LIANE HANSEN, host:
Consider this short list of big league baseball players: Sammy Sosa, Robinson Cano, Alfonso Soriano, Tony Fernandez, Manny Alexander - what do they have in common? They're all from the small town of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, a town that's known for producing sugar cane and shortstops. In fact, by the year 2008, 79 boys and men from San Pedro have played in the major leagues.
Writer Mark Kurlansky puts San Pedro under the microscope in his new book, "The Eastern Stars." You may remember that he did the same thing in his books about salt, oysters and cod. Mark Kurlansky is in our New York studio. Nice to talk to you again.
Mr. MARK KURLANSKY (Author, "The Eastern Stars"): Nice to talk to you, Liane.
HANSEN: Players from the Dominican Republic started playing in the majors in the late-'50s. What was it like for these players coming to America?
Mr. KURLANSKY: Well, it was very difficult. They didn't speak English. They didn't recognize any of the food. It wasn't the kind of food that they were used to. Jose Cano, Robinson Cano's father, who was a pitcher, told me about how he learned to really like Whoppers. He couldn't speak much English so he'd just go in and order Whoppers. And he could never remember if Whoppers were Burger King or McDonald's. He'd always go into the wrong one and get dirty looks.
They also had a lot of problems with racism.
HANSEN: Yeah. I mean, I know it's tough to order when you don't speak English, but what about the idea of the racism?
Mr. KURLANSKY: Well, it was very difficult for them to understand because, first of all, a lot of them were mulatto, light-skinned and didn't consider themselves to be black because, you know, black in Dominican Republic means really looking like an African or like a Haitian. So, they'd go to minor league teams in the South, even in the early-'60s and they didn't Jim Crow applied to them and got into a lot of difficulties, not only with racists but with the African-American players who kind of resented this stand that I'm not really black. You know, they thought they should've showed more solidarity with the black players rather than insisting they were distinct from it.
HANSEN: Was there a concern that the black players thought that, you know, positions were being taken by the Dominicans?
Mr. KURLANSKY: African-American participation in Major League Baseball has been in steady decline for the past 15, 20 years. And Latino and Dominican participation has gone up, which has led a lot of people to this leap that, you know, the Dominicans are replacing the blacks, you know, that they're hiring Dominicans instead of blacks, which really is not true. If anything, it's the other way around. They're hiring Dominicans because they can't get enough blacks.
I've talked to a number of ex-major leaguers who worked on recruiting programs in inner cities and, you know, these programs are dying. They can't get people interested. People want to play football and basketball, where you can get to the big game and the big money a lot quicker than you can in baseball.
HANSEN: When the Dominican players came to play, you said they faced racism but what about stereotype? I mean, the idea of someone, you know, these players having fiery Latin tempers of course.
Mr. KURLANSKY: Yeah, the hot-blooded Latin.
Mr. KURLANSKY: Which, of course, isn't held by hot-blooded Latins. There are also hot-blooded Anglos and there is mild-mannered Latins. But we remember Juan Marichal, you know, the only Dominican Hall of Famer, great, great pitcher. And, you know, he was famous for his flare-ups. The most famous one, pitches coming too close and he felt that they were playing games with him and deliberately trying to get too close and hit him. And the catcher kind of controls where the pitch goes, and Marichal just took his bat and beat Roseboro(ph) with it.
This has sort of endured as an image of the Dominican player.
HANSEN: But given that the Giants pitcher, Juan Marichal, came and actually did hit Johnny Roseboro with a bat, doesn't that enforce the stereotype?
Mr. KURLANSKY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, especially when it happens to be the first really famous Dominican player. You know, it becomes this lasting image. And there have been others since. George Bell, who is from San Pedro, you know, I've talked to him about this and to this day he insists that its the way you should play baseball. If the pitcher hits you with a pitch, you run out to the mound and belt him. He always would say, well, that's the way we play baseball in San Pedro.
And I asked other people about this. Fernando Tati, who plays for the Mets, is from San Pedro. I was asking him and he was saying that, you know, he wouldn't play ball like that. And he said a very San Pedro-like thing to say, he said, you know, baseball has saved us and given us a livelihood and, you know, protected our families and you have to treat it with respect.
HANSEN: Well, considering sometimes in the town of San Pedro your choice was either cutting sugar cane or playing baseball, I mean, that was...
Mr. KURLANSKY: Now, that's an easy choice if you get to make it.
HANSEN: Right. Now, we're talking, you know, Major League Baseball pays piles of money.
Mr. KURLANSKY: The average salary is $3 million a year.
HANSEN: What would an average signing bonus be, though, for an individual player in these times?
Mr. KURLANSKY: Well, it just goes up and up all the time. Used to be a few thousand dollars and now they're a few hundred thousand dollars. In 2008, Oakland signed a pitcher for $4.25 million - 16-year-old pitcher.
HANSEN: Sixteen years old?
Mr. KURLANSKY: Wasn't even a left-hander. But, you know, his family is okay now, no matter what happens.
But even, you know, these guys who sign for $200,000, you know, if you get $200,000, you've changed the life of everyone in your family. I mean, these people are living on hundreds of dollars a year. And, you know, you start talking about hundreds of thousands, it's huge.
HANSEN: How do you think these players have changed the American pastime?
Mr. KURLANSKY: You know, I don't know that it's so much they've changed it. I think they've done a lot to preserve it. They play really good baseball. You know, they start playing baseball in a serious way when they're three years old. One problem that I've talked to a lot of scouts about and a lot of people in Major League Baseball is that now it's becoming too much about money and it's getting harder and harder to find Dominican players who just love the game.
HANSEN: Mark Kurlansky's new book is called "The Eastern Stars" and he joined us from our New York studio. Thanks very much, Mark.
Mr. KURLANSKY: Thanks, Liane. Always a pleasure.
HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.