Early players hit home run for racial equality

Russell Contreras

As this season comes to its end, baseball celebrates its 50th year of desegregation. In 1947, African-American Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. As we look at our past, it motivates us. It excites us and upsets us. It depresses us while giving hope that old forms of oppression can be overcome.

The metaphor of black/white race relations reminds us of how far black and white race relations have come and shows us how far they have to go. Though these reflections are important, they do not totally describe the state of the country.

Baseball, like other elements of America, has never been just black and white. Many Latino players overcame barriers based on old (and still-existing) views of race. Starting with the first Latino baseball player, Colombian outfielder Luis Castro, Latinos dealt with Jim Crow and discrimination in the North and South. When they struck out or made an error, they were spat at, called "Spics" and told to go back "where they were from," even if their families went back several generations.

Two Cuban baseball players, Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans, were "allowed" to play for the Cincinnati Reds in 1911. Many were concerned about their ethnicity, but writer Roger Hernandez pointed out that the local paper assured fans that these Cubans were "the two of the purest bars of Castillian soap ever to wash upon our shores." Because they were "white," they were allowed to play, opening the door for others to follow.

Then came Roberto Estalella of the Washington Senators. Estalella was not white in the sense of Castillian whiteness. He was a "mulatto," a black man, an Afro-Cuban.

When Estalella came to the team in 1935, fans were, again, concerned about his race. The team assured everyone that he was not "black," but Cuban. For some reason, this was acceptable to fans and Estalella went on to have a 14-year career.

Following Estalella, Puerto Ricans, Afro-Cubans, Dominicans and, yes, mulatto Mexicans joined American baseball teams. Due to Americans' confusion, despite the fact that these players were both Latino and black, and in fact many were non-citizens of the United States, they were treated better than domestic blacks in baseball ... until Robinson took the field.

Today, blacks, whites and a diverse group of Latinos (20 percent of all players) take the field in the major leagues . When we watch the World Series today, we can see these African-Latinos in action as they not only play the game, but become heroes of it.

Look at Florida Marlin pitcher Livan Hernandez, Cleveland Indian catcher Sandy Alomar, Jr. or Indian shortstop Tony Fernandez. They are replicas of those who slipped through America's confusion, who, as Roger Hernandez wrote, broke the color barrier when America itself never knew it.

These contemporary Afro-Latino baseball players make a group of Americans proud, a group with many members who might not have the best jobs, might not have the education to take part in that upward mobility and who might still be confused about how to identify themselves.

A home run here, a strikeout there, and Afro-Latinos across the country forget their problems and give each other high fives, just as they did before Robinson came in, when America was still confused about who the players actually were.

Contreras is a graduate history student.

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