Black or Latin/o? Complicating Narratives of Race, Ethnicity, and Progress at the NBHOF

By Jorge E. Moraga

Introduction: Your 2016 Baseball Hall of Famers…

On July 27th, retired Major League Baseball (MLB) players George Kenneth “Ken” “Junior” “The Kid” Griffey Jr. and Michael Joseph “Mike” Piazza joined the ranks of baseball’s most elite club. In a near unanimous decision, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) voted in Griffey at 99.3%, setting an all-time record. Piazza too made history; his reaping 83.0% surpassed the required 75.0% votes needed, and in the process, motioned a “pivotal” change writes baseball journalist and expert Jay Jaffe, “regarding the electorate’s collective attitude toward performance-enhancing drugs.” Perhaps good news awaits players who had to maneuver the diamond fields during the ‘high-octane era’ of the ‘90s. Capturing the moment, the National Baseball Hall of Fame (NBHOF) narrates:

Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza during their induction ceremonies July 27th at Cooperstown, NY. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza during their induction ceremonies July 27th at Cooperstown, NY. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“On a raised stage on the grounds of the Clark Sports Center, with 48 returning Hall of Famers behind them and an estimated 50,000 fans in attendance – many sporting the colors of the Mets and Mariners –in front of them in a pastoral setting, the Class of 2016, who bring the total number of Hall of Famers to 312, shared with the crowd and a live television audience on the MLB Network their path to glory, thanked those who were helpful along the way, and in arguably the most poignant moments, were both tearful and sniffling when talking and glancing at their families seated nearby in the audience.”

To be sure, the induction of Griffey – “the first-ever number one overall pick to be enshrined into Cooperstown” – and Piazza – “the lowest draft pick ever to become a Hall of Famer” – made this a noteworthy cohort. While the two could not be more different – 1st pick vs. 66th round pick; black vs. white; and West coast vs. East Coast representin’ – their paths to Cooperstown have much in common. For the purposes of this blog post, however, I wish to ponder around just one shared sentiment expressed during the inductee speeches: the influence of the Latin/o[1] pelotero (ballplayer).

Towards the end of his half hour speech, Mike Piazza began thanking a number of general managers and teammates such as Steve Phillips, Johnny Franco, and Al Leiter. Before expressing his adoration to the New York Mets fans, Piazza disclosed:

“I was also very fortunate to play with some incredible teammates in New York. Edgardo Alfonzo comes to mind. Mi Panna, Edgardo Alfonzo was a great fielder and clutch hitter. Many times I can remember him picking me up when I failed to come through. As a matter of fact, one memorable three-run home run that I hit on July 4th in the 8th inning against the Braves, Edgardo actually had an amazing two-strike hit that tied the game and allowed me to relax and feel more confident at the plate knowing we were tied. A few guys up here know what that means.”

Referring to a 2000 summer game when New York came back being down 8-1 and rallied 10 runs in the bottom 8th to win the game, Piazza’s recognition of “Fonzie” “picking [him] up when [he] failed to come through” was a heartwarming gesture directed at the 11-year Venezuelan veteran.

As the first Seattle Mariner to be inducted into Cooperstown, Griffey too credited those that supported, mentored, and pushed him along a 22-year career. Griffey offered appreciation to a number of teammates including Randy Johnson, Jay Buhner, and father Ken Griffey Sr. Reflecting on the joys of being the only MLB father-son duo to ever play on the same team, Griffey ruminated:

“We hit back to back home runs. We’re the first father and son to win MVPs in All-Star Games. Hitting the warehouse in Baltimore. Winning a Home Run Derby in Pittsburgh in my home state. The ’95 series. Randy Johnson’s no hitter. Jay Buhner hitting for the cycle. And Édgar Martínez winning his first batting title. And, yes, he belongs in the Hall of Fame.”

Like Piazza, Griffey was not shy to share his feelings to another prestigious Latin/o ballplayer. Édgar Martínez, born in the U.S. but raised in Puerto Rico, remains one of the best designated hitters the league has ever seen. His talent exhausted even the best of pitchers, such as Panamian Mariano Rivera. According to 2015 Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, Édgar was “not only patient, but he would foul off pitches that would wipe out anybody else.”

