Interview with Adrian Burgos, Jr., author of Playing America’s Game

On July 16, Adrian Burgos, Jr. was interviewed by Ismael Núñez of Latin Week NY regarding issues upon his latest book, Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line (UC Press, June 2007). Furthermore, you can read more about Burgos in his blog, Playing America’s Game.

Where are the Latino Legends in Baseball?

Article By: Ismael Núñez
Wed, 16 Jul 2008 15:30:00

Called a must-read by Slate Magazine and the San Franciso Chronicle,
Adrian Burgos’ Jr. recent book, “Playing America’s Game: Baseball,
Latinos, and the Color Line,” examines an era in baseball history
largely ignored by historians and sports fans until now: Latinos in
professional baseball pre-1947. Burgos, an Assistant Professor of
History at the University of Illinois, has long been an expert on the
Latino struggle for acceptance both in the major and Negro leagues,
serving on the screening and voting committees for the National
Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2006 special election on the Negro Leagues.
Latin Week sat down to talk with Burgos about how Latinos helped break
the color line in baseball long before Jackie Robinson, and how Latinos
still face a fight for respect on the field today.

Not a single Latin American was voted to the all-century team? Does that still hurt?

The absence of Roberto Clemente from the all-century team is a major
issue on several levels… Whether Clemente is the greatest outfielder or
rightfielder in baseball history is a debatable matter, but whether he
is one of the most important baseball figures of the 20th century is
without debate. An all-century team without Clemente and all he
represented to the game’s history is just not right. The fact that
Major League Baseball (MLB) had the discretion to address this
oversight and opted not to is telling of the need for an understanding
of baseball history through a Latino framework.

Focusing on the book, one thing people are not aware is that there were
Latinos playing baseball long before Jackie Robinson. Why we are not
given the credit for opening the doors for other peoples of color?

The full story of Latinos in U.S. professional baseball is unknown to
the American baseball public. Many do not know that over fifty
foreign-born and US-born Latinos performed in the majors from the 1880s
through 1947, when Jackie Robinson began the dismantling of organized
baseball’s color line. Fewer realize that the overwhelming majority of
Latinos who played in the States during the era of baseball’s
segregation performed in the Negro leagues, over 250 Latinos played in
the Black baseball circuit starting in 1900.

In “Playing
America’s Game,” I argue that the manner that major league team
officials manipulated racial understandings served as a template for
how Branch Rickey would approach the official launch of the racial
integration of Major League Baseball… officials for teams such as the
Cincinnati Reds, Boston Braves, New York Giants, and, most notably,
Washington Senators, brokered access for lighter-skinned Latinos in the
1900s and by the mid-1930s began to allow increasingly darker, more
racially ambiguous Latino players into the Majors. However, these
Latino players were not given the same exact treatment as Jackie
Robinson did, because these officials were not engaged in trying to
overturn the color line system of racial division, but rather to
manipulate it for their own gain—signing talented Latino players for
lower salaries than what they would earn if they were white Americans.

In your book you describe the many obstacles Latino ballplayers had to
face, for example speaking English. Do they still face these problems?

Learning to navigate the English-language press remains an extremely
challenging obstacle once they “make it” in the United States. It is in
the press coverage of Latinos we continue to see how Latino difference
as racial beings constantly in production. For example, during last
year’s American League Divisional Series Manny Ramirez became embroiled
in a controversy after stating that he was not worried whether the Red
Sox would defeat Cleveland, because his team had been down before and
had overcome a 3-game-to-none deficit in defeating the New York Yankees
a few years earlier. Some stated this was another example of “Manny
being Manny,” but what really perturbed me was hearing a prominent ESPN
reporter stating that Manny did not know what he was saying because he
lacked mastery over the English language. What?! Manny came over from
the Dominican Republic at ten years old and was schooled in the United
States before graduating from George Washington High School in
Washington Heights (NYC). But this reporter lumped all Latinos into a
familiar stereotype, and then he used that to frame his analysis. And
thus continues a practice of portraying Latino players as ignorant,
dumb, or not as smart as the white American player, a practice that
dates back to the earliest era of Latino participation in organized

The New York Cubans
[a team of Latino players that competed in the Negro leagues] won the
Negro League Championship in 1947. There is hardly any talk about this
team [in popular and official histories of baseball] – why?

The NY Cubans were one of three NYC-based teams to enjoy a banner
season in 1947, and yes, they are the least discussed in part because
the other two were the Brooklyn Dodgers and NY Yankees. So there is the
issue of timing. The NY Cubans enjoyed their greatest success in the
Negro Leagues during the same year that Jackie Robinson initiated the
dismantling of organized baseball’s color line system.

part of the reason the Cubans team suffers today from a lack of
attention is the misperception that they were not a significant team in
the Negro Leagues or in New York. Much to the contrary, a look at two
main Black weeklies published in NYC (The New York Age and Amsterdam
News) one sees that the Cubans and not the NY Black Yankees were
celebrated as “Harlem’s Own”…

Much of the story of Black
baseball is told as just that of African Americans, leaving out the
Latinos who participated in the Negro Leagues from its inception …
Moreover, the NY Cubans (and its predecessor the Cuban Stars) were
trailblazers in bringing in talent from throughout the Americas. While
operating these teams, Alex Pompez introduced the first Dominican,
Puerto Rican, and Panamanian players to play in either the Negro
Leagues or the Majors. The NY Cubans represent a vital part of baseball
history in the Americas for they offer a different approach to
diversity in U.S. professional baseball long before “Los Mets.”

One player on the team you talk about highly is Martin Dihigo. Many former Negro League Players say he was the best!

Dihigo is quite a unique figure in the annals of baseball history
because he was an ace pitcher and a fabulous everyday player (and a
pretty good team manager on top of that). Think of someone who was on a
Hall of Fame level as a pitcher in Black baseball (the Smokey Joe
Williams, Jose Mendez, and Satchel Paige type pitchers) and then think
of the very best everyday players from the Negro Leagues. Put that
together and you begin to imagine El Maestro, El Inmortal, Martin

Should Roberto Clemente’s number (21) be retired?

I am of two minds on this question. For one, I want Latino players to
be a living memorial to the meaning and significance of Clemente to all
Latinos. The best memorial is seeing a great Latino player chose to
take the number 21, and demonstrate mastery on the field and also
grace, dignity, and a willingness to speak for the cause of social
justice off the field…

No greater example has been set for all
of those involved in any capacity within organized baseball than what
Clemente did… How best do we recognize that vital historical lesson? I
am for a living memorial, the Latino players keeping his (and our)
story on the field for all to see.