Opening Día: Hispanics and Baseball

Hispanics and baseball: Both American

Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball. — Jacques Barzun

As Joe DiMaggio once observed, you just get this special kick on Opening Day. For me baseball is in my blood, though I was never terrific at it. My family grew up where the Dodger Stadium is now and I was raised on going to see Mondesi, Piazza and Lo Duca. Also what I love about baseball is that it’s a great representation of America. There’s a great combination of individual effort and team play. Ruthless competition and fair play go hand in hand. Furthermore baseball is a great mirror not only of who America is, but who America is becoming through immigration. While German and Irish players once dominated baseball, Hispanics and baseball are changing the game and the country.

The American Immigration Council noted last season,

More recently, the influx of major league players from Latin America and East Asia is a direct reflection of current immigration and economic ties that contribute to our current social fabric.

I thought it fitting to look back in baseball and immigration history, at some of the more inspiring stories of how Hispanics and baseball just go together.

Mariano “Sandman” Rivera

One of our greatest closers of all time and with the most saves in baseball history, Rivera spent nineteen seasons with the New York Yankees. Mariano was instrumental in winning five of their World Series wins and personally won three Delivery Man of the Year Awards.

But his immigration story is less well known. Rivera was born in Panama City in 1960 and lived in a poor fishing village. Worried his son was hanging out with the wrong crowd, Mariano Sr. got his son a job working on a fishing boat, six days a week. Mariano almost died when his boat capsized. However Mariano’s favorite past time was baseball, something he saw as more of a hobby than a possible career.

He grew up using milk cartons for gloves and tree branches for bats. His father spent a large portion of his weekly salary on his first leather glove. Soon, Rivera joined the local amateur team as a shortstop. Chico Heron decided to take a chance on Rivera, inviting him to a tryout camp in Panama City. Even though he had no formal pitching training and could only threw 87 miles per hour, he was signed in 1990 for a mere $2500, immigrating to the US later that year. Off the field, Rivera championed humanitarian and Christian causes in his native Panama, eventually winning the Marin Miller Award in 2013.

Tony Perez: The Mayor of Riverfront

Perez is the only Cuban player currently in the baseball Hall of Fame, winning two World Series with the Reds through the 1970s and was a seven time All Star Player. Arguably his greatest moment with Cincinnati was in the 1975 World Series, with his two-run home run against the Red Sox in Game 7.

While Perez did not flee with the initial wave of exiles in 1959, he found his emigration from Cuba to be quite emotionally difficult. He said,

“It was very hard. You miss your country, your mother, your father, your family. I wasn’t with my father when he died or my older sister.”

Perez noted that had he been born a few years later, he would have been too young to be signed for the recruiting farm in Geneva. As such he would have been stuck in Camaguey, Cuba, where his family was from. From 1959 to 1965, Camaguey was the forefront of the immediate post-Revolution anti-communist activity as those who had once fought against Bautista now turned their guns against Castro. Even Castro apologists like Victor Dreke admitted that the war was fought with total brutality on the the part of the communists. Had Perez not been granted a visa into the US (paid for by his $2.50 signing bonus) he would have likely been caught in the troubles in his own homeland.

Fernando Valenzuela: El Toro

Quite possibly one of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ greatest pitchers (absent Mr. Koufax of course), Fernando is a Dodger icon. With a 2.23 ERA in the Liga Mexicana de Beisbol he was acquired by the Dodgers farm system in 1979, where he posted a 1.13 ERA. After being called in to start for Jerry Russ, Valenzuela became a hit with his flamboyant wind-up and devastating throws. In total he had over 2,000 strike outs and a lifetime ERA of 3.54. He was a six time All Star, a World Series Champion and a two time Silver Slugger. Though he had slowed down later in his career due to consistent injuries, he still managed to please the crowd in 1990 with yet another no hitter.

Valenzuela was born in Etchohuaquila, Sonora, Mexico and from the start of “Fernandomania” he was an inspiration to his fellow Latinos and Mexicans living in Los Angeles. His immigration status was a huge part of the cultural focus on his success. Los Angeles Magazine recounts

Cruz Angeles: When Fernando was around, there was no Internet. No one knew who he was. He had come from nowhere. He transcended class, race, and all these social constructs people create. His story was so amazing that anybody could identify.

Dagoberto Gilb: You have to understand L.A.’s history. Mexicans and Chicanos are pretty much dismissed as unimportant people, relegated to the working class—and even more, the invisible working class: janitors, restaurant workers. It was a rare thing that a Mexican player became such a dominant force in the city.

Ted Williams: The Kid

Seeing someone named Theodore Samuel Williams on this list might be a bit confusing to some. But it’s a well established fact that Ted Williams was in fact half Mexican, a fact we’ve written about in the past. As a nineteen time All Star, two time Triple Crown, six time American League Batting Champion with a lifetime on base percentage of .482, Williams requires no baseball introduction. And while he, nor his immediate Hispanic family were immigrants themselves, I thought his immigration story deserved a second telling today.

While born in San Diego himself and his mother, May Venzor, being born in Texas, his grandparents, Pablo Venzor y Natalia Hernandez were from Mexico. Williams was apparently torn between his pride in his Mexican ancestry and the pressure that came from the public in the 1930s when he began playing. He once said,

If I had my mother’s name, there is no doubt I would have run into problems in those days, [considering] the prejudices people had in Southern California.

The progress we’ve had from Ted Williams’ era to Fernandomania in the 1980s to this very day is amazing. America has changed and so has baseball. Both have been built up by immigrants. The fact is that immigration and baseball are inherently tied up in one another. Not only has baseball enriched our cultural life, but it has helped many aspiring young athletes escape a life of poverty and potential violence. This is worth recalling when we read about anti-immigrant laws protested by MLB players or how immigration laws endanger the lives of potential baseball prospects like Yasiel Puig.

When we debate our national attitudes regarding immigration policy we should keep in mind how immigrants and Hispanics have contributed to the core of our national cultural life.

Play bol!


Joseph Laughon is a lifelong Republican and a proud Mexican-American. He has worked as campaign consultant to Republican campaigns and was both the Vice Chairman of the College Republicans at Concordia University and the President of Nuestra Voz. Today he works in the transportation industry. He lives and writes in Long Beach, California.

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