Whereas Piazza recognized the crucial role that “Fonzie” played during a pre-9/11 baseball game, Griffey went as far to suggest fellow Mariner “belongs in the Hall of Fame.” Their collective nods to the Latin/o ballplayer – both on a personal level and to the league – left me wondering: with Latin/os numbering just under 30% of all pro league players – and being major stakeholders in MLB’s Latin American farm systems – exactly how have Latin/o ballplayers impacted the NBHOF? Drawing from a weekend-research trip conducted in April 2016 at Cooperstown, New York, I critically assess below prevailing discourses of race, ethnicity, and national belonging as it pertains to one of baseball’s most important athletes: Afro-Latin/os.[2] While I find that the NBHOF and MLB remain key institutions whereby U.S. Americans can grapple with the functions of racial projects in sport history, I argue the circulation and curating of these sport narratives re-produce, rather than dismantled how we think, talk about, and understand race and ethnicity in the 21st century.

Making Cooperstown: Keeping America’s game “American”

Few institutions today offer a U.S populace the opportunity to critically contend with what has become a faded practice: historical context. The effects of K-12 standardized testing, the neoliberalization of higher education, and the dis-investment in critical ethnic studies backdrops the popularity of neo-conservativism, an agenda that champions fear, racial terror, and nativism, among other disastrous ideologies. Surely, narratives of social progress – as elegantly advanced by baseball’s annual Hall of Fame weekend – serve a particular purpose in today’s sociopolitical landscape. Herein lies the value of studying sport critically, as well as surveying the cultural politics of sport museums. As contested terrain (Hartmann 2000), sporting cultures opens up opportunities to (re)consider and/or (re)produce collective memories. When one considers how the prevailing dominance of neo-liberal logic harms everyday human thought, institutional spaces that allow us to question, challenge, and de-center dominant narratives are as rare as much as they are needed.

Museums, then, remain vital public institutions. Through its collection of artifacts and material culture, a general public is encouraged to engage with historical events that have already informed the present (Macdonald 2011). Like museums, sport hall of fames have a similar function in society: they provide public sanctuary for athletes, sport history, and very much shapes our beliefs in a collective-self, or what the late-Benedict Anderson conceived as imagined communities.

“Sport halls of fame and museums” writes Eldon Snyder, “are secular temples dedicated to the sport muses—gods and goddesses and the spiritual world of sport…[they] selectively preserve and thus create the past that is appropriate for nostalgic feelings” (Snyder 1991, p. 237). Similarly, cultural anthropologist Charles Springwood also engages the “context of nostalgia” as it pertains to the “production and consumption of place, spectacle, and representation” (1996, p. 20/19). In From Dyersville to Cooperstown: A Geography of Baseball Nostalgia Springwood parallels the origin stories, spatial aesthetics, and visitor receptions across Dyersville, Iowa – specifically “Field of Dreams”, the actual place of the 1989 film Field of Dreams– and the NBHOF, located at Cooperstown, New York. In the case of the latter, Springwood documents how The Mills Committee brought forth the “immaculate conception of baseball” (1996, p. 31). Since its very first establishment in 1939, the NBHOF was “a corporate project designed to ‘spatially practice’ a historical baseball narrative” (Springwood 1996, p. 146). Ultimately, the NBHOF “specializes in nostalgia, a personalized, emotional relationship to History, with a capital H” (p. 77).

