The Path of Colored Baseball Players to the United States
As we wrapped up the end of Major League Baseball’s regular season a month ago, the highest paid pitcher in the league, Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals, will earn $42 million for his efforts. Additionally, 27% of MLB players are foreign-born (Anderson). In 1908, arguably the best pitcher on the planet was, Jose Mendez who earned only $584 a month. There was a newspaper article from an anonymous author published in 1912 by The Washington Post called, “American Ball Players Claims Jose Mendez, Cuba’s ‘Black Mathewson,’ is Pitching Marvel.” The Washington Post operated through Washington, DC. The author went on to say, “Mendez was a pitcher for the Cuban national team. In this era of baseball, the outstanding Cuban negroes were not allowed to play baseball in the United States.
But, American teams did travel to Cuba to play exhibition games against the Cuban national team. In 1908, Mendez had a win-loss record of 14-0, including seven victories against US professional teams. And Mendez continued this success over the following years. Mendez earned the nickname “Black Mathewson”, beating America’s best pitcher, Christy Mathewson, several times in head-to-head exhibition style matchups in Cuba. The manager of the Phillies, Honus Lobert, was quoted as saying, “Mendez is a wonder, and so is his catcher, Gonzales. If we could give those two coons a good coat of white paint and ring them in with the Phillies next summer we’d win the pennant on the chin strap.” (The Washington Post). Cubans, Afro Cubans, African Americans, and Latinos looked to play baseball in the Major Leagues as they faced discrimination against the many organizaitons. So, they formed Negro Leagues and other leagues that colored players could participate in while they strived for equality in the segregated United States that slowly began to include colored players.
The discrimination of colored baseball players was at an all-time high in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The color of skin would separate players in organized baseball leagues during 1880-1920. Few players of color could join the league if their skin was light enough to the liking of league officials. In 1901, the manager for the Baltimore Orioles, John J. McGraw, attempted to sign a black player, Charlie Grant. McGraw was willing to change Grant’s last name to Tokohoma so he would classify as a Cherokee Indian. Grant’s reputation around baseball prevented him from playing for the Orioles.
The Charlie Grant situation showed that players were willing to change their life in order to play in the Major Leagues. Grant’s talent was similar to the talent of Jose Mendez. Both of them had the skills to play baseball in the Major League, but they were both people of color. The press and the Major League organization would not allow any person of color to play in the league. The issue of colored people attempting to join the league was known as the color line. The color line originated in the late 1860s when the Philadelphia Pythians, a dominantly black baseball club, applied to become a part of the national Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP).
The NABBP met annually to talk about the rules of the game and to settle any disagreements. After meeting one year, they came to agreements that Black players and clubs were not allowed to join the league. Then, in 1871, the NABBP collapsed which led to the formation of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NAPBBP). The new league had the same rules as the previous league that banned Black players and clubs from joining the team. There was no written rule that Black players could join a team, but there was an agreement that no club would sign any of the Black players. Later on in 1876, the National League (NL) was formed to bring greater financial stability to the game. The owners of the NL teams adopted the early rules from the NABBP. The National League and the American Association sought a compromise which resulted in the National Agreement in 1884, which became the constitution of organized baseball. The National League would maintain its policy not to recruit Black players. The minor league teams did not adopt the NL’s policy of signing Black players. From 1884 to 1898, 55 Black players played in twenty different leagues.
Sports writers for newspapers were critical to promote the game. Sports writers were critical at times when it came to race. They suggested the skin color could be a factor in how good a player was. Some newspapers did praise some of the Black players for having a good background and education. By the late 1880s, the atmosphere in baseball became more hostile and press reports reflected this change. In 1887, two Black players played for the Binghamton Bingos of the International League. Several white players threatened to leave the club if those two players remained on the team. The team officials accepted the white player’s demands and the club released the Black players. It became a universal practice for the press to make notice of race when referring to Black players. Cubans were subjected to the same image as American Blacks. A majority of fans received their baseball news from the newspapers. Players of color “passing” meant that colored players were accepted into the league and crossed the racial line.
It is difficult to say how many mulattoes or Cubans tried to pass as white. It became difficult for a player trying to pass because the clubs traveled to different cities a lot and those cities would question some of the player’s racial identities. One factor that determined if a player was Black is if they had one drop of Negro blood. If they did, they were considered Black. John Donaldson was top pitcher in the early twentieth century of dark skin. He pitched for a multiracial team in Iowa. New York manager John Mcgraw said he would’ve paid $50,000 for Donaldson to pitch for the Giants if he were white.
