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Can baseball avoid an error on Latino players?

As more Latino stars become eligible for the Hall of Fame, the keepers of the game will have to think hard about questions of racial prejudice and performance-enhancing drugs.

June 24, 2009|Zev Chafets | Zev Chafets is the author of "Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame."

This summer, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., is marking its 70th anniversary with, among other highlights, "Viva Baseball," its first permanent exhibit on Latin American baseball. At the exhibit's opening, former first baseman Orlando Cepeda spoke for the nine Latinos already inducted into the Hall. "To be here today," he said, "we went through some obstacles."

Cepeda was referring to the racial prejudice and cultural incomprehension that Latinos have encountered since 1871, when Cuban third-baseman Estaban Bellan of the Troy Haymakers became the first Latino major leaguer. For more than seven decades after that, only "white" Latinos were allowed in the majors (and even they often felt uncomfortable) -- until Jackie Robinson integrated the game in 1947. Many took Anglo names or otherwise downplayed their roots. Even Ted Williams, one of the best-known players in baseball history, got through his entire career without publicly mentioning the fact that his mother was a Mexican American.

After integration, dark-skinned Latino stars began playing in the U.S. The first Latino elected to the Hall of Fame, Roberto Clemente, was called "Bob" on his early baseball cards. He bitterly resented the way Anglo sportswriters quoted him in pidgin English and portrayed him as a "typically" temperamental Puerto Rican.

These days, writers no longer make fun of the accents and temperament of Latino players (at least not in print), but there are other, newer stereotypes to contend with. The most damaging is the notion that Latinos are responsible for introducing banned steroids into the pristine sanctuary of major league clubhouses.

This image owes a good deal to the fact that the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball was revealed to the public by the self-proclaimed "Godfather of Steroids," slugger Jose Canseco. It is also true that a disproportionate share of Latino players have been caught juicing. In 2005, according to Newsweek, almost two-thirds of the players who tested positive (and half the minor leaguers) were from Latin America.

"The data raise a troubling possibility that few in baseball would like to address head on," Newsweek concluded. "Are players from Latin America simply too driven to succeed?"

In many Latin American countries, the same steroids that are banned in major league baseball can be bought over the counter like aspirin or toothpaste. It is unlikely that players from those countries can be made to believe that using them is immoral. Is it cheating? Well, baseball cheating is as old as Babe Ruth's corked bat and as winked-at as Gaylord Perry's spitball. Ruth and Perry are in the Hall of Fame, part of a vast roster of immortals who used stimulants, downers and booze to help them perform, heal and get through the stress of major league competition.

A lot of the players on deck for the Hall of Fame fall into this category, and many are Latino. Just the other day, home-run slugger Sammy Sosa was revealed to have tested dirty in a 2003 drug test. Alex Rodriguez has admitted using. Manny Ramirez is under suspension for chemical enhancement. Rafael Palmeiro failed a test in 2005. Shortstop Miguel Tejada was named in the Mitchell Commission report.

In the past, the Hall of Fame has shown a lack of acuity in dealing with Latino baseball. It put the wrong name on Clemente's plaque, for example. And a few years ago, it invited Citgo -- a subsidiary of the Venezuelan national oil company controlled by dictator Hugo Chavez -- to sponsor the exhibit on Latin American baseball. That idea was dropped after Chavez appeared at the U.N., compared President George W. Bush to the devil and described the U.S. as an imperialist aggressor engaged in "domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world." Shortly thereafter, Chavez described major league baseball as being one of the leading yanqui exploiters. The invitation to Chavez, followed by the disinvitation, sent the message that the Hall of Fame couldn't tell one Spanish-speaker from another or simply didn't think it mattered. Eventually, the Hall of Fame's president, Dale Petrosky, lost his job over the fiasco, but board Chairwoman Jane Forbes Clark, the Hall's real decider, is still in place.

Hopefully Clark and her tame board of directors have learned something. The Baseball Hall of Fame is an iconic American institution, and what it does matters, especially on issues of race and ethnicity (and, coming soon, gender and sexual orientation).

The new Latino exhibit, which is not sponsored by a crazed anti-American dictator, is a good start. But the real test will come in the near future, when Latino greats of the 1980s and 1990s become eligible for induction. Latinos are probably the most passionate fans baseball has left, and Latino stars are their heroes. Cooperstown and its appointed electors, the baseball writers, need to think hard about what it would mean to put up new obstacles to their inclusion.

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