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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

21 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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SJLedet
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Steven, I've been a subcriber here for several years and love the site. With regard to the article, I want to see the best players in MLB no matter what their race or where they come from. However, I'm not interested in your opinion of the open-mindedness of Arizona or the efforts of states to deal with illegal immigration. From what I can gather, MLB requires their players to meet the legal requirements necessary for them to be allowed to play in the US and Canada. Consequently, I don't see where illegal immigration comes into play or how it helps or hinders Latino integration in MLB. I come here for baseball not politics. Thanks.

Feb 10, 2012 08:16 AM
rating: -4
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

It's not politics at all. If you read the discussions of the census numbers I quote, which I spent much of last night doing, they all talk about those numbers in the context of immigration, both legal and illegal, since it is a major component driving the rise in the Hispanic/Latino population. It is theorized that this dramatic rise may stabilize somewhat due to these efforts. Thus it is entirely relevant to the baseball issue at hand. As for my one gentle reference to Arizona's efforts, (A) that was hardly a political digression, and (B) given Arizona's current stance on all things Hispanic, I think it's entirely fair to ask how Guillen's comments might have been received there.

Feb 10, 2012 08:29 AM
 
Schlom

Yeah, it's too bad Arizona isn't more like Maine, New York, Montana or the other northern border states. They are next to a foreign country and I never hear about people living there having a problem with immigrants.

Feb 10, 2012 12:13 PM
rating: -1
 
kcshankd

"I don't see where illegal immigration comes into play or how it helps or hinders Latino integration in MLB."

Right. And Lavagetto was simply trying to preserve the game he knew. The quotes by Navarro and Hernandez should help inform you of the answer to your own question.

Feb 10, 2012 09:24 AM
rating: 0
 
Shaun P.
(676)

Politics, says dictionary.com, means:
1. the science or conduct of government
2. political affairs, methods, or principles

Its not politics, but policy, and I'm pretty sure all the ballplayers who spoke out against what Arizona did and tried to do would have taken issue with trying to draw a line between sports, and policy that directly affects sports. To say nothing of directly affecting the participants in the sport. Kinda hard to not at least mention it, IMHO.

Feb 10, 2012 19:30 PM
rating: 1
 
kcboomer

No, I disagree about Arizona. They have a major problem with illegal immigration and to toss it off with a backhanded reference to their attitude is very simplistic view from 2500 miles away. I don't have problem understanding why these people are coming here. They want to make a living to support their families and they are willing to work hard to do it. But today is not the social structure of long ago when someone who wanted to come here had to earn everything they got. Today's governments (that's us) are being required to provide free medical care, educations, etc., to too many people. It is a real tough nut to solve, but too many people seem to think that once someone crosses our borders we owe that a life style commensurate with a citizen of this country.

Latinos in the game have done nothing but improve the game because they got into it on merit. Remove them and you lower the overall quality of play. Yes, we have had problems with Latinos lying about their age, but the oppressing poverty that a great many of these players grow up in makes these acts understandable. Generally speaking they simply trying to make a living.

Feb 10, 2012 09:24 AM
rating: -3
 
kcshankd

"free medical care, educations"

This is simply false. Someone working here under a bogus SSN pays taxes into a system they won't benefit from. Those working for cash pay sales tax on stuff they buy, and property taxes through their rent. The idea that they don't pay taxes is silly. Illegal immigrants also don't qualify for food stamps or earned income credit, ways our federal government helps ameliorate poverty for citizens.

Feb 10, 2012 09:30 AM
rating: 5
 
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

Again, I don't want to turn this discussion to politics, and it wasn't my intention to do so. However, I cannot resist taking issue with "once someone crosses our borders we owe [them] a lifestyle commensurate with a citizen of this country." I'm not even sure what that lifestyle is anymore given the thinning of the middle class over the last few decades, and I have been fortunate enough in my life that I have had no encounters to date with the social safety net. However, my understanding of it is hardly that it gives its beneficiaries a life of luxury, or even of comfort. The other day I saw a reference to one in six Americans living below the poverty line having experienced "low food security" ie starvation. That's hardly generous.

Feb 10, 2012 09:32 AM
 
eighteen

And yet, obesity is an indicator of poverty in this country.

http://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/60/11/2667.full

Feb 10, 2012 15:51 PM
rating: 0
 
eighteen
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I really like your stuff, Goldman, but you have a lot of nerve calling other people intolerant and in the next breath branding as racist everyone who lives in Arizona.

Next time you feel like getting on your tolerance high horse, take a long look in the mirror first.

Feb 10, 2012 15:41 PM
rating: -9
 
Lastblues

How is that intolerant? The voting majority in Arizona elected officials who they knew would implement some policies reminiscent of Berlin 1930 towards those that they reasonably suspect are here illegally. One can logically deduce from this that at least the voting majority in Arizona wouldnt like Guillien's comments.
All you people commenting on this all because Steve made one crack at Arizona either lighten up or toughen up. If you love state sponsored oppression then stand up and be proud, but don't act all hurt when someone disagrees.

Feb 10, 2012 16:44 PM
rating: 3
 
apollo
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Ah, it's different when liberals do it. They can moralize about others' moralizing and it is not moralizing.
(see other recent article by the author).

Then there is the obligatory hysterical Nazi comparison to further poison the water between 2 sides of a question. The race card, the nazi card, the refuge of a scoundrel?

This question like all political questions is about money, power and property. A nation has to have the ability to control its own borders and define its citizenship otherwise it is an easy target for foreign takeover. If 20 million Iraqi refugees want to come to America for a better life, do we say just come on down? Is it true that portions of Arizona are actually controlled by Mexican gangs? Is that OK?

