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Ron Fimrite
August 09, 1999
AWAY GAMESThe Life and Times of a Latin Ball PlayerBy Marcos Bret�nPhotographs by Jos� Luis Villegas, Simon & Schuster, $23
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August 09, 1999


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The Life and Times of a Latin Ball Player
By Marcos Bret�n
Photographs by Jos� Luis Villegas, Simon & Schuster, $23

On a superficial level this book describes the transformation of Miguel Tejada from a Dominican street urchin to the star shortstop of the Oakland Athletics. But as compelling as Tejada's story is, it's merely symbolic, because Bret�n, a senior writer for The Sacramento Bee, has a much more profound tale to tell: the complicated and not entirely happy history of Hispanic ballplayers in the major leagues.

Without diminishing the pioneering importance of Jackie Robinson, Bret�n points out that dark-skinned Latinos, some of whom were black, played in the grandes ligas decades before Robinson's historic debut in 1947. At least two of these Spanish-speaking players, Jacinto (Jack) Calvo and Jose Acosta, appeared in both the big leagues and the Negro leagues. They were never credited with breaking the color barrier because, as Breton writes, "they had to not only deny who they were but outright lie about it so they could play."

After Robinson, however, black Latinos became the game's most populous immigrants. Bret�n's prose may on occasion seem a trifle overwrought, but there is rich material here.

By Tim Wendel, Ballantine Books, $23.95
One Hispanic who was either rejected or entirely overlooked by big league scouts in the 1940s was a righthanded pitcher and left-wing activist named Fidel Castro. But in this sprightly work of fiction, Wendel, who earlier wrote a nonfiction book about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, credits the Cuban leader with a wicked curveball that entices at least one scout and one minor league catcher. The problem they face: How do they lure him from overturning a government to overpowering big league hitters? Make a guess.

A History of Cuban Baseball
By Roberto Gonz�lez Echevarr�a, Oxford University Press, $35
There may be more here, in more than 400 pages, than you want to know about Cuba's national pastime, but Yale scholar Echevarr�a, who teaches Spanish comparative literature, has written a fascinating and definitive history of the subject. As early as page 6 he tells us in no uncertain terms that Fidel (Cubans always call him Fidel, the author explains, never Castro) was never scouted by any major league team and that his curveball wasn't worth a damn.