In an effort to contribute to these critical dialogues housed across sport heritage and public sport history, it’s vital we map out how sites like the NBHOF traverses questions of race, ethnicity, and national belonging, especially as it pertains to the influx of Latin/os – as athletes, fanbase and demographic. For if “historical consciousness and place consciousness are inextricably linked” (Glassberg 1996, p. 18), and recollections of racial relations is also recollecting “relations between places” (Lipsitz 2011, p. 6), than examining the NBHOF engagement with Latin/o player history, identity, and representation, is a advantageous project. Below I turn attention to two NBHOF exhibits that deal with the presence of Latin/o ballplayers.[3]

¡Viva Baseball! and George Salas’s The New Face of Baseball 1950-1958

Roberto Clemente Jr., Orlando Cepeda, and Juan Marichal (left to right) participated in the opening ceremony of ¡Viva Baseball! Source: Latinosports.com

Roberto Clemente Jr., Orlando Cepeda, and Juan Marichal (left to right) participated in the opening ceremony of ¡Viva Baseball! Source: Latinosports.com

In 2009, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum unveiled the permanent exhibit titled ¡Viva Baseball! Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson described the occasion as a “very significant day in the Museum’s history. Over the last 30 years, perhaps nothing has impacted baseball more than the rise of the Latino star and the number of Latino players making important contributions to the game every day.” Noteworthy, ¡Viva Baseball! marks the museum’s first bilingual exhibit; with both Spanish and English text, it details the historical longevity of baseball as it pertains to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela, and Mexico. Alongside John Odell, Hall of Fame lead curator, and the Museum’s Exhibit Department designer Dan Wallis, the exhibit was also spearheaded by a diverse set of baseball experts. Drs. Adrian Burgos Jr. led a phenomenal team made up of Alan Klein, Rob Ruck, Milton Jamail and Tim Wendel.

¡Viva Baseball! debunks two major myths for museum visitors: (1) It credits the origins of Latin America’s love affair with baseball to Cuba, not the U.S; and (2) It reveals the ways Latin/o peloteros maneuvered around Jim Crow America. Source: ¡Viva Baseball! Exhibit at NBHOF (author’s own photo)

¡Viva Baseball! debunks two major myths for museum visitors: (1) It credits the origins of Latin America’s love affair with baseball to Cuba, not the U.S; and (2) It reveals the ways Latin/o peloteros maneuvered around Jim Crow America. Source: ¡Viva Baseball! Exhibit at NBHOF (author’s own photo)

The museum’s first bilingual exhibit[4] builds from the premise that the “Latin love affair with baseball” is as “much Latin as it is American.” It is organized around five interrelated themes: (1) Caribbean origins and histories; (2) institutional discrimination in the U.S.; (3) Latin/o pioneers and early breakthroughs; (4) Caribbean similarities; and (5) the lasting imprint of Latin/o Americans into the 21st century. With nearly 150 artifacts, 3 visitor interactives, 24 oral interviews, and 1 multimedia short-film recited by legendary sportscaster Jaime Jarrín, ¡Viva Baseball! narrates the “passion,” “flair,” and “joy” of the Latin/o American pelotero.[5] As a testament to the growing number of Latin/o baseball fans, players, managers, and scholars invested in sharing these important histories, the exhibit allows visitors to consider this simple truth: beyond “apple pies” baseball is also “as Latin American as arroz con leche.”

As I wrapped up my tour of ¡Viva Baseball! and the second floor, I made my way upstairs. Coincidentally, my research trip converged with The New Face of Baseball 1950-1958, a special exhibit showcasing the works of Cuban photographer Osvaldo Salas. With nearly 50 photographs, visitors become immersed in stills that capture a critical decade within baseball history: the era of integration. The New Face of Baseball is also organized around key themes: (1) The Cuban Decade; (2) The Golden Age of New York City Baseball; (3) The Integration of Baseball; (4) The Pan-American Games; and (5) Revolution in Cuba. Accordingly, Salas’s photographs “celebrate the influx of Latin and African American players into the game after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.” From capturing Latin/o pioneers such as Saturnino Orestes ‘Minnie’ Miñoso – the “Latino Jackie Robinson” of the big leagues – to Ozzie Virgil — the first Dominican major leaguer in 1956; from documenting a moment in history when Cuban ballplayers made up more than half of all “foreign-born Latin Americans” between 1947 and 1961 to capturing “the first all-black outfield in Game One of the 1951 World Series,” Salas’s epic prints suspend traditional narratives of racial integration commonly attributed to individuals like Branch Rickey, and instead focuses on the cross-racial, inter-national composition of a hemisphere’s affection to the diamond fields.

