Light-Skin Cubans Cross Baseball's Color Line

It was 100 years ago Monday that two new players took to the field for baseball's Cincinnati Reds. Both were born in Cuba, and were among the first Latinos to play in the big leagues. Rob Ruck, author of Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game, talks to Steve Inskeep about Latinos in Major League Baseball.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When baseball's Cincinnati Reds play against the St. Louis Cardinals tonight, it will mark an anniversary of sorts. On this day, 100 years ago, two new players took to the field for the Reds. Both men were born in Cuba, and so they were among the first Latinos to play in the big leagues. It was a time when the color line still kept minorities out of baseball. Jackie Robinson would not integrate the game for another three decades.

But Rob Ruck, author of the book "Raceball," says baseball's businessmen saw talent and profits in Latin America.

Mr. ROB RUCK (Author, "Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game"): Major League often barnstormed and played in Cuba in the winter. And major league ballplayers, as well as players from the Negro leagues, would go down there each winter to make a living. They saw the level of the talent and simply wanted to use that talent in the major leagues and win, and make money from it.

INSKEEP: Did people at least privately begin to discuss then the problem, which it surely been at that time, of bringing a Cuban ballplayer or certain Cuban ballplayers into the major leagues?

Mr. RUCK: There were sporadic efforts and considerations. But in the first half of the 20th century the color-line was accepted and there were very few in the major leagues in terms of owners who were likely to try to confront that.

INSKEEP: Now, who were the men who were the first to be put on a major league team? Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans, who were they?

Mr. RUCK: Those were the first two. You have a fellow who pitches for Cincinnati, Adolfo Luque, who is light-skinned. And you have perhaps 30, 40, 50 Cubans who are light enough to pass, who played before Jackie Robinson breaks the color line in 1947.

INSKEEP: I just want to underline this. Are you saying that major league teams, once they began recruiting Latino players, went out of their way first to make sure that the guys were light-skinned enough that nobody would really notice?

Mr. RUCK: Sure. It was simply the racial reality that prevailed in this country was an acceptance of segregation. Major league owners might have wanted to use Latin talent, but they were certainly going to play by the realities of the color line.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking again of Jackie Robinson in 1947. There was this white owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, who knew what he was doing, believed it was the right thing to do, and went about bringing Jackie Robinson onto his baseball team.

Was there someone for the Cincinnati Reds - the team that brought on the first Latino players - who consciously said this is the time to do this and we're going to figure out the way to get it done?

Mr. RUCK: I don't think a hundred years ago when the Reds brought in a couple of Cubans it had anything to do with notions of racial equality. It simply was the Cincinnati ballclub trying to find players who would help them win. And even Branch Rickey, while Branch Rickey undoubtedly was trying to do the right thing, Branch Rickey was trying to make money.

I think the Pittsburgh Courier captured it best when it said: Jackie's nimble, Jackie's quick, Jackie makes the turnstiles click. Ball clubs want to bring fans in. They want to win at the gate. They want to win on the field.

INSKEEP: So how good were the early Latino players?

Mr. RUCK: The early Latino players were a mixed bag. Probably Adolfo Luque, the pitcher with the Reds, was the best. But the real Latino talent does not appear until after Jackie Robinson opens the door in 1947.

INSKEEP: Oh, so even though the door had been opened in this today rather embarrassing way for Latinos, it was open much wider after 1947.

Mr. RUCK: Robinson not only is the catalyst to the greatest infusion of talent the game had yet to see, African-Americans, that wave of talent is followed by an even better one, when Orestes Minoso, Roberto Clemente, Felipe Alou, Juan Marichal begin to appear in the 1950s.

INSKEEP: Who was the first Latino player that you would identify who was very open about his identity, didn't care who knew about it or even wore it on his sleeve?

Mr. RUCK: The first who confronts not only racial barriers but the cultural barriers and stereotypes that Latinos endured, I believe was Roberto Clemente. He came to Pittsburgh, which was more or less a biracial community, African-American and Caucasian. The black community did not accept him as African-American. The white community saw him as black. It takes Pittsburgh several years to accept his pride, to accept how outspoken he is.

Clemente was a fairly deep intellectual figure, both in terms of his political and social consciousness. So it, you know, it took a while for these guys to make it. And Major League Baseball, which had been very slow to confront questions of race pertaining to African-Americans, did nothing in the 1950s and for the most of the '60s to deal with the issues that these young Latino ballplayers who lacked English were facing, as they came to the United States.

INSKEEP: Can you think of another moment, as we move forward through major league history, when it becomes apparent to you - as you have researched the history - that this was a moment at which Latino ballplayers in the major leagues was normal, not even a matter for comment anymore?

Mr. RUCK: I think in the 1980s we start to see a fairly significant cohort of Latino ballplayers. By the late '80s, 10 percent of all major league ballplayers are Latino. Today that's closer to 27 percent. And I think that baseball America has come to accept that the game today is indeed an international and multiracial game, far different from what it was a half-century ago.

INSKEEP: So have Latinos in baseball transformed baseball or transformed what it is?

Mr. RUCK: Latino baseball players, you know, they're disproportionately among the best ballplayers in the game today. Last season, half of the Silver Slugger Awards, which are given to the best defensive player at each position in the two leagues, went to Latinos. Forty percent of those selected to the All-Star Game were Latin or Hispanic American.

The real future of baseball can be found in the 30 academies that major league clubs run in the Dominican Republic, the half-dozen in Venezuela, the kids on Nicaraguan sandlots who are desperately trying to develop their skills to attract the attention of a scout and make it to this country.

INSKEEP: Rob Ruck is the author of the book "Raceball." He teaches history at the University of Pittsburgh. And we've been talking with him about a piece of baseball history.

On July 4, 1911, one century ago, the first two Latino players made it onto a major league baseball team.

Mr. Ruck, thanks very much.

Mr. RUCK: Thank you.

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