First Latino Big-Leaguer, or Much Ado About Nothing!

EstebanbellanBaseball fans dearly love the “trivial” side of the international pastime, especially when that trivia involves “firsts” (or what Stephen Jay Gould once astutely discussed as the diamond sport’s preoccupation with myth-shrouded “immaculate conceptions”). This is an especially hot topic, seemingly, when the issue of “firsts” involves ethnic pioneers. For years we have been debating the issue of who might have been the first legitimate “Latino big-leaguer” and despite rather wide agreement among scholars that Cuba’s Esteban Bellan (pictured to the right) holds the place of primacy (having appeared in 1871 in the-then-big-league National Association) the issue hardly seems dead. In a just-released issue of the SABR Latino Baseball Committee newsletter (La Prensa del Beisbol Latino, Vol. 4:1, Summer 2007) a new claim is staked for Colombia’s Luis “Jud” Castro as the true pioneering Latin American native to first reach the pinnacle of the sport in the U.S. major leagues.

This recent SABR article by Leonte Landino (www.eljuegoperfecto.com), while entertaining (and admittedly informative on at least a few issues surrounding “Jud” Castro), unfortunately raises more questions that it ever presumes to answer. It also seems to muddy the waters with a number of unsubstantiated or even inaccurate claims, as well as avoiding an needed attempt to clearly define the working assumptions behind our efforts to label “Latino” ballplayers (as opposed to American ballplayers of Hispanic heritage, such as Alex Rodriguez). There is indeed a significant difference (or at least I think there should be, when boasting about an athlete’s ethnic heritage, or a Latin nation’s claims to producing talent for U.S. professional baseball) between a ballplayer like Ozzie Virgil (who was born in the Dominican Republic but left at an early age and learned all his baseball skills on the North American mainland) and Felipe Alou (who came to organized baseball directly from his native island nation, having learned his baseball in the dusty sugar cane fields). Virgil is widely credited as being the first Dominican big leaguer (1956 with the NY Giants) but he was signed off the streets of New York City; it was Alou (SF Giants, 1958) who was in truth the first ballplayer sent straight to the big time directly from Dominican shores.

There are, of course, a number of ways to define “national origins” or “ethnic heritage” and I have thus taken the absolute “high road” in several of my own recrent books and opted to define an athlete’s national of origin strictly by the land of his birth. For me Ozzie Virgil IS indeed a Dominican ballplayer (though I always try to qualify the difference between his case and that of Alou) whereas A-Rod is NOT a Dominican ballplayer. A-Rod is a New Yorker, by both birthrite (my criterion of choice) and cultural background. If one is to claim A-Rod on the list of Dominican ballplayers, then why don’t we list Joe DiMaggio as a ballplayer from Italy (where his parents were born) or Lou Gehrig as Germany’s earliest big league superstar? DiMag and A-Rod are both Americans, no matter what their ancestoral history might have been. Bobby Thomsen was Scotch (he was indeed born there) but Lou Gehrig is not German.

But there are those out there writing about Latino baseball heritage who choose–in their enthusiasm to claim Latino roots for as many big leaguers as possible–to take the obvious “low road” and classify ballplayers by the birthplaces of their parents or even their grandparents. Thus Cesar Lopez on his oherwise excellent Cuban Baseball webpage (www.cubanball.com) currently tracks the daily big league performances of such “Cuban” ballplayers as Bronson Arroyo, Ryan Freel, Raul Ibanez, Jorge Posada, and Mike Lowell, among numerous others, even though most of these athletes have never even set foot on the island of Cuba (a few don’t speak much Spanish); Posada and Lowell are especially interesting cases since both were born to Cuban-exile parents in Puerto Rico. So why does Cuba (or Cuban enthusiasts) get to claim either instead of Puerto Rico. The same “error” (from my point of view) is also made by authors Martino, Fernandez, and Valero in their recent tome entitled Jonron: Crecimiento y Logros del Pelotero Latinoamericano y Caribeno en el Beisbol de Las Grandes Ligas. These authors (ironically Puerto Ricans themselves) also assign Posada and Lowell to the Cuban camp rather than to the Borinquen nation of their birth; furthermore they also claim Al Cabrera (2 games with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1913) as one of the earliest “Cuban” pioneers, although Cabrera was unquestionnably born in the Spanish Canary Islands.