In short, Salas’s The New Face of Baseball, like ¡Viva Baseball!, illustrate what baseball historian Adrian Burgos Jr. describes in Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line as the start of baseball’s “transnational circuit,” or the formal linkages that allowed major U.S cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to maintain an “exchange of players, management expertise, and information” 2007, p. 8). Expectantly, these transnational circuits were anything but equal. Major baseball club franchises like the Washington Senators and the New York Giants employed scouts like Joe Cambria and Álex Pompez, respectively, to recruit and own ‘raw’ Latin/o talent. And while some scouts went above and beyond to provide for their peloteros during the era of integration, their protection could last only so long. Outside the diamond fields remained the layers of a colonial, racist, capitalist social order. The stories of how Latin/o, Afro-Latin/o and African-American ballplayers negotiated, maneuvered, and sought to dismantle American color lines are the ultimate takeaways from both exhibits.

For the sake of brevity, I will leave my descriptions of both exhibits here; however, I strongly invite readers to check out their available online formats here and here, sure to be invaluable teaching material for active-classroom discussions. For my concluding thoughts, I’d like to spend some time making sense of both exhibits, particularly in relation to the knowledges they share, and what they elucidate on matters of racial injustice across spatial borders – both geographic and by way of collective imagination.

The Afro-Latin/o-ing of Cooperstown: Limitations and Possibilities

Banners of The New Face of Baseball exhibit. Depicted are Jackie Robinson (left) who in 1947 broke through the color line and Minnie Miñoso, the first Black Latino to play in the major leagues in 1949. Source: The New Face of Baseball at NBHOF (author’s own photo)

Banners of The New Face of Baseball exhibit. Depicted are Jackie Robinson (left) who in 1947 broke through the color line and Minnie Miñoso, the first Black Latino to play in the major leagues in 1949. Source: The New Face of Baseball at NBHOF (author’s own photo)

Making it to the professional stage of anything – whether its baseball, the Olympics, academia, nursing, politics, or the culinary industry – is an arduous process. Some withstand the pain and others forego the hazing. The number of Latin American, Afro-Latin, and Latino pioneers that have withstood the displacement from their homeland and families, turning the other cheek – so to speak – upon being denied access to a hotel, restaurant, or bar, withstanding hunger in the middle of the night due to limited culturally-appropriate food options, or confronting the dreaded news that your ballot fell short of the required votes set by the BBWAA, represents not only what Jarrín describes as their “passion, flair, and joy”, but also their perseverance, strength, and belief in familia and patria. So why is it that despite the nuanced obstacles and collective struggles that Afro-Latin/os have overcome in the major leagues and U.S society, public memory on racial inequality remains tied to Black-White binaries, Hero Narratives, or what sociologist Andreana Clay has called the “idealized cultural images” of activism (2012, p. 10)?

Consider the banners used to orient visitors of the Salas’s exhibit. One reveals Jackie Robinson, a player whose image and jersey number strikes at the heart of both private and collective nostalgia; the second reveals the league’s very first Black-Latino ballplayer, “Mr. White Sox” himself, Minnie Miñoso. Unlike Robinson, Miñoso took his last breaths of life knowing his biggest dream of going home [to Cooperstown] would remain a dream. Robinson then has become the sole “idealized cultural image” whereby narratives of racial progress have circulated within baseball lore; sadly, this binary way of seeing racial projects in the U.S disqualifies the experiences and struggles of Afro-Latin/os, who “bore a special burden; they had to endure the impact of their color, race, and ethnicity” (Burgos 2009, p. 38).

Members of the Hall of Fame (photo taken April 6, 2016)

Members of the Hall of Fame (photo taken April 6, 2016)

Moreover, by mapping Afro-Latin/os in the Hall of Plaques, we can better gauge the functions of race, ethnicity, and national discourses in the NBHOF into the 21st century. For example, of the 312 inductees, an estimated 14 are of Latin/o descent,[6] meaning they have at least one parent of Latin/o heritage. Of the remaining 12, 11 of these legends self-identify and/or are identified as Afro-Latins, or Black Latinos by U.S standards. Only Luis Aparicio – the legendary Venezuelan shortstop – passes as a light-skinned (white) Latin/o. Regardless, 14/312 is less than 1% of all inductees. Considering Latin/os have been playing the game since the 1860s, this is telling of the racialized-spatialized function of the NBHOF.

And while the NBHOF should be praised for (finally) institutionalizing spaces whereby (counter)-histories can be heard, important questions remain: On class – who has the resources to visit Cooperstown, located in the middle of nowhere; On race and ethnicity – who is the targeted audience, and what are their takeaways; and On nationality – how does a sports museum that was tailored to advance claims of Anglo-American exceptionalism consequently grant itself authority over narratives of its colonial-racial-ethnic-Other? And perhaps most pressing, why now?

Latin/o Baseball Hall of Famers (1966-present)

Latin:o HoFamers

Cultural sport critic Dave Zirin notes that almost always its taken “athletes of a particular ethnicity to actually educate…white America…that these folks are in fact not invisible, and that they are part of this country.” For far too long, major league baseball has championed itself as a racially progressive pastime, when in fact, remnants of its white-colonial-American-exceptionalist projects have just taken new forms. Consider the heated struggles that have taken place within the past two seasons: José Bautista’s bat flip; Carlos Gomez being quoted verbatim by [white] journalist Brian T. Smith; the racist undertones made by a series of managers and/or athletes on the myth that “ethnic” players are inherently more prone to brawls, or the recycling oppression Olympics trope when Black Latinos are argued to simply be “not Black enough”. Each one of these issues belies the point that without understanding the intersections of race, ethnicity, nationality (as well as gender, sexuality, capitalism, etc. etc.) in sports, but society at large, we fall prey to the dominant fable Zirin warns us about: there was once segregation, but because of the 1947 integration, let’s all just start celebrating. Afro-Latino ballplayers, whether they make it to the diamond fields, Cooperstown, and/or out of the academy, remain prominent figures to learn from; however, under what constraints and agendas their histories become circulated onto public memory requires more diligent attention.

Closing Thoughts: Let’s Celebrate…Critically

In a moment when the resurgence of Black Athlete-Activists have challenged the WNBA, the NBA, and the NFL to re-think its position on racial relations and state-sanctioned violence, one wonders: what about baseball? As the American sport that can lay claim to “breaking the color line,” it sure has remained awfully quiet, on #BlackLivesMatter and Latin/o global crises. For example, remember the disastrous 7.0 earthquake that shook Haiti in 2010? Well, despite MLB vastly profiting from its Haitian sweatshop labor practices the century before, the leagues response was to donate an astonishing 1-millionUS dollars. And even more recently, isn’t it odd that Commissioner Rob Manfred has remained silent on the 2015 illegal deportations of Haitian migrants/Dominican-Haitians by way of the Dominican Republic state. Surely, as the overseer of baseball’s “transnational circuit,” Major League Baseball, and by extension its Hall of Fame and voting body, have a “social responsibility” to ensuring its operations contribute to the well being of the countries/territories/peoples they work with, not to their detriment.

Gone are the days when fans, athletes, owners, and commissioners could argue that politics and sport do not mix. As the complex history of racial integration in American sports reminds us, everything that occurs in sporting space is political, because everything about the athletes –their bodies, narratives, identity—is politically, contested terrain. By exploring the embodied subjectivities of Black-Latino peloteros enhances, our public understandings about racial inequality, ethnic stereotypes, and imperialist projects is strengthened. We learn they are not isolated phenomenon, rather already-and-always overlapping. That is, it is not a question of Black, Latin, or Latin/o; but rather, the testament that Black-Latin/os in baseball and society complicate national myths about how race, ethnicity, and culture are “supposed” to work. And therein lies the transformative potential of these two nostalgic exhibits. While NBHOF and MLB have come a long way to represent and recognize its Latino presence, I argue we must be weary of overt-celebration, and instead balance our celebration with a critical historical consciousness. We must be as brave as this world’s Black-Latin/o baseball pioneers, who confronted adversity and isolation, so that we may be in a position to proclaim that all Black-Latin/o Lives Matter, inside the diamond fields, and across international border zones.

