Dominicans in the Dugout: Latin America’s Role in American Baseball

Tuesday, January 10, 2017 - 08:00

When one thinks of sports in Latin America, soccer normally comes to mind, with fans going crazy. But another sport dominates in certain countries: baseball. In the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Cuba, among others, baseball is extremely popular. So popular, in fact, that many beisbolistas from these countries have come to play in U.S. Major League Baseball. There is a lot of history behind this modern trend.

It starts back in the mid-1800s, when “baseball” had become very popular in the United States. There is debate over whether it is purely American or a derivative of British ball games. The sport first made it to Latin America when two well-to-do Cuban boys studying at Springhill College in Alabama brought back a bat and baseball in the early 1860s. By 1868, they had founded the Habana Base Ball Club and made the sport very popular. But when the Ten Years War broke out in 1868, the ruling Spaniards outlawed baseball, as it was seen as rebellious to traditional spectator sports like bullfighting. During the war, many Cubans fled to the Dominican Republic, and so ignited the people’s love of baseball there. Similar stories describe the spread of baseball to Venezuela and Mexico through international students bringing back the game, and exposure brought to these countries through U.S. presence during much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Martinez, 2006).

From there, the game developed quickly, being played by Dominicans of all classes. By 1921, the Caribbean country had four teams competing in a professional baseball league. At this time, baseball was still segregated in the United States, and Negro Leagues were very competitive and widespread in the U.S. Interestingly, during the off-season, many of the African-American players would travel to the Dominican Republic and Cuba to compete and stay in shape.

After taking control of the Dominican Republic in 1930 by means of a coup, Rafael Trujillo took a keen interest in utilizing this professional league as a strong nationalist and political tool.  He even invited Pittsburgh ball players from the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords  (two respected teams in the Negro League). But, through mismanaged changes, Trujillo crippled the league economically, forcing it to fold (MLB History, 2016). Still, Dominican amateur leagues were flourishing. They would find more opportunities to compete soon after 1947, when African-American Jackie Robinson broke the unspoken color barrier in American baseball, and spurred on the signing of black players to Major League teams. By the early 1950s, with baseball now integrated in the United States, Dominican players like Osvaldo Virgil seized the opportunity to play pelota (ball) with the Americanos.

Since then, there has been a growing share of Dominicans competing in Major League Baseball. As of 2016, 83 of the 800+ players in the MLB are Dominican, or roughly 10 percent. And if other Latin American players are included from countries mentioned, the share rises to 24.1 percent. The success of these players can be seen in their share of the league, and also their consistent presence on All-Star teams (MLB History, 2016).

Not surprisingly, the ability of many young Dominicans has attracted the sights of MLB recruiters, looking for the best players. Recently, the process of recruiting Dominicans has intensified so much, that teams are setting up on the island to find and train players. As of now, every MLB team has an official recruiting and training camp, known as an “academy” in the Dominican Republic, primarily in the towns of Boca Chica, Guerra, San Pedro de Marcoris, and El Toro, on the Central South coast. These stations are relatively new, gradually being established in the 1990s and 2000s (MLB, 2016).

For the Pittsburgh Pirates, the trend is no different. This past season, eight of the twenty-five players on roster were Dominican, or 32 percent of the team. Including the two Venezuelans pushes the share to 40 percent. The team has its academy in El Toro and was established in 2009.

It must be mentioned however, that the presence of the MLB in the DR has not been without controversy. Unfortunately, 4 out of 10 Dominicans live in poverty, and many young boys quit school at 13 to practice their ball skills in hopes of being selected by a recruiter. The reality is that many of them are not selected, (98 percent according to sports marketer Charles Farrell) and so at 19 are dropouts with little education and no job prospects (Lagesse, 2016). As a result, some academies have incorporated education programs teaching English and financial skills in addition to practicing in order to better prepare participants.

The world of baseball is expanding rapidly, and much of that expansion is because of Latin America. So, when visiting countries like the Dominican Republic, be sure to bring a glove and not a soccer ball.


References

Martinez, I. (2006). Latin Baseball: A Frontier Story. Retrieved November 08, 2016, from http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2006/Martinezbaseball.html

MLB History. (2016, January 20). History of baseball in the Dominican Republic. Retrieved November 08, 2016, from http://mlb.mlb.com/dr/history.jsp

MLB. Academies. (2016, January 20). Retrieved November 8, 2016, from http://mlb.mlb.com/dr/academies.jsp

Lagesse, D. (2016, April 6). Baseball Is A Field Of Dreams — And Dashed Hopes — For Dominicans. Retrieved November 8, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/04/03/472699693/baseball-i...

 

About Author(s)

Daniel Snyder
Daniel Snyder is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh working as a Panoramas intern. He is studying Economics and Spanish, as well as earning a minor in Portuguese and a certificate in Latin American studies. During the summer of 2016 he conducted research in Fortaleza, Brazil through the CLAS Field Trip and also studied abroad in Lima, Peru.