New Book Revives Legacy of Giants Hero and Baseball Racial Pioneer

by Randy Shaw on May 5, 2011

In the fabled television show What’s My Line, panelists determined a guest’s occupation by asking a series of questions. The subject of Adrian Burgos, Jr.’s new book, Cuban Star, appeared on the show in 1960 and the very first panelist discovered his job. But I wonder how many of even the staunchest baseball and San Francisco Giants fans can identify which member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame never appeared in a game, but signed such stars as Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, and the Alou brothers. A man who did more than anyone to bring Latinos into major league baseball, who owned the New York Cuban Stars Negro League team for years, and who originally financed his baseball operations through numbers running in Harlem. Regardless of whether you have been able to identify this Giants hero and baseball racial pioneer, Burgos, Jr. has told a story that will prove illuminating to all baseball fans.

Adrian Burgos, Jr. is the author of Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line, which I reviewed in March 2008. That book was my first introduction to the great Alejandro “Alex” Pompez, the subject of Burgos, Jr.’s new book, Cuban Star.

That a longtime Giants fan like myself would not have heard of Pompez until 2008, and forgot about his contributions until reading this new book, speaks to the importance of Burgos Jr.’s reviving his legacy.

Burgos, Jr. notes in his preface that even the great baseball expert Keith Olbermann (and that is not a joke, as his baseball knowledge likely exceeds his significant political acumen) ignorantly demeaned Pompez’s selection to the Hall of Fame in 2006 over Buck O’Neil, the Negro League star also on the ballot. Olbermann described Pompez as “a former racketeer in the Dutch Schultz crime family, who once owned the New York Cubans and later scouted for the New York Giants.”

I suspect Burgos, Jr.’s felt those words like a dagger in heart, and Olbermann’s attack propelled him to set the record straight in this book.

The American Dream, Latino-Style

While Cuban Star is a book about one of the most significant figures in the development of modern major league baseball, it is also a sociological analysis of Latino and African-American culture from World War I through the 1960’s. And understanding this culture means recognizing that those like Alex Pompez who were trying to achieve the American Dream were hampered by racial barriers.

The United States of America was not the land of opportunity for the non-white of Pompez’s day, with entire fields – including major league baseball – blocked. This led entrepreneurs like Pompez into business ventures that were available, such as the numbers game in Harlem, whose proceeds enabled him to purchase the New York Cubans Negro league team.

Burgos, Jr. goes into great detail about Pompez’s numbers operation, which may disappoint some of those who thought they were going to primarily be reading a baseball book (I actually appreciated understanding how the numbers game worked). And I suspect that Olbermann’s misleading depiction of Pompez as part of a violent crime family led Burgos, Jr. to include more material than was necessary to refute this point.

Nevertheless, few will close this book critical of Pompez’s tenure as a numbers king. Pompez provided a business service and ran his numbers operation without fear or violence. And when he got hit with a big loss when too many players picked the same number that paid off on the eve of Thanksgiving 1931, he surrendered nearly all of his assets to pay his debt.

Burgos, Jr. shows that Pompez’s association with mobster Dutch Schultz was completely involuntary; he either joined Schultz or risked being killed. In fact, Burgos Jr. spends far too many pages proving that Pompez was no Schultz ally, when the point quickly becomes clear.

Pompez’s Baseball Legacy

The book’s main theme, as it was for Burgos, Jr.’s prior work, is the complex racial dynamics between Latino blacks and African-Americans, and between both groups and a United States controlled by Jim Crow laws. If you have not read Burgos, Jr.’s Playing America’s Game, you may wish his new book had more details about how specific Latino players handled this conflict; but this is what makes the prior book so invaluable and it need not be repeated here.

Pompez was the first bilingual, U.S. born Latino hired by a major league baseball team to scout players in Latin America. And because the Giants hired him, they secured the Hall of Famers Marichal, Cepeda and McCovery as well as a host of other Latino and African-American stars, including Hall of Famer Monte Irvin (the latter through Pompez Negro League connections). While Burgos, Jr. argues that Pompez played a role in the Giants acquiring Willie Mays, his credit for the Giants legend who turns 80 on May 6 is less clear.

So Giant fans will ask why the team did not win more pennants during a period it had the inside track on top Latino and African-American talent. Burgos, Jr. cites Jackie Robinson’s assessment of Alvin Dark’s Giants:

“When you think of the power, drive and ability of a team which can present such talents as those of Mays, McCovey, Cepeda, and others, you would expect a consistency of the first order. But how can this be possible when, behind his perfectly legitimate attitude of fair play, these guys have to work with a man who has strange cobwebs in this mind about people of color?”

The Giants had the major’s most racially and culturally diverse team. Yet its training facility was in racist Melbourne, Florida until 1961, and its manager, Al Dark, was a racist cracker who felt that Latino and African-American players lacked the “mental alertness” of whites and had less pride in their team.

Burgos, Jr. discusses Dark’s comments, and notes that even though he was fired after the 1964 season that it may not have been coincidence that the Felipe Alou, the team’s Latino leader, was traded in 1964, and that Jose Pagan and Orlando Cepeda soon followed. These moves have long been attributed to the Giants need for pitching, but Burgos, Jr. implies that other factors may also have been involved.

There are many baseball books, but in Cuban Star Burgos, Jr. again provides an all too rare insight into the challenges of Latino and black players in the pre-civil rights era. And he revives the legacy of Alex Pompez, whose impact on baseball can be seen from the increasing percentage of Latino players on major league rosters.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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