Lastly, if we critically listened to the words of the recently minted Hall of Famer Pedro Martínez, who in his 2015 induction speech urged his “amigo” Rob Manfred that “We have a lot of work to do in the Dominican Republic to keep bringing people to the Hall of Fame,” what might this kind of historical context do to our collective consciousness, to our (inter)-national narratives, and to our ability to build coalitions across racial-ethnic-nationalist lines?

Jorge E. Moraga is a PhD candidate in American studies at Washington State University. His research explores questions of identity, media, and capital as it pertains to the Latin/o browning of U.S pro sport. He can be reached at jorge.moraga@wsu.edu

Works-Cited

Burgos Jr., Adrian. Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

—- “Left Out: Afro-Latinos, Black Baseball, and the Revision of Baseball’s Racial History.” Social Text 98 (2009): 37-58.

Clay, Andreana. The Hip-Hop Generation Fights Back: Youth, Activism and Post-Civil Rights Politics. New York: NYU Press, 2012.

Glassberg, David. “Public History and the Study of Memory.” The Public Historian 18, (1996): 7-23.

Hartmann, Douglas. “Rethinking the Relationships Between Sport and Race in American Culture: Golden Ghettos and Contested Terrain.” Sociology of Sport Journal 17, (2000): 229-253.

Jiménez Román, Miriam and Juan Flores. Eds. The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Lipsitz, George. How Racism Takes Place. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.

Macdonald, Sharon. Ed. A Companion to Museum Studies. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010

Snyder, Eldon E. “Sociology of Nostalgia: Sports Halls of Fame and Museums in America.” Sociology of Sport Journal 8, (1991): 228-238.

Springwood, Charles F. Cooperstown to Dyersville: A Geography of Baseball Nostalgia. Boulder: Westview Press, 1996.

 Notes:


[1] Throughout this blog post I employ the term “Latin/os” to note the links between ballplayers who have migrated from Latin America and those born in the U.S.

[2] In their Introduction to The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States, Drs. Miriam Jiménez Román and Juan Flores describe Afro-Latin@s as belonging to two groups. “They are people of African descent in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and by extension those of African descent in the United States whose origins are in Latin American the Caribbean” (2010, p. 1).

[3] As the recipient of the 2015 Diversity in Sport and Physical Activity Grant, I had the great fortune to visit and conduct research at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in early April. On top of thanking the Laboratory for Diversity in Sport housed at Texas A&M, I would also like to thank Cassidy Lent, reference librarian in the Giamatti Research Center at the NBHOF, for their time, assistance, and kindness during my visit.

[4] Consider how the exhibit’s title ¡Viva Baseball! – translation: “Live Baseball” – allow visitors to gain an immediate dose of bilingualism. In fact, on my first visit, I overheard a hetero-couple speak Spang-lish with their child. The kid was reading out loud in English, and the father was capturing the Spanish versions. They were the only Spanish-speaking people I came across during my visit. Interestingly, the exhibit’s title is also the title of Samuel Regalado pioneering baseball study and a brilliant 2005 documentary.

[5] For a more detailed account of the ¡Viva Baseball! Exhibit, see a forthcoming museum review essay slated for publication in the Journal of Sport History.

[6] I have included Ted Williams, Lefty Gomez, and Reggie Jackson in this tally to simply illustrate the spectrum of Latin/o representation at the NBHOF, not to define it. For more on Gómez, see “Lefty Gómez”; For more on Williams and Jackson, see Richard Sandomir 2005 essay, “Who’s A Latino Baseball Legend?”

One thought on “Black or Latin/o? Complicating Narratives of Race, Ethnicity, and Progress at the NBHOF

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s