SI Vault
Robert H. Boyle
August 09, 1965
The night was black in Santo Domingo. It was after curfew, and warring troops patrolled the streets as the caravan of cars of the Organization of American States' negotiating team slowly left the rebel zone. Suddenly, out of the darkness, a rebel civilian, brandishing a rifle, stopped a correspondent. The reporter stepped back nervously, but the rebel was insistent. "Tell me," he demanded, "how did Marichal do today in the All-Star Game?"
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 09, 1965

The Latins Storm Las Grandes Ligas

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

The night was black in Santo Domingo. It was after curfew, and warring troops patrolled the streets as the caravan of cars of the Organization of American States' negotiating team slowly left the rebel zone. Suddenly, out of the darkness, a rebel civilian, brandishing a rifle, stopped a correspondent. The reporter stepped back nervously, but the rebel was insistent. "Tell me," he demanded, "how did Marichal do today in the All-Star Game?"

This incident is typical of the passion that the Caribbean countries have for beisbol, both in las grandes ligas in the States and in winter ball at home. In Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Panama, Nicaragua, the Virgin Islands, the revolution-torn Dominican Republic and even Communist Cuba baseball is the most popular sport, as the swelling number of Latin players in the majors clearly indicates. In 1948 there was only one Latin playing regularly in the majors—Mike Guerra of the Philadelphia Athletics. Now there are 48, some of them among the biggest stars in the game, players like Juan Marichal (see cover) of the San Francisco Giants, the best right-hander in baseball, his teammate Orlando Cepeda, and both of last year's batting champions, Roberto Clemente of Pittsburgh and Tony Oliva of Minnesota.

In the Caribbean area baseball is played the year round by youngsters who often sew their own gloves and carve bats from the wood of the majagua tree. The player who can make it to the majors is the supreme hero. Recently, a special session of the legislature of the Virgin Islands passed two resolutions, one expressing the "pride of the people" in Alvin O. McBean of the Pirates as the first Virgin Islander to win The Spoiling News Fireman of the Year Award, and the second congratulating Joseph O. Christopher of the Mets for becoming the first islander to hit .300 for a full major league season. In Puerto Rico crowds jam the airport when Clemente returns with a batting title or Cepeda with the jonron crown, and in the Dominican Republic los fan�ticos are so passionate that when Marichal visits home after a season, he does not dare remain there. Los fan�ticos cannot understand why their Juan, ordinarily an obliging sort, is too tired to pitch winter ball after a six-month National League season, and rather than endure catcalls from his followers, Marichal winters in California.

During the major league season Latin fans keep up with their heroes through the local press, which prints the batting averages of their countrymen. The World Series and the All-Star Game are broadcast in Spanish to Latin America by Buck Canel, an American of Spanish extraction who is revered by all fan�ticos de beisbol, whether of the left or right (SI, Oct. 14, 1963).

Although the tremendous growth of Latin American strength in the majors began only after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1946, historically the influx started in 1911 when the late Clark Griffith, then the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, imported a white Cuban third baseman, Rafael Almeida, for a tryout. Almeida, a well-to-do fellow who smoked $1 cigars, was unimpressive, but Griffith did like the looks of Armando Marsans, the fancy-fielding interpreter Almeida had brought along. Marsans played for the Reds, St. Louis Browns and New York Yankees for seven years, and eventually other Cubans followed. To proud fan�ticos back on the island, the Reds became known as el querido Cinci, the beloved Cincinnati.

