The First Hispanic Ball Player
by Amaury Pi-González

This article was Posted July 18 2002 on the pages of
Love of The Game

Esteban Bellán, born in Cuba was the first ever baseball player from Latinamerica to play in the United States. Presently in Major League Baseball 30 percent of all the players are Latinos. In the minor leagues the percentage is even greater. But it wasn't like that until 1950. Cuban players were the pioneers from Latin America to play professional baseball in the United States

The first one was Esteban Bellán from Cuba who played from 1871 to 1873 in the National Association. Bellán was born in 1850 and died in 1932. He played with the Troy Haymakers and New York Mutuals.

Cuba was the first country to play baseball in Latin America after US saliors that arrived in the island tought the game to the Cubans. And then Cuba tought the rest of Latin America about the "great american passtime".

Althought Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues in 1947, many Cubans and other Latinos of fair skin played before.

But it was actually in 1950 when a total of 10 Latino players were in the Major Leagues (the first time such a big number) Luis Castro from Colombia in 1903, Alejandro Carrasquel (1939), Alejandro Carrasquel (1939) and Jesús Ramos (1944) the three from Venezuela. From México there were 4; Mel Almada (1933) José Luis Gómez (1935) Jesse Flores (1942) and Beto Avila (1949), who later became the first ever Latino player to win a batting tittle when he hit .341 with the Cleveland Indians in 1954.

Today's Latino players are headed by the Dominican invasion. Close to 100 players in the Major Leagues are from the Dominican Republic.

The first Dominican to play in the Major Leagues was Ozzie Virgil with the New York Giants in 1956. By then a total of 71 players born in Cuba had already played in the Major Leagues. The first Latino manager of a Major League team was Cuban-born catcher Miguel Angel González with the St.Louis Cardinals in 1938, as interim nanager.

Because of Fidel Castro's assuming power in Cuba in 1958, a couple of years later the US and Cuba broke diplomatic relations when Castro during a speech in front of 1 million Cubans in "Plaza de la Revolución" in Havana told the world he was a Marxist-Leninist and would be until the day he die. Castro has been in power ever since, the longest Dictatorship in this hemisphere and Cuban players can only make it to the US by escaping in ding/rafts accross the Florida straights or when they visit other countries during international competition. Some players find it easy to ask for political asylum when they travel outside of Cuba with the Cuban Olympic and National Teams. Just for the record: Castro has outlived 9 US Presidents since he took power from Fulgencio Batista in 1958-59.

Legends has it that Fidel Castro was scouted by the New York Giants and that the Giants offered him a $5,000 bonus to sign in the early 1950's. But I have researched this and found out that to - start with, Castro was not that good of a pitcher and second; history has it that he knew it, and decided to finish his studies and get a Law Degree and then became a Dictator.

For many, many years a lot of American born players played in the old Cuban Professional League. Guys like Brooks Robinson, Tommy LaSorda, Bob Allison, Rocky Nelson, Bill Werle and

many more played in Cuba. I have spoken with some of these players and they told me that the quality of the Cuban professional league them (back in the 1950-60) was as good as the Major Leagues today. My good friend, Yale Professor Roberto González-Echevarría, like this reporter also born in Cuba - wrote a book titled "The Pride of Havana" in which he highlighted Cuban pitcher Adolfo Luque's career. Luque won 27 games in 1923 with the Cincinnati Reds. The first Latino pitcher to win that many (the previous season Luque led the NL in losses with 23) games.

Because of the climate, baseball is played 365 days a year in Cuba, Dominican Republic, Panamá, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, México, Colombia and other Latinamerican countries. Many Major League teams have developed baseball academies in Latinamerica (Dodgers were the first) were they can develop their skills after getting signed to a ML contrac, and were -in some cases-they get to learn English..

Not very far in the future, Cuba will have a much different system of government, a systems that will alloud all its citizens and players to travel freely in and out of the island. And then, If you think you have seen a lot of Latino players here in the Major Leagues, wait until the Cuba-US relations are back to normal like it was prior to 1960.

Because of the popularity of other sports here in the United States, like Football, and Basketball, you don't really see young kids in this country playing much baseball. When I was a teen in Miami I use to play with my friends after school, even after I played with the School team, we would play "sandlot baseball". Tell me where do you see that today, not only here in the liberal Bay Area with all the Soocer Moms, but any place in the US? A lot of kids play Soccer, but when they reach High School and College, they have no place to go. The so called "Major" League Soccer in the US is not really major. Here is a simple fact: The best baseball players in the world play in MLB. The best Football players in the world, they play in the NFL. The best Basketball players in the world play in the NBA. The best Hockey players in the world play in the NHL. But the best Soccer players in the world? Do they play here? Of course not! They play in Europe and Latin America. That is why Soccer will never be a big time sport here in the United States.

I am sick and tired (specially during the recent World Cup) people coming to me and telling me about Soccer. Look, in many countries in Latin America, like Cuba, Dominican, Panamá, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Soccer is NOT the most popular sport, baseball is.,

Latin American players will increase by great numbers in the future and the presence in the Major Leagues will be ever present. This will be seen specially in the Hall of Fame, where today there are only a handful of Latino players inducted: Dihigo, Clemente, Cepeda, Marichal, Aparicio, Pérez, Carew. But in the years to come guys like Iván Rodríguez (Puerto Rico), Rafael Palmeiro (Cuba), Sammy Sosa (Dominican), Pedro Martínez (Dominican) and many more will be knocking in the door at Cooperstown.

Hasta la vista !

Amaury Pi-González is on his eight season as the Spanish Radio Play by Play Announcer for the San Francisco Giants on KZSF 1370 AM Radio"La Caliente". Previously for 17 seasons he was the Oakland Athletics Spanish Play by Play Announcer for radio and Telemundo TV. During the Postseason, Amaury is on the staff of ESPN Spanish Radio Network doing Playoffs and World Series Play by Play.As well as for Fox Sports during the Caribbean World Series each year in Latinamerica in February.

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