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February 10, 2012

The BP Broadside

The Latino

by Steven Goldman

Harry “Cookie” Lavagetto played second and third base for the Pirates and Dodgers in the 1930s and 40s and remains known for delivering one of the great moments in World Series history, the pinch-hit double that broke up Bill Bevens’ no-hitter with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 1947 World Series. Ironically, it was his last hit in the majors—not even Ted Williams got a police escort off the field after his last hit. After being cut by the Dodgers, Lavagetto played for some excellent Pacific Coast League teams with his hometown Oakland Oaks, including the 1948 league champions, then went on to a long career as a coach and manager.

Lavagetto was the last manager of the original Washington Senators and the first manager of the Minnesota Twins.  It was in the latter capacity that he gave the 1961 interview, titled “The Challenge from Latin-America” in Baseball Digest. Author Dick Gordon wrote:

While there were only 45 Latins (or seven percent of the of the total) on major league rosters this spring, the number is steadily increasing. And the fact that there are an estimated 500 of them in organized ball already indicates the threat of a Castro etc. “invasion” not by soldiers armed with rifles but by athletes with rifle arms.

Note the characterization of the influx of Latin-American “invasion” and the negative connotation thereof. The ethnic mix of the game matters, or at least it did to the author and the Italian-American Lavagetto:

I’m just trying to save the national game… How will you ever fill the stands for the World Series if you have nine Yankees from Venezuela playing nine Giants from Puerto Rico? And don’t forget, it could come to that.

Lavagetto died in 1990, so he didn’t live to see just how important Latinos came to be to the game’s talent structure—note he doesn’t mention Dominicans—or the slow influx of players from Japan and Korea, nor did he see Albert Pujols get a 10-year, $240 million contract this winter from Arte Moreno, the game’s only owner of Hispanic descent. On Opening Day 2010, 28.3 percent of rosters were comprised of Latin-born players. Of 750 players on major league teams that day, 212 were Latinos. Of these, 86 hailed from the Dominican Republic.

Lavagetto was, insofar as we know, not a racist. He was simply working under the assumption that an American audience would not be interested in a game not dominated by Americans. Whether those Americans should have been white or black is not addressed in the article, and while Twins owner Calvin Griffith said he moved the team out of Washington “when we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don't go to ballgames, but they'll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it'll scare you to death. We came here because you've got good, hardworking white people here,” we shouldn’t assume that Lavagetto had the same inclinations. In the quoted article, he also points out that the club benefited from its own Latino players in 1960—there were about a half-dozen Cuban-born players with the team, and one Dominican pitcher got a cup of coffee (no word as to how grateful Lavagetto was to the Czech-born Elmer Valo or native Italian Rene Bertoia). There seem to have been all of two African American players on the club: starting catcher Earl Battey and center fielder Lenny Green.

Lavagetto was seemingly also as much concerned with the way that the decline of the minor leagues and other structural impediments were affecting the ability of American boys to play baseball, something that is often, for other reasons, such as the lack of accessibility to the game in inner cities and a dearth of scholarships, a concern today. However, it’s the concern about the racial balance of the game that remains arresting today, as does the article’s characterization of it as “the Latins’ latent threat.”

Of course, you can always count on a good controversy to legitimize a limited viewpoint. In March of 2010, Angels outfielder Torii Hunter referred to Latino players as “imposters.”  Out of context, the remark sounds terrible. In context, one can see that he was attempting to distinguish between Latin-born and African American players, however awkwardly. He later tried to clarify: “What I meant was they're not black players; they're Latin American players. There is a difference culturally.” Naturally, Ozzie Guillen had a pointed response: “I keep saying a lot of times, in 10 more years American people are going to need a visa to play this game because we're going to take over.” This must have gone over swimmingly in open-minded places like Arizona.

The question is, why did this matter, should it have mattered, and is it a concern that has been overcome by the influx of Latinos into the game? The "why" is obviously that early 1960s America was a different place, one that struggled with racial concerns as the struggle for Civil Rights was reaching its crescendo. Had the Latino wave crested then, it might very well have mattered in some regions of the country and led to a backlash against baseball. Fortunately, things have changed, and we are a more diverse and, in many places, tolerant society.

An aspect of contemporary culture that Lavagetto could not have anticipated was that America would become more Latino/Hispanic overall in the years since the 1960s. According to the 2010 census, the United States now contains 50.5 million people of Hispanic or Latino origin—16 percent of the whole. “More than half the growth in the total population of the United States between 2000 and 2010 was due to the increase in the Hispanic population.” From 2000 to 2010, the Hispanic/Latino population grew by 43 percent, compared to less than five percent for all other groups put together.