Donaldson’s situation was exactly the same as Jose Mendez. There were many ways that the press, clubs, and associations would discriminate against any type of Black from playing in their league. There were many instances where a manager in the Major Leagues would say that if the colored player was white, they would be signed immediately. The color line explains why stars like Jose Mendez and John Donaldson were never signed to play in the Major League.
As players of color continued to fight to do anything to play in the Major League, Afro Cubans formed leagues of their own to give them a community that they are welcomed to play in. Afro Cubans were criticized for doing this by putting their race first before their nation. On November 7, 1888, authorities in Havana received a note from Mateo Caraballo in hopes to form a baseball club in Havana. Authorities feared that social and leisure activities would not be in support to nationalistic insurgents. Organizations that didn’t sent a petition and still met would be imprisoned and fined. A group of men elected Caraballo the president of the new association: the Cuba Base Ball Club de Personas de Color.
Members of any class could join this club which made many people feel inclusive. The club was formed in a time when the nation strived for independence and insurgents embraced a nonracial national identity. The league that Caraballo formed helped other cities build up leagues just like theirs in Cardenas, Regla, and Cienfuegos. The formation of colored teams in Cuba would transcend national boundaries. Baseball was transported from the US to Cuba by Cuban students returning from their educational pursuits in the US. Cubans invented their own style to the game. The baseball field was a place for Cubans to impart political ideas and share news of developments in the insurgent struggle. Cubans helped spread the game of baseball to other Caribbean islands like the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and the Yucatán. The people responsible for spreading the game were the Alomá brothers from Cienfuegos. Nemesio Guilló was called “the father” of Cuban baseball. He was a student in the United States that brought the game back to Cuba. Esteban Bellán was also a student in the United States who picked up the game. The names chosen for the circuit’s teams were a signal for the cultural and political leanings. Azul and Punzó were references to the colors of the Habana and Almendares teams. Intrepido and Progreso referred to the ideas of Cuban nationalism. For Cuban nationalists, baseball represented a building block for constructing a new Cuba. Cuba’s first professional league was formed in the winter of 1878. Colón, a team that was part of the circuit, hired two US players, Warren “Hick” Carpenter and Jimmy Macullar.
The Havana teams were interested in white, American players. Cuban baseball leaders were becoming worried about the presence of US players in Cuba. They were worried because Cuban baseball was not on the same level as American baseball. There was a survey that revealed prior to 1886, clubs did not discriminate based on race or color. Afro Cubans did not appear on any professional teams until 1887. Afro Cuban teams were criticized for not allowing whites on their teams. The actions of the Afro Cubans were breaking the social compact between baseball, race, and nation. Cuban baseball promoters organized the first game in Cuba against a US team in December 1879. González Echevarría mentions how there was connection between baseball and ideology.
He said baseball was seen as a social privilege. Burgos and González mention how the Spanish authorities banned baseball in 1869 and how it resurfaced in 1878. Cubans faced a choice between baseball and bullfighting because they were Spanish colonial subjects. The US intervention in Cuba brought an end to Spanish colonial rule. This led to a number of North American teams to participate more often in Cuba. Cuban teams began to sign African Americans. Cuban teams proved that they could play with the US teams now. Major League teams in the US were transgressing racial lines in Cuba by refusing to send colored teams to Cuba in 1911. Many Afro Cubans formed their own teams because teams of light skin players didn’t allow players of dark skin on their team. So, the teams that the Afro Cubans formed began to play against teams from the US in exhibition games. That’s how Jose Mendez got his fame from pitching great games against US teams that traveled to Cuba. The formation of the Cuban baseball leagues gave Afro Cubans and other colored players the opportunity to display their skills against American teams. Americans would play for some of the Cuban teams because of the high level of skill. The Cuban baseball league paved a path for colored players like Jose Mendez to play baseball in an open community.
As the formation of colored baseball leagues developed in Cuba, there were many players that were forgotten about that helped break the color barrier. The National Baseball Hall of Fame election in 2006 inducted seventeen players and excluded many more that contributed to the game. Buck O’Neil drew the most notice for being left out. There was more outrage with Orestes “Minnie” Miñosa not being inducted. There is a lack of recognition when it comes to the legacy of black baseball. Most baseball fans are unaware of the vast majority of Latinos that perfromed in the Negro League. Members of the Latino and African American group were excluded from baseball due to the color line. O’Neil embraces the southern African American who overcame difficult obstacles. Miñosa is a foreign Latino was perceived as having a less precarious path. Miñoso’s run for the 2006 election for the Hall fell victim to the lines of racial understanding. Some approaches stated that Miñoso was not actually a black man which allowed him to go to certain places that he didn’t think he was allowed. They didn’t know whether to place the black Latino as black, or just Latino. Language was a significant obstacle when it came to tracing back the legacies of the Afro Latinos because there were few US reports about those players.
