Skip to main content

The night was black in Santo Domingo. It was after curfew, and warring troops patrolled the streets as the caravan of cars of the Organization of American States' negotiating team slowly left the rebel zone. Suddenly, out of the darkness, a rebel civilian, brandishing a rifle, stopped a correspondent. The reporter stepped back nervously, but the rebel was insistent. "Tell me," he demanded, "how did Marichal do today in the All-Star Game?"

This incident is typical of the passion that the Caribbean countries have for beisbol, both in las grandes ligas in the States and in winter ball at home. In Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Panama, Nicaragua, the Virgin Islands, the revolution-torn Dominican Republic and even Communist Cuba baseball is the most popular sport, as the swelling number of Latin players in the majors clearly indicates. In 1948 there was only one Latin playing regularly in the majors—Mike Guerra of the Philadelphia Athletics. Now there are 48, some of them among the biggest stars in the game, players like Juan Marichal (see cover) of the San Francisco Giants, the best right-hander in baseball, his teammate Orlando Cepeda, and both of last year's batting champions, Roberto Clemente of Pittsburgh and Tony Oliva of Minnesota.

In the Caribbean area baseball is played the year round by youngsters who often sew their own gloves and carve bats from the wood of the majagua tree. The player who can make it to the majors is the supreme hero. Recently, a special session of the legislature of the Virgin Islands passed two resolutions, one expressing the "pride of the people" in Alvin O. McBean of the Pirates as the first Virgin Islander to win The Sporting News Fireman of the Year Award, and the second congratulating Joseph O. Christopher of the Mets for becoming the first islander to hit .300 for a full major league season. In Puerto Rico crowds jam the airport when Clemente returns with a batting title or Cepeda with the jonron crown, and in the Dominican Republic los fanàticos are so passionate that when Marichal visits home after a season, he does not dare remain there. Los fanàticos cannot understand why their Juan, ordinarily an obliging sort, is too tired to pitch winter ball after a six-month National League season, and rather than endure catcalls from his followers, Marichal winters in California.

During the major league season Latin fans keep up with their heroes through the local press, which prints the batting averages of their countrymen. The World Series and the All-Star Game are broadcast in Spanish to Latin America by Buck Canel, an American of Spanish extraction who is revered by all fanàticos de beisbol, whether of the left or right (SI, Oct. 14, 1963).

Although the tremendous growth of Latin American strength in the majors began only after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1946, historically the influx started in 1911 when the late Clark Griffith, then the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, imported a white Cuban third baseman, Rafael Almeida, for a tryout. Almeida, a well-to-do fellow who smoked $1 cigars, was unimpressive, but Griffith did like the looks of Armando Marsans, the fancy-fielding interpreter Almeida had brought along. Marsans played for the Reds, St. Louis Browns and New York Yankees for seven years, and eventually other Cubans followed. To proud fanàticos back on the island, the Reds became known as el querido Cinci, the beloved Cincinnati.

When Griffith took over the Washington Senators he imported more white Cubans. His Cuba scout was Joe Cambria, an Italian laundryman from Baltimore, who settled in Havana and began shipping players almost literally by the boatload. Cambria, known as Poppa Joe to Cubans, virtually pirated three players off a gunboat that Dictator Fulgencio Batista was sending to el querido Cinci spring training camp in Tampa. Most of the good Cuban players were colored and could not play in the majors, and the best of these were collected by Alex Pompez, a Negro American of Cuban extraction. Pompez, who is now 72 and head of Giant scouting for Latins and Negro Americans, used to own the New York Cubans in the Negro National League, and during the winter he barnstormed with a team he called the Cuban Stars. Back in the old days, Pomp had players who put great store in the powers of ñañigo, the backwoods Cuban version of Haitian voodoo, and to keep the boys happy he often carried a brujo, a witch doctor, on the team, much as a club today would have a pitching coach. In 1916, Pomp recalls, he toured Puerto Rico with the Cuban Stars. It was only an 11-man club, but six of the players believed in ñañigo​. They were unbeatable. Before one particularly crucial game in San Juan. Pomp let the brujo loose. Among other things, he buried a rooster's head beneath second base. (In Cuba a goat was often used with success.) "It was no contest," Pomp says. "We hit the ball like a cannon."

In this more sophisticated age there are few believers in ñañigo​ around, but still there are reports of players who carry snail shells, los caracoles, or chicken feathers in their back pockets for luck, just as a superstitious American would carry a rabbit's foot. Julio Gotay, a Puerto Rican recently sent to the minors by the Angels, was known to fellow Latins as "the witch doctor," and until recently Ruthford (Chico) Salmon, a Panamanian with the Indians, went to sleep with the lights blazing to ward off the powers of darkness. Chico says his mother used to hear ghosts talking and sometimes talked to them herself. However six months in the U.S. Army cured him of this phobia. Pedro Ramos, an expatriate Cuban with the Yankees, says that when he played ball in Havana, a player would sometimes stick nails in an apple and leave it in the locker of an opposing player. Ramos himself does not like the letter L because it stands for lose. He is very high on W. Not long ago, Jésus Alou of the Giants, a Dominican, remarked to a friend before a game with the Cubs, "A new moon. There isn't a pitcher alive who can get me out." Alou went four for five.

Caribbeans in general have the reputation for being temperamental, and the ballplayers are no exception. "They call us temperamental and we are," says McBean. "We've come a long way, and we're not going to put up with anything. We don't expect everybody to fall in love with us, but we want to be treated like human beings. We're a proud people." As a result of this pride, a Latin must be handled more tactfully than his American teammates. The Latin shows a tendency to take criticism, however well intentioned, as a personal affront. "They were difficult for me at first," says Gene Mauch, manager of the Phillies. "You discuss things with a Latin in private." Bill Rigney, who managed Latins on the Giants and who now handles more of them with the Angels, says, "You have to be a diplomat. You can't do anything to hurt their feelings. You have to get through to them. With José Cardenal [who came to the Angels from the Giants with a "'hard to handle" reputation], we used Vic Power to open him up." On the Twins, Coach Billy Martin has made Shortstop Zoilo Versalles, a Cuban, his special project this year, and Versalles' improved play shows Martin"s progress. "You have got to handle them gently but firmly," Martin says. "If they respect and like you, they will do anything for you. But when their pride gets hurt they are much more emotional than Americans."

Baseball may be a team sport, but to the dismay of American baseball men, Latins sometimes play with a reckless individuality. Indeed it is the individuality in baseball that they like. "The great appeal of the game to the Latin is the chance to show himself," says Canel. "Essentially, baseball is a duel between two men, the pitcher and the batter. Latins realize that baseball is a team effort technically, but for every player there is that moment for individual glory, to hit a home run, to win the game or the chance to strike out a guy with the bases loaded."

This season the A's were once trailing the Orioles by three runs in the last of the ninth. Bert Campaneris was on second, another runner was on first and Ken Harrelson, the A's best long-ball hitter, was up with only one out. Suddenly Campaneris took off for third and was easily thrown out, killing the rally. Manager Haywood Sullivan seethed and said nothing, but the next day Hank Bauer of the Orioles commented, "I know why he tried to steal that base. He's leading the league in stolen bases, and he wanted more. He's also out to break Aparicio's high of 57."

Buck Canel points out that there is one essential technique in winning the Latins' loyalty. "You have to give them a pat on the back once in a while," he says. "A physical pat. A pat on the back, that touch of the hand, means a lot more than 1,000 words. That pat is the spirit of friendliness, and that touch of your hand makes a Latin feel all right. It makes him say to himself, 'I'm in a strange land, I'm a ballplayer and I'm doing all right.' Give the Latin that pat and say, 'Hola, viejo. Comó te val?' which means, 'Hello, old man, how's it going?' and he eats it up."

