More than 50 baseball players from the Dominican Republic will be playing in the major and minor leagues in the U.S. this summer—the exact number is uncertain because the Braves have signed several more and the Cardinals are considering others—which makes the island one of the world's major per capita producers of baseball talent.
Every citizen in the Republic knows it and is proud. Only six years ago Dominicans were electrified because one player had made the big leagues. A history of Dominican baseball noted that Osvaldo Virgil (generally known as Ossie Virgil when he played with the Giants and the Tigers) had become primero en grandes ligas (first in major leagues). Last summer there were 44 Dominican players in the U.S., eight of them major league regulars, two of them stars in the pennant race and the World Series, and nine of them in the minors batting well over .300. Also one Dominican was being hit by pitched balls more frequently than anyone else.
If you walk into the office of the director general of sport in Santo Domingo these days, a pleasant building that was formerly the residence of Arismendi Trujillo, brother of the late dictator, you encounter a wholesome satisfaction that the rest of the world has at last awakened to a knowledge of how good the local players really are. Dominican fans are enthusiasts anyway, and with them enthusiasm is enduring: it seems that the performance of Felipe and Matty Alou and Juan Marichal with the Giants these last two seasons will live forever, along with the record (or at least the astounding start) of Manuel Emilio Jimenez, who batted .379 in his first seven weeks at Kansas City, and the amazing career of a rich Dominican dairy farmer and big league pitcher, Diomedes Olivo, 43 years old (SI, July 16), who played his first game of baseball at the age of 24 and is now with the Cardinals after starring with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But Dominicans are equally enthusiastic about players you never heard of and will gladly tell you about Felix Santana, the adroit second baseman who finished second among the Panama League batters with an average of .337; or Jesus Alou, the 19-year-old younger brother of Felipe, who batted .347 in the Venezuelan League; or Ricardo Carty, the 6-foot 2-inch catcher (or receptor gigante, as the papers always refer to him) who batted .366 with Yakima last year and was signed a fortnight ago by the Braves; Rodolfo Welch, who batted .304 in the winter instructional league in Arizona and is believed by his fans to be headed for a regular berth with the Pirates; or Pedro Gonz�lez of Richmond, a Yankee farmhand who could play second base on almost any major league team and remains where he is only because Bobby Richardson has been performing in an entirely adequate fashion. Julian Javier batted .263 with the Cardinals and, while Manuel Mota (now with the Colts) and Amado Samuel (with the Braves) were barely starting their major league careers, the record as a whole suggests that Dominican enthusiasm is warranted. What it doesn't suggest is an intangible element, a legendary quality, something like the achievement of Jim Thorpe and Chief Bender and the Carlisle Indians in the days of Pop Warner.
Felipe Alou, for instance, batted .380 in his first year of Class D ball with Cocoa in Florida. In his first 20 games at Springfield, Mass. he stole 15 bases. Called up by the Giants from Phoenix in midseason in 1958, he hit the first pitch his first time at bat into left field for a single. Last season his astounding record against Dodger pitching—in one three-game series he got eight hits, two of them home runs, in 12 times at bat to score seven runs—came to a climax in the playoff game when he was walked and scored the winning run.
Called up by the Giants in the mid-season of 1960 from Tacoma (where he had won six of his last eight starts), Marichal pitched a one-hitter in what was called one of the most astonishing debuts in big league history. He followed it with a four-hit, 3-1 victory over Pittsburgh and a 3-2 win over Milwaukee. Then the next year another Marichal one-hitter dislodged the Dodgers from first place. And last year he pitched 18 complete games out of 36 starts, defeating the Dodgers twice. In one victory he struck out 13 for a 12-3 win, to cut the Dodger lead to a half a percentage point. In the other he won a 3-0 shutout. And a lot of Giant fans believe that the Giants would have won the World Series if Marichal hadn't been injured.
Diomedes Olivo seems to be the only baseball player in major league history who learned the game as an adult. He grew up in banana-farming country near Monte Cristi (where Marichal grew up on a rice farm), and there wasn't any chance to play in that area. "I farmed with my father," he says, seeming to feel that this explains everything. After he picked up the elements of the game when well along in years, he devised a furious windmill wind-up that looks like an imitation of a baseball pitcher by someone who has read a book on how to pitch. With this, Olivo developed a blazing sidearm fast ball, a screwball that seems to deteriorate as it approaches the plate, a curve and a slider; and he played 15 years of ball in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, meanwhile building up two farms outside Santo Domingo. In his first year at Columbus, Ohio he worked in 42 games, the next year in 66 and came out with a 2.01 earned run average, winding up last year at Pittsburgh with five wins and one loss.
All this suggests the presence of legendary elements in Dominican baseball, and the players generally bear it out in their private lives as well. Manuel Emilio Jimenez, the Kansas City star, came out of the little sugar-mill town of Consuelo, where he worked for three years in the mill for $1.45 a day to help support his nine brothers and sisters. In the Dominican air force he played on the service team, which has a historic baseball rivalry with the teams of the army and the navy, the service team games being major sporting events in the Dominican Republic. His teammates included Juan Marichal, Pedro Gonz�lez, Manuel Mota, Donaldo Rivas, (now with Tacoma) and Ricardo Joseph. ("We win every year," says Marichal, chuckling. "Nobody can beat that team.") A widely publicized battle with Owner Charles Finley (who ordered him to try for homers) weakened his performance at Kansas City the latter part of last season, but he still wound up with an average of .301.
Felipe Alou is a relaxed, lightly powerful young athlete, now 27, who lives with his wife and three young children in a small house on a side street in Santo Domingo. He goes spearfishing three times a week on the average, and on the other days coaches Dominican youngsters in the Babe Ruth League. He speaks English with a slow and natural accuracy; in San Francisco he teaches on Sunday nights in a Bible class in a Baptist church. A reporter once wrote that Alou began doing this because he was lonely in a foreign country. "No," says Alou. "I just like the Gospels," and his speech has an occasional old-English flavor. In Santo Domingo he has the sort of public esteem that is given to Stan Musial in St. Louis.
Marichal lives six blocks away. He is a round-faced, friendly, unself-conscious individual with an engaging humor and a restless interest in everything. He is now 25 and, like Alou, a coach of the Babe Ruth League teams three days a week. His household consists of his charming wife and 3-month-old daughter. Marichal says he can't remember when he didn't play ball. He was shortstop on his school team. He had an idol, a great pitcher, Bombo Ramos, who used to come to Monte Cristi to play in Sunday games. Later he came to admire Cuban Hector Rodriguez, who played in the Republic, and went to see him whenever he could. In 1955 his school won the baseball championship of Monte Cristi over seven other schools.