The Hall of Fame elected a committee in 1971 to elect Negro League candidates to be enshrined in the Hall. African Americans and Afro-Latinos disagreed about how to approach the Jim Crow Laws placed on them in their everyday life. Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough with the Brooklyn Dodgers did not mean that Black players that followed his footsteps would be able to play easily. Those players had to go through what Jackie went through with beanballs, hate letters, and epithets were flying. Latin American teams recruited African Americans based solely on their ability to play. Many African Americans liked playing in Latin America more due to the Jim Crow laws that segregated the colored players in the United States. There were still racial discriminations in Latin America, but not as much as in the US. By 1959, each Major League team had at least one black player in a game. African American and Latino players would play in the minors when they could be playing in the majors. Vic Power posed problems for the Yankees because the organization was not exactly matched with the personality of Power. Power was very outgoing about his race and his thoughts which didn’t go well with the Yankees. He was traded to the Kansas City Athletics. Roberto Clemente claimed that newspapers made him and other Latinos sound worse than they actually were so they could sell more newspapers.
Black Latinos endure a double invisbility as too black to be Latino and too ethinic to be black in the US. The failure to recognize early Latino players drew criticism. The Black Aces drew criticism for excluding black Latinos from their ball club. Alex Pompez introduced the first players from Puerto Rico, Domincian Republic, Panama, and Mexico to the circuit. Pompez’s player acquisitions show how he reconnected disparate members of the African diaspora within the Americas. Major league teams acquired players from the Negro League at prices that were far below their ability to play the game. Negro League owners sold their best players to balance their financial ledgers. Jose Mendez was a player that began to pave the path for players of color to show that they were good enough to be playing the Major League. Jose Mendez pitched many great games against Major League teams that should have earned him a spot on a team, but didn’t because of his skin color. Buck O’Neil and Minnie Miñoso did not earn the respect that they should’ve gotten while playing in the Negro League. It took a long time to place these players in the National Hall of Fame because they did not get a fair shot at playing in the Major Leagues. They had to play in the Negroe League where they didn’t get enough recognition. These players paved a good path for players of color to make it to the Major Leagues.
Jose Mendez was arguably one of the best pitchers in 1908 who was discriminated against due to the color of his skin. Mendez was barely making the amount of money that players in the Major Leagues were making. A newspaper article from The Washington Post published an article about Jose Mendez, “American Ball Players Claims Jose Mendez, Cuba’s “Black Mathewson,” is Pitching Marvel.” Mendez pitched for the national team of Cuba when he was not able to play in America. Mendez picked up seven wins against American teams that would travel to Cuba in the winter to get some offseason games in. Mendez was given the nickname “Black Mathewson” because he beat America’s best pitcher Christy Mathewson multiple times in their exhibition games. Due to his performance in these games, multiple coaches from the Major Leagues said that if Mendez was white, he would be playing in America. Historically, it was difficult for Cubans to leave the island in the early 1900s. But more importantly, The Washington Post author was very matter-of-fact in his discussion of Black baseball players excelling and being just as good, if not better than white American professionals.
However, culturally there are clearly a number of differences today versus a hundred years ago. Examples include: language used to describe Blacks that would be found offensive today, much more blatant racism and segregation, and of course a completely different pay grade for baseball players back then. By the mid 1950’s, Cubans could play professional baseball in the States in the Negro League and subsequently, the MLB. But this changed when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 as a part of the Cuban Revolution. Since that point, only baseball players who have escaped Cuba and defected to the United States have played in the MLB. Clearly, the unknown Washington Post author of this article felt many Cuban baseball players, including Mendez, had the skills to play professional baseball. It was obvious from the wording in the article, however, it was just accepting that this wasn’t ever going to happen. The cultural norms of the day were on full display in the newspaper article highlighting the racial disparities of the times. Overall, the discrimination of the colored players in the baseball community forced colored players to form their own baseball leagues that would pave the path for Black, Afro Cuban, and Latino players to play the game in the United States.
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