Latinos Still Struggle to Overcome Baseball’s Racial Biases

by Randy Shaw on March 13, 2008

San Francisco Bay Area baseball fans have little to look forward to this season, which makes this the perfect time to relive past successes. Adrian Burgos Jr.’s Playing America’s Game fills this need, as it features a great cover photo of Giants legend Juan Marichal and explains how the Giants scouting system once led the league in finding quality Latino players. But Burgos has done much more than remind us of the rich history of such Latino Giant stalwarts as Marichal, Orlando Cepeda and the Alou brothers. He has written the best book yet on the history of Latinos in American baseball, particularly focusing on how they were impacted by baseball’s color line. Burgos shows that the disparate treatment of dark-skinned Latino players did not end when Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947, but continues to this day; Bay Area sports fans saw this firsthand when KNBR sports talk show host Larry Krueger made racist comments against the Giants Latino players and manager Felipe Alou in 2005. Burgos provides a wealth of critical insights about the social context by which native Spanish-speaking young men play baseball in the United States, and all serious baseball fans should read this book.

I try to avoid reading any more baseball books (having read my share), but seeing my boyhood hero Juan Marichal, the Dominican Dandy, on the cover of Playing America’s Game made it irresistible. And in this case, a great cover foreshadowed a great book.

Adrian Burgos’s goal is show how Latinos were impacted by baseball’s color line prior to 1947, and to describe how the elimination of formal racial barriers were replaced by de facto discriminatory treatment toward Latino players. For those not particularly interested in the pre-1947 history—which involves Latino players that most readers have never heard of—the book is worth purchasing for its post-integration second half alone.

Burgos describes how dark-skinned Latinos did not fit comfortably within the black/white color line defined by the Jim Crow laws that continued into the 1960’s. The line became so blurry that Spanish-speaking players like Cleveland Indians catcher and future manager Al Lopez (who grew up in Florida) or California-born Yankees star Vernon Gomez were “suspect” despite family origins in Spain; meanwhile, dark-skinned players born in Mexico took pains to prove that they were eligible to play on pre-1947 major league rosters because they were not “black.”

Burgos spends considerable time explaining how Latinos played on Negro League teams, exploring the bizarre reality whereby non-English speaking Latinos were potentially allowed on major league teams while native-born African-Americans were barred. Cuban players dominated the foreign-born Latinos of the pre-1947 era, and the “line” that allowed or prohibited them from playing major league baseball was never clear.

I was far more interested in Burgos’ post-1947 analysis, which proved a real eye-opener.

During what some describe as the first golden age of Latino baseball, star players were often prohibited from speaking Spanish to each other, even though their English was weak. This not only resulted in media depictions of Latino stars as “standoffish,” but made Latino players adjustment to the United States much more difficult.

In 1962, San Francisco Giants manager Alvin Dark imposed a no-Spanish rule on a clubhouse with such Spanish-speaking starters as Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, Jose Pagan and Felipe Alou. Dark was known as a virulent racist from his playing days, yet was put in charge of a team loaded with Latino stars. By denying these players the right to use the language in which they were most fluent, Dark alienated such team leaders—notably Cepeda and Alou—who were positioned to help push the team over the top.

When one examines the Giants failures in 1963 and 1964 after getting to the World Series in 1962, Dark’s racism is clearly to blame. The team’s inability to harness the potential of its Latino stars also explains its trade of future Hall of Famer Cepeda to the Cardinals for pitcher Ray Sadecki in 1966, a deal that remains the worst in franchise history (the Cards went on to win the 1967 and 1968 pennants).

Until very recently, major league teams did little to facilitate Spanish-speaking Latino players’ adjustment to the United States. In contrast, players from Japan are given fulltime interpreters, and never criticized, as are Latinos, for not speaking good English.

Because many Latino baseball stars do not speak good English, they miss out on interviews, or have their halting English words misinterpreted. Burgos gives many examples of sportswriters quoting Latino players verbatim—such as Sammy Sosa’s response to being caught using a corked bat, “But when you make a mistake, you got to stood up and be there for it,” without cleaning up the tense, which they commonly do for English-speaking players.

All-star pitcher Pedro Martinez, reflecting the anger felt by many Latinos over the Sosa quote, said in 2004 “I felt offended by having people laugh at the way Sammy speaks English. At least he’s trying. It’s not like members of the media are trying to become bilingual and talk to us and make it easier for us.”

Burgos (via Martinez and others) makes a point rarely discussed in a sports environment dominated by talk-phone debate: since 25% of major league players are Latino, why are such a small number of sportswriters and sports broadcasters Spanish-speaking? Shouldn’t this be a job requirement for those covering baseball for a living?

But as Burgos shows, the history of Latinos in baseball is their accommodating and adapting to the language and ways of the United States, not vice versa. And by quoting the halting English of Sosa and others, the sports media establishment “tries to make {Latino players} look like stupid guys.”

Burgos describes many Latino players who avoid the media specifically out of concern that an interview in English will end up making them look bad; think about this the next time a member of the overwhelmingly white sports fraternity complains that a Latino player refused a request for comment.

Burgos is a Professor of History at the University of Illinois, but he is amply qualified to be a professional sportswriter. He could bring a desperately needed perspective on Latino players to sports sections of major newspapers and on websites like While William Rhoden provides unique insights into the black athlete for the New York Times, I am unaware of any U.S. sportswriters covering the perspective of Latino baseball players.

Reading this wonderful book is a great way to prepare for the 2008 season. Thanks to Adrian Burgos Jr, the full story of Latinos playing America’s game has finally been told.

Filed under: Book Reviews