Alex Pompez agrees. In fact, he has patted so many Latins that he finds himself, to his sharp embarrassment, unable to break the habit here. "Say I'm walking around New York looking for a street address," says Pomp. "I ask a policeman the way. He tells me, I say, 'Thank you, officer,' and then I reach out and give him two little pats on the arm. It's a habit I want to get rid of here." When Pomp goes to sign a Latin prospect he lets himself go, emotionally, in Spanish. "The words just pop out of my mouth!" he exclaims. "I'm like a medium. I get a blessing. I go to the mothers and fathers and I say, 'Every team has money to offer. But no team has a man like me! Your boy go with the Giants, and I look after him. Your boy get sick, I see he get better. With the other clubs no one speak Spanish. He might die, and no one give him a tumble!' So the mother says, 'I want my boy to go with the Giants because I know that Pompez will take care of him.' " Such persuasiveness has helped the Giants to land Marichal, Cepeda and the three Alou brothers.

In the majors Latin Americans generally stay together. A number of clubs put the Latins next to one another in the locker room, but this can annoy them. As Vic Power, an uninhibited Puerto Rican, says, "They like to be together, but they have to do it themselves. If you put them together, you are prejudiced. They have a complex. They think the world is against them. If a pitcher throws close to them, they think he is throwing at them. They stick together. The Puerto Ricans stick with the Puerto Ricans, and the Cubans run around with Cubans. But as a group, they are very sentimental."

Before the last All-Star Game, Power tried to tell the other Latins on the Angels how to vote. "They wanted to vote for Felix Mantilla. I asked them, 'Don't you think Bobby Richardson is a better second baseman?' They said, 'Yes, but Mantilla is one of us. And we have to vote for Campaneris.' "

Before a game, Latins from opposing clubs like to meet at the batting cage. "We just talk fun," says Cepeda. "How you say, 'kick it around.' It's a nice feeling to meet the friends that talk your language and that you have gone up through the minor leagues with." Unfortunately for the Latins in the National League, the league office has ordered them to stop this pregame socializing, citing the nonfraternization rule. Cepeda says he was told there was a danger of players revealing signals, but he wonders if perhaps someone who could not understand Spanish made the ruling out of ignorance.

Language is one of the bonds holding the Latins together. "As long as you speak Spanish, you're in the clan," says Al McBean. The boundaries of the clan bend at times to include a non-Latin who is simpàtico (such as White Sox Coach Ray Berres, known as nariz de aguja—needle nose) or who speaks Spanish. Most Latins still have great difficulty with English. In the old days Griffith used to farm out Cubans by dropping them off at the Washington railroad station with signs saying "Springfield, Mass." around their necks. When Angel Scull, former Senator farmhand, first started out in the minors he had the disconcerting habit of yelling when a fly ball was hit, "I've got it! You take it!" Ed Lopat, pitching coach for the A's, says, "I know from trying to work with Latin pitchers that unless they speak good English, it's just about impossible to tell them what they are doing wrong, what they are doing right and what they ought to improve. They nod their heads at you and maybe even smile, but you know you just aren't getting through to them 90% of the time." Freddie Frederico, trainer for the Angels, recalls when Felix Torres tried to tell him something about his throwing arm. "I worked on his left arm for a couple of days before I discovered he was right-handed," Frederico says.

Race is another factor that tends to keep Latins together. Colored Latins are often upset by the discrimination they encounter when they first come to the States. Vic Power's brother could not take it and went back home. Power fought back in his own way. Once when he was questioned for jaywalking, he explained, "I saw the white people crossing with the green light, so I crossed with the red one." In a restaurant a waiter told him, "We don't serve colored people here." "That's all right," said Power, "I don't like to eat them." Between themselves Latins kid about skin color. A light-skinned player might tell a dark-skinned one that he cooked in the oven too long or that he was born at midnight. No offense is taken, even when the remark is made by a white Latin.