If the game has become more Latino, it is because we are more Latino as a whole. In addition, as Bill James pointed out, the game’s ethnic mix tends to reflect the underclass at any given moment. In the games early days, that often meant that ballplayers were first-generation descendants of Irish, German, Italian, and even Jewish immigrants. Today, as people have become more mobile due to the transportation revolution, our underclass isn’t necessarily domestic but can reside beyond our borders.

As Mariners bullpen coach Jaime Navarro said last year, “The one thing people don't understand is that we’re not bad people…There are a lot of good people out there and we don’t want anything we don’t have to work for… We’re all humans, and we’re not trying to take anything,” he says. “It’s a great country. We work hard, and we pay taxes like everybody else. We just want a better life.” Felix Hernandez added, “People don’t have a lot of money, so they want to play baseball. It’s a career that can be good.” The game’s makeup reflects as much those who need to play baseball as those who want to play.

Even if Navarro’s assertions are not always accepted politically or culturally by white Americans, it is clear that, to a large extent, they are accepted by baseball fans. Just under a third of major-league ballplayers and nearly half of all minor leaguers are Latino. Yet, even in the worst economy this side of 1932, attendance continues to rise. Fans seem just as happy to see Pujols, Jose Bautista, Miguel Cabrera, and the rest as they are to see any other players, even if they’re not buying their jerseys—only Pujols and Alex Rodriguez rank among the top 10 selling MLB player jerseys (all others are white, though it shouldn’t be overlooked that the biracial Derek Jeter ranked first). White players still comprise over 60 percent of major leaguers, so it’s hard to argue that this group is underrepresented—the only group that would seem to qualify for that status is African Americans, who have gone from occupying about one fifth of major league roster spots to under 10 percent. Overall, African Americans represent about 13 percent of the population.

Americans, it would seem, are more tolerant of a diverse game than Lavagetto could have anticipated.  Fourteen years after Jackie Robinson, the majors were still largely white, and the Latino presence was just beginning to emerge. From 1960 to 1961, there were just two Venezuelans, seven players from the Dominican Republic , 11 Puerto Ricans, and 23 Cuban-born players—and the latter group was about to be largely removed from the picture by the ongoing hostilities between the two countries. Today, it’s no longer Tom, Dick, and the occasional Zoilo, but Tom, Dick, and bring on Yoenis Cespedes!

It has often been remarked that baseball is a microcosm of our larger society. At times, it has dragged behind; at others it has led the way. The integration of the Brooklyn Dodgers came seven years before the Supreme Court ruled racial segregation violated the Constitution. The game then fell into line with the country as a whole—even though Brown vs. Board of Education is rightly regarded as a landmark ruling, the Court didn’t do a great deal to enforce it, and subsequent rulings, including in the case called Brown II, served to water down the results of the original. Similarly, after the Dodgers and a few other teams broke the color line, Baseball issued no mandate, leaving desegregation up to the individual clubs. This meant that teams like the Phillies, Tigers, Yankees, and Red Sox perpetuated Baseball’s greatest injustice for as long as they could continue to get away with it, both competitively and politically. Essentially, the Red Sox and Yankees were the Mississippi and Alabama of baseball, and that was apparently okay.

Comparatively, the rising Latino presence in the game has come almost painlessly, perhaps in part because American prejudices against them are less deeply rooted, perhaps because of the positive example of such early greats as Minnie Minoso and Roberto Clemente. Instead of panicking about how “boxholders from Westchester” would react to a non-apartheid game, as George Weiss, GM of the Yankees, infamously did during the breaking of the color line, they have simply embraced this source of talent and proceeded to introduce it to the majors without hesitation—and nothing has happened.

In this, perhaps baseball can be a harbinger of things to come in America. After all, unless trends change dramatically, the Latino/Hispanic population in this country will continue to rise compared to other ethnic groups despite the actions on the part of some states to limit the immigration component of the swell. In addition, whereas the Latino/Hispanic population was once concentrated in a limited number of enclaves, it is now more widely distributed throughout the country and will soon make up the majority population in states like Texas—and it doesn’t matter, or it doesn’t have to. As has always been the case, education and assimilation go hand in hand, and as long as we continue to fund our schools at the same munificent level we always have, the great melting pot will continue to ensure that regardless of origin, all of us are Americans.

But let us not digress into a sarcasm unworthy of the topic. The topic of maintaining traditional American values in the face of changing demographics is beyond the scope of this column and web site. However, here again, baseball can lead the way. It is a meritocracy, and a player who excels can make millions of dollars and, more importantly, millions of fans, regardless of his place of birth. If you can knock ‘em out of the park or pick ‘em with the glove, no one cares. Cookie Lavagetto was wrong to worry. If we can export this lesson from the game to the nation at large, we could perhaps relax about this one issue and get on to worrying about more important matters.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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