One last thing. I like Ozzie Guillen and thought what he said about white people needing a visa to play ball was funny-i took it as hyperbole. He is refeshing from usual milquetoast platitudes on XM radio interviews. I like Reggie White saying some of that stuff. Jimmy the Greek - did he really deserve to fired? To the contrary, libs need to lighten up.

Feb 10, 2012 21:36 PM
rating: -6
 
cfinberg

So what you're saying is that you also get to moralize about moralizing about moralizing? Sweet - free rein.

You can ridicule that 'hysterical Nazi comparison' as you see fit, BTW, but it's an 'HISTORICAL Nazi comparison' as well. They sure do sound alike, though, so I guess that's probably why you dismiss it as mere rhetoric. Anyway, detaining people based on appearance really actually occurred in Depression-era Germany, as it does in this country, in and outside of AZ. Should it one day happen to you I doubt if you'll be so blase, seeing as how it's y'know broadly guaranteed in the prologue of our constitution as well as specified in Amendments 1, 4-6, and 14 of the Bill of Rights. Being a good American, you've at least read those, I hope? If you have then you'll already know that this country doesn't define its citizenry according to ethnic origin let alone appearance, the two of which you seem to be conflating for some reason.

This is not to say that the southern borders of this country aren't in dire straits, because they clearly are (though it results in great part from America being a terrific consumer of things which it also deems illicit). But if you believe that the solution to the problem is arresting people because they're a funny color then maybe you should reconsider taking the name of the god-patron of prescience and truth. Like Ozzie suggested, hyperbolic or otherwise, soon your family will be a funny color too.

Feb 11, 2012 02:10 AM
rating: 5
 
evo34
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This article is so irrelevant to baseball. It just strikes me as comment fly paper. Honestly, Goldman, there have to be better ways to spend your baseball-directed time with opening day less than two months away.

Feb 11, 2012 21:19 PM
rating: -5
 
bossfan101

So..."Lavagetto was, infofar as we know, was not a racist." Yet his name is dragged through the mud, just by being associated with this article. Do his views sound ignorant to our 21st Century ears? Sure they do. I hope my grandchildren have a little more tolerance for my ignorance than you do for Cookie, Steven. Is there some great intolerance in the game today for Latinos? Do they make less money? Do the fans boo them? Are they taunted by non-Latino players? I surely don't see it. I'm not trying to argue that racism doesn't exist anymore in baseball, or in society. It most certainly does, and and it is disgusting. Yes, in some ways the Yanks and Sox were the Mississippi and Alabama of baseball...and they paid the price for it.

Feb 12, 2012 03:15 AM
rating: 0
 
Behemoth

It's hardly unfair to quote the man exactly, and then contextualise it by explaining the context in which he was speaking and how that might impact on his views. There is a clear distinction drawn between his views and those of actual racists.

Feb 13, 2012 05:11 AM
rating: 3
 
dodgerken222
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Exactly how many illegal immigrants live in your neighborhood, Mr. Goldman? I guess we can be relieved that only three states (Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama) do not meet the lofty liberal standards you have set. Also, just how would Commisioner Goldman have implemented the mandatory integration of baseball after Jackie Robinson? That would have really helped racial relations in this country. Thanks for bean-counting that 10 percent of MLB is black today, while they are 13 percent of the population. Useful to know that. Send in the quota police.
Last week Mr. Goldman whined about the criticism addicts like Josh Hamilton recive. This week the sport has passed his scrutiny on the Latino issue. What will be your bombshell next week...Sexual Prefernce Discrimination In MLB?" Or maybe "Eddie Gaedel..Height Bigotry Martyr."

Feb 12, 2012 16:10 PM
rating: -7
 
dodgerken222
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Why doesn't Mr. Goldman address the fact that the Miami Marlins seem to prefer Latin personnel? Are they "insofar as we know" racists or not? Does the percentage of white players on their roster reflect the population? Thank God Mr. Goldman isn't bean-counting basketball teams. But of course,as we all know, racism doesn't run in that direction.

Feb 12, 2012 16:51 PM
rating: -6
 
Behemoth

At a glance, 17 out of 41 players on the Marlins roster could likely be of Latino origin. This is significantly less than the 65% of the population of Miami that is, in fact, Hispanic/Latino. But bash on, you don't generally care about the facts anyway.

Feb 13, 2012 05:16 AM
rating: 5
 
onegameref
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Arizona did not pass any law that restricts legal immigrants from any country. AZ simply wanted to enforce immigration laws and standards on the Federal books that are willingly overlooked to the displeasure of AZ. To try to paint AZ as intolerant for wanting the Feds to do what the law states they should seems unfair. Ball fans, IMHO, could care less about where a player hails as long as he helps their team. AZ perceives, not surprisingly, an existential threat from South of the Border and the Feds seem intent on doing nothing about it. It doesn't make AZ intolerant, only willing to stand up for their space. Intolerance is a govt that tells me I can't enjoy a cigar in the privacy of my own home if the smoke finds its way to the nose of a neighbor. Illegal immigration is a problem AZ and my state of CA face and it is real. Legal immigration has its own problems but not nearly as serious. Try to stick to baseball guys.

Feb 13, 2012 00:11 AM
rating: -5
 
evo34

Good riddance, Goldman. The editorial quality of the BP annual went severely downhill under your leadership. The number of articles needlessly mentioning Yankees and/or political views skyrocketed. Subscribership plummeted. Addition by subtraction I suppose.

Apr 11, 2012 00:51 AM
rating: -2
 
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