The two principal hangouts for Latins in the majors are Tonitas restaurant in Los Angeles and El Rancho Grande in New York. El Rancho is a sort of Latin Toots Shor's. It draws many American players besides Latins. Patsy Alvarez, the proprietor, is an old crony of Al Lopez. They grew up together in Tampa, where Alvarez boxed under the name of The Patent Leather Kid because he has hair like patent leather. Pictures of players line the walls, and on occasion romance has even blossomed in the restaurant. "Right here, in this booth, Luis Aparicio met Sonia!" Alvarez exclaimed recently, while supervising the preparation of roast pig in garlic sauce for a Houston rookie. Alvarez knows the favorite dish of every player, and the players often go into the kitchen themselves to select the ingredients for a meal. "Cepeda goes for Asopao de Marisco, seafood sauté, a real Puerto Rican dish," says Alvarez. "Now comes in Pizarro. Pizarro goes for that roast pig in garlic sauce. Now Aparicio goes for tacos. The Chicago team! What you theenk they eat? Black beans, tacos and fried rice!" Alvarez buys his plantains, cooking bananas, from Marichal's uncle, who has an import tropical-vegetable business in uptown Manhattan at East 111th Street and Park Avenue. Recently Alvarez asked Marichal to ask his uncle if he could get a discount; the uncle agreed.

Of the Latin American countries, Cuba has supplied the most ballplayers to the majors. Eight Latins were selected for the All-Star Game this year, and four of them were Cubans. For the last four years, however, Castro has kept Cuba sealed off from the U.S. and the imperialist major leagues. Cuban expatriates and scouts estimate that there are about 20 big-league prospects in Cuba now, but the only way they can get out is by boat on a dark night. Not one Cuban player in the majors has returned to Cuba, and the controlled press ignores them. "The players are in constant touch with relatives in Cuba with letters and phone calls," says Jess Losada, a broadcaster for the Miami-based Free Cuba Sports Union. "They send a lot of packages, mostly medicines, sometimes clothing. Most of the packages get through. It's a strange situation. Cuba is bitter at the athletes, but it doesn't take it out on the relatives. None go back to visit, though. They'd never get back out."

Expatriate players have not been politically active against Castro because, Losada says, "Organized baseball told them not to, and they follow the rules." One Miami radio station. WFAB, beams a half-hour sports program into Cuba every evening, and the sports director, Emilio Cabrera, who played for the Havana Sugar Kings, interviews a Cuban player every night, either in person or by beeper phone. Cabrera gets about 14 letters a week from Cuba, and they make it obvious that baseball news from the U.S. is suppressed within the country. "However, we don't get too much jamming during the sports program," says a WFAB official. "It's when there is news on government issues or when we editorialize that they jam."

Among Latins, Cubans have the reputation for being fussy and noisy extroverts who are quick to address a new acquaintance by the intimate instead of the formal usted. Pompez says, "The Cubans are what you call happy-go-lucky, felicianos. The ones who give me the most trouble are the Cuban boys. They are not bad in their hearts. They are very alive." Patsy Alvarez, part Cuban himself, sighs in mock despair when Cuban players pile into El Rancho. "They blow their tops," he says. "So I go to them and I say, 'Yentlemen, control yourself! Have a beer on Al Lopez!' "

Dominicans are more reserved and formal, even though their politics may be tumultuous. But beisbol rates ahead of politics any day. "People put baseball even before food," says a rebel leader in dismay. "When the winter season is on here you can't get them away from the ball parks or their transistors. If this had been the winter baseball season, this revolution would not have lasted a week." Despite whatever measures the OAS may take, both warring factions in Santo Domingo are literally counting on the winter league to start in October to give a provisional government a breathing spell. Rafael Trujillo, the late strongman, used baseball to divert the masses. Once he cabled his ambassador at the United Nations that he wanted to hire Canel to broadcast Dominican ball-games, no matter what the cost. Canel declined.

