues a refuge for Latino players pursuing their professional baseball careers in the United States.
Latinos achieved many firsts in the US professional scene in the Negro Leagues. Latinos served as managers, team owners, and league officials in the Negro Leagues decades before these opportunities were opened to them in MLB. Cuban-native José Méndez guided the Monarchs to multiple championships as the team’s player-manager in the mid-1920s. The Cuban-American Pompez made his impact as a team owner from 1916 to 1948, expanding the Negro Leagues’ talent pool and helping to organize the first Negro League World Series (1924) and also East-West Classic games hosted in New York in the 1940s.
Pompez led the way in internationalizing Latino talent in the Negro Leagues. Over his four decades in the Negro Leagues, the Florida native introduced players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and Panama. In so doing, he widened the reach of the Negro Leagues decades before MLB successfully scouted and developed talent from these areas. Notably, Pompez constructed a talent pipeline from the Dominican Republic in the 1930s; he later connected this pipeline to the newly desegregated major leagues in the 1950s as a scouting official for the New York/San Francisco Giants. Just as significant, familiarity with racial norms and social customs as the bilingual son of Cuban émigrés enabled Pompez to aide Latino players in their adjustment to playing professionally in Jim Crow America.
Latinos and MLB’s Color Line
The Negro Leagues were where the majority of Latinos were able to perform as players, become team managers, and even umpire while the affiliated baseball color line and Jim Crow limited these opportunities throughout organized baseball. Indeed, while just over 50 foreign-born and US born Latinos played in the American and National Leagues from 1902 through Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color line in 1947, well over 240 Latinos participated in the Black baseball circuit during that same span.
Welcoming all Latinos meant that a few players originally signed by Negro Leagues teams could potentially traverse across the color line into so-called “organized baseball” and possibly the White major leagues. While Afro-Latinos encountered many of the same barriers that African Americans did, the racial ambiguity of lighter-skinned Latinos created a potential opening.
Pedro Dibut pitched for the NNL’s Cuban Stars in 1923. In the following two seasons, the Cuban-born pitcher played on the Cincinnati Reds in the National League. Fellow Cuban Oscar Estrada also made the journey from the Negro Leagues to the American League, going from the ECL’s Cuban Stars where he played as a two-way player in 1924 and 1925 to playing in the minor leagues and then appearing with the St. Louis Browns in 1929. A couple of Latino players even crossed the color line in the other direction. Sal “Chico” Hernández caught for the Chicago Cubs in 1942 and 1943 before appearing with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1945. Isidore “Izzy” León pitched for the 1945 Philadelphia Phillies. Three seasons later, he was pitching for the New York Cubans in the Negro Leagues.
Moving across the color line involved a combination of talent level and racial ambiguity. Major-league team officials and owners like Clark Griffith would make the case that these players were Cuban and, therefore, not Black. Manipulation of racial understandings thus permitted a select group of Latinos into White affiliated baseball, while affirming the central purpose of its color line, excluding Black players.
Latino Legacy of the Negro Leagues
A significant part of the legacy of the Negro Leagues is the preparation it gave to Latinos who would participate in the racial integration of White baseball. On the same playing fields where African American greats like Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, and Jackie Robinson performed in the Negro Leagues, Latinos such as Orestes Miñoso, Patricio “Pat” Scantlebury, and Rafael “Ray” Noble who would later perform in the integrated major leagues. These men were part of the bridge generation that brought baseball from its segregated era to its integrated era.
Miñoso easily ranked among the more talented players Pompez signed for his New York Cubans. Miñoso starred as the Cubans’ starting third baseman from 1946 to 1948, appearing in East-West Classic games in 1947 and 1948. Black sportswriters lauded his playing abilities and suggested him as a potential player for a MLB club to sign as a pioneering Black player. The Cleveland Indians acquired Miñoso from the New York Cubans after the 1948 season. Miñoso would appear with Cleveland in 1949 as the first Afro-Latino in the bigs. In so doing, Miñoso joined a growing contingent of talented Black players developed by Negro League teams who would become integration pioneers in MLB.
One legacy of Latinos in the Negro Leagues is the powerful stories and memories players have shared about their experience in Black baseball. African American and Latinos developed different tactics to combat Jim Crow and racial discrimination in ways big and small. Afro-Cuban Armando Vázquez recounted how he sometimes would accentuate his Spanish accent when speaking English to convince restaurants that refused to serve “Negroes” to allow this “foreigner” to order food—while his Negro League teammates waited on this bus. This was just one of countless stories that captured ways Latinos and African Americans dealt with life in Jim Crow America.
Understanding the legacy of Latinos in the Negro Leagues illuminates the different paths available to one generation of Latinos compared to the ones that followed. Revisiting this history allows us to learn lesser known stories, such as the Chacón family from Venezuela: Pelayo Chacón first played and later managed Pompez’s Cuban Stars in the Negro Leagues while his son Elio Chacón would play for the Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets in the early 1960s. It also permits us to know more fully the story of the two Luis Tiants. Both were pitching aces: the father a left-hander who starred in the Negro Leagues with the Cuban Stars and New York Cubans from 1930 through 1947. Yet his experience of dealing with Jim Crow and racial discrimination led him to discourage his son from pursuing professional baseball in the United States. Nevertheless, the younger Luis Tiant persisted and would put together a career that made him forever a fan favorite with the Boston Red Sox.
What the younger Tiant and Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda—whose father, Pedro “Perucho” Cepeda, played with Negro League greats Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige in the Puerto Rican league—knew, and what we now recognize more fully, is that ballplayers in the Negro Leagues were always major league. Equally significant, the Negro Leagues are a key part of Latino baseball history, partly because Latinos were part of what Rube Foster had envisioned for Black baseball from the founding of the formal Negro Leagues.
About the Author
Adrian Burgos, Jr., Professor of History, who specializes in US Latino History and Sport History. He has written extensively on the history of Latinos in professional baseball, including the Negro Leagues, and was the inaugural editor-in-chief of La Vida Baseball.