When Griffith took over the Washington Senators he imported more white Cubans. His Cuba scout was Joe Cambria, an Italian laundryman from Baltimore, who settled in Havana and began shipping players almost literally by the boatload. Cambria, known as Poppa Joe to Cubans, virtually pirated three players off a gunboat that Dictator Fulgencio Batista was sending to el querido Cinci spring training camp in Tampa. Most of the good Cuban players were colored and could not play in the majors, and the best of these were collected by Alex Pompez, a Negro American of Cuban extraction. Pompez, who is now 72 and head of Giant scouting for Latins and Negro Americans, used to own the New York Cubans in the Negro National League, and during the winter he barnstormed with a team he called the Cuban Stars. Back in the old days, Pomp had players who put great store in the powers of �a�igo, the backwoods Cuban version of Haitian voodoo, and to keep the boys happy he often carried a brujo, a witch doctor, on the team, much as a club today would have a pitching coach. In 1916, Pomp recalls, he toured Puerto Rico with the Cuban Stars. It was only an 11-man club, but six of the players believed in �a�igo. They were unbeatable. Before one particularly crucial game in San Juan. Pomp let the brujo loose. Among other things, he buried a rooster's head beneath second base. (In Cuba a goat was often used with success.) "It was no contest," Pomp says. "We hit the ball like a cannon."

In this more sophisticated age there are few believers in �a�igo around, but still there are reports of players who carry snail shells, los caracoles, or chicken feathers in their back pockets for luck, just as a superstitious American would carry a rabbit's foot. Julio Gotay, a Puerto Rican recently sent to the minors by the Angels, was known to fellow Latins as "the witch doctor," and until recently Ruthford (Chico) Salmon, a Panamanian with the Indians, went to sleep with the lights blazing to ward off the powers of darkness. Chico says his mother used to hear ghosts talking and sometimes talked to them herself. However six months in the U.S. Army cured him of this phobia. Pedro Ramos, an expatriate Cuban with the Yankees, says that when he played ball in Havana, a player would sometimes stick nails in an apple and leave it in the locker of an opposing player. Ramos himself does not like the letter L because it stands for lose. He is very high on W. Not long ago, J�sus Alou of the Giants, a Dominican, remarked to a friend before a game with the Cubs, "A new moon. There isn't a pitcher alive who can get me out." Alou went four for five.

Caribbeans in general have the reputation for being temperamental, and the ballplayers are no exception. "They call us temperamental and we are," says McBean. "We've come a long way, and we're not going to put up with anything. We don't expect everybody to fall in love with us, but we want to be treated like human beings. We're a proud people." As a result of this pride, a Latin must be handled more tactfully than his American teammates. The Latin shows a tendency to take criticism, however well intentioned, as a personal affront. "They were difficult for me at first," says Gene Mauch, manager of the Phillies. "You discuss things with a Latin in private." Bill Rigney, who managed Latins on the Giants and who now handles more of them with the Angels, says, "You have to be a diplomat. You can't do anything to hurt their feelings. You have to get through to them. With Jos� Cardenal [who came to the Angels from the Giants with a "'hard to handle" reputation], we used Vic Power to open him up." On the Twins, Coach Billy Martin has made Shortstop Zoilo Versalles, a Cuban, his special project this year, and Versalles' improved play shows Martin"s progress. "You have got to handle them gently but firmly," Martin says. "If they respect and like you, they will do anything for you. But when their pride gets hurt they are much more emotional than Americans."

Baseball may be a team sport, but to the dismay of American baseball men, Latins sometimes play with a reckless individuality. Indeed it is the individuality in baseball that they like. "The great appeal of the game to the Latin is the chance to show himself," says Canel. "Essentially, baseball is a duel between two men, the pitcher and the batter. Latins realize that baseball is a team effort technically, but for every player there is that moment for individual glory, to hit a home run, to win the game or the chance to strike out a guy with the bases loaded."

This season the A's were once trailing the Orioles by three runs in the last of the ninth. Bert Campaneris was on second, another runner was on first and Ken Harrelson, the A's best long-ball hitter, was up with only one out. Suddenly Campaneris took off for third and was easily thrown out, killing the rally. Manager Haywood Sullivan seethed and said nothing, but the next day Hank Bauer of the Orioles commented, "I know why he tried to steal that base. He's leading the league in stolen bases, and he wanted more. He's also out to break Aparicio's high of 57."

Continue Story
1 2 3