Manny Mota is known to most baseball fans as one of the best pinch-hitters of all time, but he might be better described as one of the game’s finest ambassadors and gentlemen. A coach for the Dodgers since 1980, the 71-year-old Mota came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1957 and went on to play for the Giants, Pirates, Expos, and Dodgers for 20 big-league seasons, retiring with a .304 lifetime average and 150 pinch hits. He encountered prejudice along the way, having emigrated to a country that didn’t see racism totally disappear with the breaking of baseball’s color barrier a decade earlier.
David Laurila: What do you remember about coming to the United States to begin your professional career?
Manny Mota: I was 19 years old and coming to a different country, a different culture, a different language, a different system. I had to adjust to everything and try to learn as much as I could.
DL: How many Latin players were on the team in your first season?
MM: On the team, there were only three of us [Mota, Matty Alou, and Hernan Valdes] in Michigan City, Indiana, but in spring training we had a lot of Spanish-speaking guys—guys who were ahead of us and could help us with the language. There were guys like Felipe Alou, Rudy Hernandez, Ossie Virgil, and Jose Pagan, who had signed before we did. They gave us a lot of advice, which we really appreciated, because it was very beneficial for us. They tried to get us prepared for what to face in the United States.
When you’re coming from Latin America… we didn’t have segregation. Everybody is a human being. It doesn’t matter—your race or the color of your skin—but we were coming to another country and that was kind of different for us. We had to adjust to that system, but that was not stopping us from getting to our goal. Our goal was to get to the big leagues. We knew that it wasn’t going to be easy; we knew that we were going to have to go through a lot of difficult situations during those days of segregation, but I didn’t let that bother me.
I felt bad for the people… the African Americans in this country—I feel the way they feel. In Latin America, you’re coming from a different type of life, where everybody is the same and everybody is being treated with respect and dignity, and it doesn’t matter if you’re black, gray, blue, whatever. We treated everybody the same, like a human being.
DL: It sounds like the older players helped educate you about the new culture?
MM: It was how we needed to act, and also to respect the laws of this country. You have to respect the law and go with this system; you have to go along and try to learn, and try to improve as much as you can, and adjust to the different culture of this country. You also had to learn the language, which I think was the most difficult. Baseball is a universal language, but to communicate with people to get something to eat, or get someplace, or buy some clothes… but my teammates really helped me with the language and communication-wise.
There was also the manager [Richard Klaus]. And one person that I really owe a lot to is Joe Sparks. He’s a scout now [for Oakland]. He was my teammate. He played third base and he really helped me to learn English. Another person was Dave Garcia, who is still alive and lives in San Diego. At that time, Davy was a minor-league manager and he really gave us guidance. But the main guy, in giving us advice about orientation to this country was Felipe Alou. We are really thankful to Felipe Alou, for the advice he gave us at that time. He prepared us to know what to expect in this country and how to conduct ourselves in this country.
DL: Did you feel isolated in Michigan City, Indiana as a young Latin player?
MM: Not really, because we focused and concentrated on playing baseball. That was the reason we were there, and we tried to play, tried to improve, and tried to take our game to another level, a higher level. But we went through some difficult situations. We didn’t know the language, and those situations—those people should be embarrassed. I feel that those people, at that time, were ignorant to be racists. But I didn’t let that bother me. When I got to this country, my goal was to get to the big leagues and I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy. I knew that I would have to go through a lot, but I wasn’t going to let it stop me from fulfilling my goal.
DL: Did you encounter much racism?
MM: Oh yeah, because I played… but I tried to ignore it, even if I felt it in my heart. I saw how they would treat other people, but I tried to ignore the situations and tried to focus on playing the game. I didn’t pay too much attention to stuff like that, because I needed to play in the South. My second year, I played in Danville, Virginia [in 1958]; I played left field and people used to call me everything in the book. That is why Felipe Alou prepared us to face those types of situations. It was a part of life. Even in the big leagues, I went through a lot of stuff and saw a lot of stuff, segregation-wise, but I didn’t let it bother me. A lot of it was away from the ballpark; there were ignorant people.
DL: Coming up through the minor leagues, did the Latin players forge a bond with the black players, given that you were both experiencing racism?
MM: Well, we always got along, but I don’t call them black people. I call them African-American, because I’m not white. And even if we speak different languages, we respect each other and we like each other. We treat everybody with that great dignity and pride.
DL: When were you first scouted?
MM: I was on the Air Force team in 1956. That is when somebody must have scouted me—I don’t know—but finally a scout approached me and told me that they were interested in signing me. I was given $400, which at that time was a lot of money, and I am glad that I was given an opportunity to sign, because I am still here.
DL: When you made it to the big leagues, you joined a team that included the likes of Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, and Juan Marichal. What was that like?
MM: Oh, that was great for me. They were an example for us, and they were an inspiration and a motivation for us. They were really inspirational for us, and particularly for me. Cepeda, [Felipe] Alou, Ossie Virgil, and also Willie Mays and [Willie] McCovey. They were good to me and to the Latin players in general. They treated us with a lot of respect and gave us a lot of good orientation and good advice.
DL: How do view the career you had in the big leagues?
MM: I’m very grateful. I’m very grateful to the Lord for giving me the ability and the opportunity to play in the big leagues, and to play for so long. But, I am also very grateful to this country. This country opened the door for me and gave me the opportunity to play baseball. They made possible my career, and my job, and for that I am grateful. I am very grateful to the United States of America for that great opportunity.
DL: You’re known as one of the greatest pinch-hitters of all time. Do you ever wish you would have had more chances to play on an everyday basis?
MM: No, I am very pleased, and very happy and very grateful for what I accomplished. I am grateful for the opportunity that I received, and I took advantage and did the best I possibly could, so I am simply grateful for what I gave to a game that has given me so much.
DL: There are now Latin-American managers in the big leagues. Is that something you could have foreseen when you came to the United States?
MM: Well, that was something where, in 1957, you just don’t know what is going to happen in another 50 years. But I am just glad to see not only the Latin-American players get an opportunity to be managers in the major leagues, but also to see the African-Americans being given the opportunities to be front office people and even managing at the major-league level.
DL: What are your thoughts on the Negro Leagues?
MM: I never got to see any games played in the Negro League, but I’ve been told that they used to have a lot of great players with the ability, and the talent, to play in the major leagues and do well. But I never got the opportunity to see them, so I cannot say too much about it. The only thing that I know is that I’ve been told that there were some great, great players coming from the Negro Leagues.
Jackie Robinson, of course, was the first African-American to play in the major leagues and that really opened the door for all of us, both African-Americans and Latin-Americans. I had the privilege, and the honor, to thank Jackie Robinson in person. That was the only time I met Jackie Robinson, when they retired his number. I went to Mr. Robinson and told Mr. Robinson how pleased and grateful and proud I was of him. I knew what he had gone through to open the door for us, and how much courage he had to have to go through that door for us. I was very proud to meet Mr. Robinson and very pleased about what he accomplished for the game and for Latin-Americans and African-Americans.
DL: What advice do you give young Latin-American players who are new to life in the United States?
MM: Play hard, listen to the coaches, try to learn as much as you can, and behave themselves—respect the law and conduct yourself with pride and dignity. Be proud of your race and your language, and where you’re coming from. Remember that you represent not only yourself, but all Latin-Americans, and their families, and their countries. Be proud of being Latin-American, respect everybody, and treat everybody with respect and dignity. Treat them like a human being, just like you want to be treated.