If it had not been for politics, Marichal probably would have been a Yankee instead of a Giant. Professor José Seda of the University of Puerto Rico visited the Dominican Republic on a scouting trip for New York and saw two outstanding young prospects, Pedro Gonzales and Marichal. He wanted to sign both of them, but he was bluntly told that although he could have Gonzales for the Yankees, Marichal at that time had been promised to the Escogido club by a devoted fan, Ramfis Trujillo, the dictator's son.

The great baseball rivalry in the Dominican Republic is between Escogido and Licey. Don Hoak, the former third baseman who is now broadcasting Pirate games, recalls that he played for Escogido in 1955, after being on the World Champion Dodgers. Inasmuch as Hoak had a Series share in hand, he demanded almost impossible terms from the Dominicans, including a handsome salary to be paid in advance and participation limited to only 30 games. Escogido agreed, and the team did very well. After every victory in which Hoak played, he was draped with flowers by enthusiastic fans. "We won the pennant in the 30th game I played in," Hoak says. "I didn't know there was a playoff after the pennant, and so I got on an airplane to go home. The plane started to warm up, but then the pilot cut the engines. A man from General Trujillo's office came on board and said, 'The general wants to see you.' I went with him. The general asked me, 'Where do you think you're going?' I told him I was going home. He said, "No you're not. You're going to play.' I played."

Puerto Ricans are as reserved as Dominicans but more sensitive to slights. "They are sensitive in that they hurt easily," says Canel. "But then they are very quick to forgive." With Cuba out of professional ball, Puerto Rico now plays about the best brand. Puerto Ricans follow their major league countrymen very closely, and so do Puerto Ricans in New York, who revel in the achievements of Clemente, Cepeda and other Boricuas. Interest in baseball is so intense among New York's 800,000 Latins that there are more than 30 Spanish-speaking leagues in the city. In Brooklyn there is la liga Luis Olmo, named for the old Dodger, and there are other leagues named for Roberto Clemente, Julian Javier and Perucho Cepeda, the father of Orlando and a man who is held in esteem back home as the Babe Ruth of the island.

Virgin Islanders, properly speaking, are not Latins—the U.S. and Great Britain each own a part—but in the majors they generally associate with the Latins or American Negroes. Ballplayers are much esteemed in the islands. The Virgins have a population of only 38,000, but they have 18 players in organized ball in the States, the highest per capita of any country anywhere. Valmy Thomas, former Giant catcher, is still almost as much of a celebrity as he was when Government House gave him a reception and St. Croix declared a holiday. Unlike Latins, Virgin Islanders are not temperamental but the opposite, unflappable. They have an almost Oriental imperturbability, are closemouthed and speak softly, when they do speak. "I got kidded about my British accent," says Al McBean. "It made me angry. But pretty soon I could see that they didn't mean anything bad."

In Venezuela and Panama players are equally celebrated. The one country that does not put players on a pedestal is Mexico, which supplies very few players to begin with. Mexico has a population of 39 million, but only a few players have made the big leagues. Reasons advanced by baffled scouts include poor diet, interest in other sports and homesickness. One of the rare Mexicans to make the majors is Ruben Amaro, the Phillies shortstop, who, it happens, is half Cuban. "No professional sport is as highly regarded in Mexico as it is in the U.S.," says Amaro. "A doctor, a lawyer, an engineer has more respect than any baseball player. I have a brother here who is a doctor, and everywhere we go people say, 'This is Ruben Amaro's brother.' But back home, when people see me, they say, 'Ah, there goes Dr. Amaro's brother.' "

Interest in baseball in South America follows a sort of sociological isobar along the borders of Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela. This month Pomp is off to Colombia to scout an infielder he likes. In fact, the day may soon come when Pomp tours Brazil and countries even farther south for major league material. The march of the new conquistadores has just begun.