But back to Leonte Landino’s recent article and the case of Jud Castro. The case for Castro as the first Latino big leaguer, as Landino emphasizes, has long hung on two not easily resolved issues. First is the question of whether or not Esteban Bellan (having played in the 19th century and in the National Assoication) should be considered as a true big leaguer. Landino states incorrectly that Bellan was “hired and brought from Cuba by the Troy Haymakers of the American Association in 1871” (it was of course the NA here and not the AA); Bellan actually had come to the US earlier to attend college and play baseball at Fordham University, and he was thus recruited from the Fordham campus and not from the streets of Havana. But that is not the crucial issue here. Landino asserts that Bellan doesn’t count simply because “MLB history does not recognize the NA stats or players as part of their system.” But what kind of revisionist history is this? The standard encyclopedias such as the Big Mac and Total Baseball have always listed the NA players and thus also Bellan. And the NA was certainly considered the “big leagues” of North America at the time when Bellan strapped on his spikes and glove. So simply discounting the nineteenth century does not seem to make much sense. But let’s leave that debate aside for the moment.

Armando_marsans The second issue surrounding Jud Castro has always been the question of his own birth site. If he was born either in Colombia or Panama (as many have speculated) then his 42 games with Connie Mack’s 1902 Philadelphia A’s would stake his claim as the first Latino major leaguer of the 20th century (assuming we scuttle 19th century big league history for whatever reasons). If, on the other hand, Castro was born in New York City (as some have speculated) than the claim is suspect (unless we are a “low roader” like Cesar Lopez or Edwin Fernandez and assign a ballplayer’s national origin according to his father’s birthplace and not his own). Landino now appears to have resolved this issue once and for all, having reportedly turned up evidence (thanks to researcher Nick Martinez of Las Vegas) that young Castro is in fact listed on the passangership register of a vessel arriving in NYC on October 16, 1885 from Colon, Panama, then a part of the Republic of Colombia. The youngster was reported on that list as the son of one Nestor Castro and also as being 8 years old at the time. Case closed; Jud Castro was born in Colombia and came to NYC when he was but eight years old. But now we still have several problems that may yet loom larger than Landino admits here. First off, we still have no hard evidence of birthplace, such as a birth certificate (how do we know, for example, that Castro wasn’t born in NYC, sailed with his father to Colombia, and then sailed back?). And indeed if Castro arrived in the US when he was but 8, then he clearly must have developed as a ballplayer on the streets of NYC. That is, his case is more akin to that of Ozzie Virgil than that of Felipe Alou. Jud Castro was not a Colombia ballplayer, he was an American ballplayer born in Colombia. Fine distinction, perhaps, but enough to still leave the claims for Cubans Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans (pictured here) sitting on fairly strong grounds. It was indeed the pair of Cubans, Marsans and Almeida, when they debuted for Cincinnati in 1911, who were the first true Latino imports brought to the US specifically to play ball. First “Latin American” imports to the major leagues during the 20th Century? I would still have to vote for Marsans and Almeida myself; they were in every sense “Cuban ballplayers” imported by the majors and thus unarguably the first of their kind.

But there is still one more intriguing issue buried in Landino’s article. It is the following truly revolutionary claim: “if he (Castro) was born in New York, then we will have to place our directions (sic) to Chick Pedroes, who played two games for the Chicago Orphans in August 1902, and was born, according to the official baseball records in Havana, Cuba.” Now if this claim about Charles Pedroes is true than it is indeed a bigger breakthrough than any recent discoveries about Jud Castro’s murky origins. Never before have I seen Pedroes claimed as a Cuban; all encyclopedia entries that I have ever seen list Pedroes as having been born (and died) in Chicago). The very name Charles “Chick” Pedroes does not raise much hope for a Cuban birthright. No Cuban historians have ever claimed him as their own, nor has he ever appeared in any “Latinos” big league list that I have ever seen (including the log provided by Martino and Fernandez in Jonron). Now I may have missed something here, and I certainly stand more than willing to be convinced. But where is the evidence for the surprise announcement that Chick Pedroes was a native Cuban? The biggest mystery raised by the Landino article now seems to have nothing at all to do with his announced subject, Jud Castro, but rather with another newly resurrected “mystery man” named Chick “El Cubano” Pedroes.

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One comment

  1. nickinvegas@netscape.net

    I enjoyed reading your article. The National Asociation was not then, nor would it now count as Major League Baseball. The stats don’t count for many reasons including: lack of inforcement of rules of the game, influence of gambling and uniformity of teams. You can no more count the NA, than you could a game at your local city park.

    Louis Castro was 100% Latino and he played for a Major League baseball team before any other Latino. I am perplexed by the debate…

    Regards,

    Nick Martinez

    Nick.Martinez@servi-tek.net

    louiscastro.com

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