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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

They played, too
Latinos played a big role in the Negro Leagues
By Jesse Sanchez
MLB.com


Boston Red Sox great Luis Tiant Jr. (pictured) says he watched his father, Luis Sr., pitch in the Negro Leagues in the 1940s.
There's a list of baseball players who graced the diamond last century that reads like a who's who of Latino legends past.

Take one quick glance and you'll find a Cepeda, a Tiant and a Minoso. An even closer look reveals a Hall of Famer -- Martin Dihigo, arguably one of the greatest players who ever put on a glove.

But take a deep breath because this list is unique. For the Cepeda mentioned is Pedro, not his Hall of Fame son Orlando. The Tiant is Luis Sr., not his All-Star heir Luis Jr. And the leagues these elder statesmen played in were not the Major Leagues, they were the Negro Leagues.

Together, Latino and African-American ballplayers have shared a passion for the game of beisbol that spans almost a century. It's a rich history full of competitiveness, gamesmanship and friendship among hundreds of players that precedes Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier by nearly fifty years.

"I remember watching the games from the stands, and sometimes the players would bring me down to dugout," said Tiant Jr., a former Boston pitcher whose father played for the New York Cubans in the Negro Leagues along with Minnie Minoso during the mid-1940s. "There were good games and they had a lot of good players during those years. A lot of those guys were good enough to play in the big leagues, but they couldn't. Not because of their ability but because of the color of their skin."

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According to Negro Leagues historian and author James A. Riley, the first Latino team, the Cuban All-Stars, squared off against teams from the Negro Leagues in 1900 in an exhibition format. For the next 10 years, the trend continued, but by 1910, the Cuban All-Stars had become a permanent fixture in and around the Negro Leagues of the United States. During the next 25 years the Cuban All-Stars split into two squads, East and West.

"Cuba had the second best quality of baseball in the world at the time, so it was only natural that they come to America and compete against the best," Riley said. "Players and teams from Havana, Santa Clara, and Almendares are regarded as some of the best of all time."

The Cuban teams eventually evolved into what became the New York Cubans, a squad made up of predominately Latino players, in 1935. The elder Cepeda, the most celebrated player from Puerto Rico, was on the roster for the 1941 New York Cubans.

Historically, the NY Cubans were rivaled only by the Indianapolis Clowns, a barnstorming bunch of All-Stars during the 1940s, in terms of having players of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican and African-American descent on their roster.

"I don't think the bond was immediate among players, but as far as on the playing field, extremely competitive between the Black and Latin players," said Ray Doswell, curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. "Off the field the players would hang out with each other play cards and bond in a non-competitive atmosphere. Reports say they were bitter enemies on the field because of the competitiveness but they were friends off of it."

Minoso, a star with the Cubans in 1945, fondly recalls his time in the Negro Leagues. He should. After all, it was his first taste of professional baseball in the United States.

"It was a great experience because we were like brothers," said Minoso, who went on to become a seven-time All-Star with the Chicago White Sox. "It was 24 brothers traveling together on a crowded bus and all eating the same food. We used to fight to defend each other on and off the field. We took on everything together."

So it should come as no surprise that Latino and African-American players did well as teammates. Players from the Negro Leagues, including Robinson, Satchel Paige, and Josh Gibson, were participating in leagues across the Caribbean by the late-1930s -- first in Puerto Rico and Mexico, and eventually in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. According to Riley, Robinson signed with Dodgers in 1945 at an airport before departing to Venezuela with his Negro League teammates for exhibition games.

For Latinos and African-Americans, playing year-round baseball in the United States and across the Caribbean had its advantages.

"For the Americans going down (the Caribbean), they were treated better there than in their own country," Riley said. "For the most part, there were no color distinctions or segregation, except for hotels owned by Americans or that had clientele from the U.S. The American players loved it down there because there was little discrimination and you received first-class treatment."

Add to the equation the fact that in order to survive as a professional ballplayer financially, participating in more than one league was almost necessity. As much fun as the players were having, it was also an economic decision to play year-round.

"My dad did not want me to play baseball at all because they did not make any money," Tiant Jr. said. "My dad wanted me to go college and be successful because he said baseball was too hard and there was nowhere to go. My mom finally talked him into letting me play."

For his part, Tiant Jr. did succeed as a Major League pitcher but wishes his father and other players in the Negro Leagues could have done the same. It's a point he'll share with anyone willing to listen.

"As a kid I always heard that I am good, but not as good as my father," he said. "I know that it is too bad a lot of good players were not allowed in the big leagues and for that, I feel lucky I could. I had the opportunity, they did not, but you cannot change the past."

True. Changing the past is not an option, but as long as the history of Latinos and African-Americans playing baseball together in the Negro Leagues and across the Caribbean endures, their feats will not be forgotten.

Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs