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Load the bases: Latin ballplayers.

True baseball fans know Latin American ballplayers are vital to a game which stands with Mom and apple pie as the popular symbol for all things red, white, and blue. But few are aware that the national pastime of the United States extends its reach far beyond U.S. borders.

Since 1911, when major league scouts began the business of importing Latin Americans, these peloteros have been able participants in the making of baseball legendry. Over the Years, thousands of Spanish-speaking athletes from Puerto Rico and seven Latin American nations (Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela) have journeyed north hoping to wind up on a major league diamond. More than 500 of these ballplayers have risen through the minor league ranks and reached "el big show." Their struggle to succeed in a decidedly gringo forum--made harder by troubles with the language and culture--is avidly followed by millions of Latin Americans from Mexico and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Latinos have proven to be true fans--expert observers of the game, and devoted to the lore of season after season of high-spirited competition.

The recently-published book El Beisbol: Travels Through the Pan-American Pastime offers readers the most comprehensive look yet at a game which belongs to the Spanish Caribbean as much as to North America. Yet not even author John Krich realized that Latin America's contribution reaches to the very foundation of baseball.

The concept of free agency, which allows players to go with the highest bidding team, was born of Latin blood and is vital not only to baseball but almost every other professional sport. Baseball lore villainizes Jorge Pasquel, once the virtual owner of the Mexican summer league, who shocked major league owners in 1946 by using satchels of cash to entice players to break their contracts. Then-commissioner A&B. "Happy" Chandler gave five-year suspensions to the 20 players who succumbed, but lifted the sanction when one player went to court to challenge the reserve clause, the part of the contract which obligated players to stay with one team. Three decades later, with players making millions through free agency, Alfonso Pasquel said: "If the major league players had any guts, they'd make sure my brother Jorge was elected to Cooperstown for helping them gain their freedom. These ballplayers, once they signed a contract, were chained for a lifetime."

Winter ball is another institution with roots in Latin soil. In 1878, two years after the start of the National League, the now-defunct Cuban League was formed as an off-season circuit to attract U.S. players. The biggest beneficiaries were black players, who because of the color of their skin, were run out of pro baseball in the 1880s. These men, who played for pennies wherever they could find a game, were heartily welcomed in Havana.

"Without that Caribbean nursery garden, I don't believe the capital ever would have presented itself to form the National Negro League in 1920," said the late Eric Roberts, an authority on black athletics. In effect, winter ball--an invaluable training ground for scores of U.S. players--kept black baseball alive. Then, after World War II, when the Brooklyn Dodgers saw fit to sign a black man, Jackie Robinson returned the favor by opening the door for dark-complected Latins.

While Cuba was once the leader in generating talented Latino ballplayers, the field is now dominated by the Dominican Republic. Coincidentally, the country which has fathered so many great players shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, where all the baseballs used in major league games are produced.

Last year, 30 Dominicans played in the major leagues, representing six percent of the league's rosters. Dominicanos make up about half of the total number of Latinos--including U.S. Hispanics--in the majors. At least 300 more Dominicans play minor league ball. Big league scouts feverishly cast recruitment nets across the land; 16 teams check competition by operating camps in which they assess 20 to 40 teen-aged prospects at a time. Now Japanese baseball wants a piece of the action. With the Hiroshima Carps franchise building a huge training facility in the Dominican Republic, it's no wonder why the thought of landing a million-dollar contract has become the great national hope.

Gerardo Carty, who made $300 a month several years ago as the full-time mayor of the city of San Pedro de Macoris, says education does not help many Dominicans escape poverty. "In this country, there are two ways to make a decent living--the military and baseball," says Carty, who worked his way through college with help from his cousin Rico Carty, the first star to hail from San Pedro. This sugar province of 150,000 people, sent about 20 native sons to the majors last year, including such big names and potential Hall-of-Famers as George Bell, Tony Fernandez, Julio Franco, Pedro Guerrero, and Juan Samuel. Carty looks forward to his son carrying on the tradition. "My wife gave birth a couple weeks after Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb's record for the most hits in baseball history. The moment I knew I had my first son, I said to myself that Gerardo Carty Jr. is going to grow up and break the record of Pete Rose."

Baseball encourages thousands of Latin youths to chase the near-impossible dream of stardom, but ignores the millions whose cheers will never touch major league parks. "The baseball establishment has always treated Latin Americans as strangers and has tried to keep them at arm's length," says former commissioner Chandler. The 91-year-old former Kentucky governor and senator, who infuriated owners in 1947 by allowing Jackie Robinson to become the first black major leaguer of the century, believes the rights of citizenship should be extended throughout the baseball empire. "All Latin Americans have now is what they read in the papers or see on television ....if baseball lets them take part, they'll think more of the game."

Despite their dedication, Latin American fans are prohibited from participating in the very rituals which give the game its staying power. For example, they cannot vote in the balloting that determines the starting lineups for the National and American Leagues in the annual all-star game. A spokesman for baseball commissioner Fay Vincent says "enormous complications" stand in the way of change. The main one is that the balloting, which takes place at major league ballparks, is intended to draw fans through the turnstiles. If Latin fans don't go to the games in person, they don't get to vote.

A small percentage of the 6.1 million all-star ballots cast each year are distributed through a sweepstakes promotion by the game's sponsor, USA Today. The newspaper has circulation in all Latin American countries where baseball is played except Cuba, but doesn't reach the Spanish-speaking masses. Because Montreal has a baseball franchise, Canadian law requires that the ballots be published in English and French. USA Today sports marketing director Keith Cutler doesn't anticipate any need for Spanish-language ballots. He does say, "We'd do it if there were a major league team in Latin America."

Nor are Latin American baseball writers afforded the opportunity to elect players to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Two hundred and six players, managers, umpires, and executives have been honored for their lifetime achievements with plaques in baseball's museum. Most were selected through an annual election by veteran members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), a group of newspaper journalists who become eligible by covering major league games on a daily basis over an extended period of time. Each year, about 450 people are qualified to vote for their favorites from among some 40 candidates.

"It would have great symbolic importance if, say, three writers from each Latin country were allowed to vote in the Hall of Fame election," says Johnny Naranjo, a winter league broadcaster from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. "If we were allowed to participate in those activities, many people in our countries would feel like we're truly part of baseball," says Hector Cruz, the sports editor for Ultima Hora, a Dominican newspaper, and host of a weekly baseball TV show. "Our people know the game, not just of today, but also its history. We would be capable of truly contributing."

But there are those who don't agree. "As capable and qualified as these baseball writers are, I don't think they've seen enough major league games to properly evaluate candidates for the Hall of Fame," says William Guilfoile, the museum's associate director. "I'd like to see them get some input, but I don't know how it's possible and still maintain necessary standards."

"The All-Star thing sounds more logical to me," says Bob Broeg, sports editor emeritus at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and member of the Hall of Fame's board of directors. "But the Hall of Fame voting is kind of cast in stone. It has to be restricted. Only 8 or 10 people on a staff of 30 here at this newspaper are qualified to vote."

A St. Louis sportswriter obviously has an advantage over one in Latin America--he or she can actually go to games and see the great plays. But no Latin American city has the slightest hope of getting a major league franchise anytime soon. The region hasn't had a city capable of supporting a franchise since the '50s, when Havana was home to minor league baseball's most lucrative property--the Cuban Sugar Kings. Nevertheless, expansion teams may soon be started up in Washington, D.C., Denver, Tampa-St. Petersburg, and Phoenix, in part because of the game's abundance of Latino talent, which is only now beginning to be acknowledged.

Much more could be done to recognize the role Latins have played in the game. For example, the induction to the Hall of Fame of Adolfo Luque and Miguel Angel ("Mike" to gringos) Gonzalez--long-forgotten Cuban pioneers in the majors and pillars of the Cuban league--would represent much more than a gesture honoring Cuba's contribution to the game. Baseball's commemoration of Luque and Gonzalez would be a bold stroke in hemispheric affairs, and one of the few things that Cubans in Havana and Miami alike would heartily cheer.

The Hall of Fame currently honors only four Latino players. Buck Canel, major league ball's broadcasting voice to Latin America from the 1930s to the 1960s, is also remembered. The baseball writers' first choice was Pittsburgh Pirate outfielder Roberto Clemente, who reached the majors in 1955 when Latins, with their broken English, were largely ignored in the sports press except to serve as topics for ridicule. As Clemente blossomed into stardom, reporters had no choice but to interview him. The Puerto Rican native's eloquent combat with the sporting press led a generation of Latino players to feel respected.

He ended the 1972 season with exactly 3,000 hits, only the eleventh player in history to do so. That New Year's Eve, the 38-year-old man died in a plane crash while bound for Nicaragua to help distribute relief supplies to earthquake victims. The writers waived the rule that limits eligibility to players who have been out of baseball for five years--as had only been done for Lou Gehrig--and elected Clemente by acclamation.

The second Latino Hall of Famer was also a posthumous choice made under extraordinary circumstances. In his 1966 induction speech at Cooperstown, Ted Williams had noted the absence of Negro League players. This observation--made by one of the game's most legendary players, a man who knew life would have been harder had he grown up with his Mexican mother's last name--was the catalyst that led baseball to form a Negro League Committee. In 1977, the group nominated Martin DiHigo, who had died six years earlier in his native Cuba. DiHigo was remembered as the most versatile of the Negro League stars, having pitched as well as he swung a bat or turned a double play.

The first living Latin inductee was Juan Marichal, one of his generation's dominant pitchers (243 games won and 142 lost) and now Latin American scouting chief for the world champion Oakland A's. The Dominican press hailed this recognition by U.S. sportswriters as one of the greatest sporting events in the island nation's history. The "Dominican Dandy" gave a speech on that summer day in 1983 that was short and humble, with the second half delivered entirely in Spanish. "That was fine with me," recalls Happy Chandler, who sat behind Marichal on the podium, having been inducted into the Hall minutes earlier. "I didn't understand what he said in English either."

Marichal feels his bilingual message was not well-received but that it had to be heard. "There were a lot of Dominicans there," says Marichal. "Besides, the triumph of getting in the Hall of Fame wasn't just for me, it was for all the people of the Dominican Republic."

Venezuelan Luis Aparicio, perhaps baseball's greatest shortstop, was elected in 1984. The announcement of his selection brought a winter league game in Caracas to a halt. The crowd roared, stood up cheering, and spontaneously sang the Venezuelan national anthem. Miracles do indeed happen in el beisbol--the most venerable cultural bond between the Americas.

Robert Heuer is a freelance journalist living in Chicago. His articles appear in a variety of publications, including Crane's Chicago Business and The Reader. Mr. Heuer has followed the history of Latin baseball and ballplayers for many years, both in the U.S. and throughout the Caribbean and Mexico.


Every major league baseball used in the last 20 years has been handstitched by a Haitian factory worker. The Rawlings Sporting Goods Company, the game's official supplier of balls, is looking for an economical way to mechanize this highly labor-intensive aspect of the manufacturing process. However, until someone invents a baseball sewing machine, the St. Louis, Missouri-based firm depends on its cheap Caribbean labor force.

In Rawlings' Port-au-Prince factory, a computerized winding machine applies several layers of wool and cotton onto the ball's rubberized cork center, known as the pill. A machine removes excess tailings and applies a cement film. Then a time-consuming process begins as skilled hands place the cowhide cover over the pill and use 88 inches of waxed thread to stitch it all together.

"The best baseball sewers in the world can sew five balls in an hour, or about three dozen balls in an eight-hour work day," says Rawlings' public relations director Scott Smith. Having tried his hand at sewing a ball or two, Smith says the motion itself isn't very hard. "But to get those 108 stitches in there perfectly--round and with the laces even--is an art form. Many major league pitchers are always looking for a flawed stitch, because at that level they can use it to their advantage and make the ball really move."

Few people realize, Smith says, that the center of attention in this billion-dollar business is made by hand. Of course, this anachronism of the Space Age isn't exactly advertised. Rawlings' six-page promotional release, called "The Evolution of Baseballs," cites three places in the U.S. where the baseballs' elements are made, but doesn't say that all the components are then shipped abroad for assembly.

Baseball's stitchers are mainly women, but their wages--as well as information about their working conditions--are not for publication. "I can say that the Haitian government sets the minimum wage and that our jobs are highly sought-after," says Smith, the only company man authorized to speak on baseball's foreign origins.

Rawlings decided some years ago that it's not such a hot idea to put all its balls in one basket. Responding to political instability and the threat of natural disaster in Haiti, the company recently built a second assembly plant in Turrialba, Costa Rica. Today, Rawlings employs almost 1,000 people in Haiti, and 600 to 700 people in Costa Rica.

The needle-workers sew over five million baseballs a year. Many are sold to collectors and the minor leagues, but nearly 600,000 balls are stockpiled for use the following year by the major leagues. This season will be the first in which major league pitchers get the opportunity to size up balls stamped "Made in Costa Rica." Will the Central American balls have a different spin to them than their Haitian predecessors? Check your nearest ballpark for the answer.
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Title Annotation:includes article Made in Haiti
Author:Heuer, Robert
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1990
Previous Article:Building on a strong foundation: the inter-American system 1889-1989.
Next Article:Chile's distinguished immigrant takes root.

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