Puerto Rico’s Greatest Hall of Famer?: Is It Roberto Clemente or Perhaps One-Time Cuban Tany Perez?

Who should be labeled Puerto Rico’s greatest hall-of-famer? The legendary Roberto Clemente who many argue owned the strongest outfield throwing arm in the sport’s long annals? “Baby Bull” Orlando Cepeda who overshadowed even “Say Hey” Willie Mays as the darling of San Francisco Giants fans in the late fifties? Perhaps even newly elected Robbie Alomar who won eight Gold Gloves, played in ten straight All-Star Games, and reached six post-seasons during his first dozen big league campaigns? Or was it in fact the perpetually misnamed “Tony” Pérez – emotional anchor of the mid-seventies Big Red Machine who knocked home 90-plus runs for ten uninterrupted seasons? (Why misnamed? Because the moniker should actually be “Tany” – a shortened form of the given name Antanasio.)

Roberto Clemente has been long considered Puerto Rico's top icon.

But wait just a minute here, wasn’t Tany Pérez a Cuban and not a Puerto Rican – a native of Camagüey Province who fled his native island (at age 17) after inking a contract at a Cincinnati Reds tryout camp within mere months of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution? Apparently not, at least not if one is to be guided by a recent press release circulated by the public relations arm of the sport’s official “Corporate Valhalla” located in upstate New York.

The somewhat disarming bulletin in question, released on November 28 by the National Baseball Museum corporate headquarters, presumes to promote the professional game’s extensive Latino roots. But as so often has been the case down through the decades, the announcement seems to reveal more ignorance that sensitivity to that noteworthy Hispanic heritage. The notable occasion at hand is a rare upcoming December visit to the Borinquen Island of four Cooperstown plaques – only the third time that Cooperstown plaques have traveled outside of the continental United States. (Roberto Clemente’s plaque first visited his native San Juan in 2000 and Juan Marichal’s was temporarily shipped off to the Dominican Republic in 2008.) The text of the Cooperstown press release is found on-line at http://baseballhall.org/news/press-releases/hall-fame-plaques-puerto-rico%27s-baseball-heroes-travel-commonwealth-dec-16-19. It is sufficient here only to quote from the opening paragraphs.

The Hall of Fame plaques of Puerto Rico’s baseball royalty – Roberto Alomar, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente, and Tony Pérez – will leave their home in Cooperstown to travel to Puerto Rico, from December 16-19, as the Hall of Fame pays homage to the homeland of four of its beloved heroes … “The contributions of Puerto Ricans to the game of baseball are seen all around the world, but no more so than at the home of baseball in Cooperstown, “ said Rafi Serrano, Executive Director of the Museo del Deporte de Puerto Rico. “For generations Puerto Rican influence has touched the Hall of Fame. Now a part of the Hall of Fame is coming to Puerto Rico. We are thrilled to honor these native sons who have left an indelible mark on the game.”(The boldface emphasis here is this author’s.)

Now granted it is true enough that Tony Pérez’s early departure from his childhood home meant that the “Big Dog” (unlike the current generation of “defectors” including José Ariel Contreras, Kendry Morales, Aroldis Chapman and others) did not actually hone his ball-playing skills in his native Cuba. Tany might even be labeled a Cubanrican, given that he settled in a U.S. possession culturally closer to his actual birthplace than was Miami (home to most Cuban refugees fleeing social revolution in their homeland after 1960). Indeed Tany ultimately became a local hero on the Puerto Rican winter league scene, and he did eventually launch a successful tourist agency in San Juan. In short, he opted for Puerto Rico as his adoptive adult home. But does this make him a true Borinquen “native son” (the press release wording, not mine)? Does it alter his true ethnic heritage? Should there not have been some mention by the Cooperstown spokesperson that while Tany Pérez may hold some significant identification with the birthplace of Alomar, Cepeda and Clemente, nonetheless he should also be properly celebrated by native Cubans as their own legitimate inaugural Hall of Famer actually to graduate from the North American big leagues. (Negro leaguer Martin Dihigo was of course the first Cooperstown enshrinement from Cuba.)

Of course we already have sufficient evidence that official guardians of the MLB enterprise foster a truly selective view of the past. The Hall itself was initially erected back in the late 1930s on the foundations of a quaint myth celebrating Abner Doubleday and the sport’s inspiring yet entirely false “immaculate conception” near the shores of Lake Otsego in 1839. Across its initial decade baseball’s anointed Valhalla (like the professional league that sponsored it) denied the very existence of those men of color who were also skillfully playing the “national pastime” from sea to shinning sea. And in more recent decades Jackie Robinson has been repeatedly sanctified (and even commercially exploited) as MLB’s lone racial pioneer (when the truth is that a handful of Afro-Latinos crossed the MLB Racial Divide well before the late forties or any belated Afro-American MLB presence). Of late the MLB Empire has gone to great lengths to boast its Latino heritage while at the same time dismantling the winter Caribbean leagues that once sustained the game in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. In brief, with baseball as with all activities soaked in patriotism, “history” almost always serves the crass commercial interests of some entrepreneurial class or other.

But let’s not stray too far here from the event at hand. Perhaps it’s all an innocent mistake, and what difference does it make anyway? They’re both “island nations” of the Caribbean; the flags largely look the same. And one can hardly blame Puerto Ricans for their recent outpouring of patriotic enthusiasm on the heels of their own third Cooperstown enshrinement (Robbie Alomar). As one native Puerto Rican colleague emailed me last week concerning the subtle relabeling of Pérez as a Borinquen Hall-of-Famer rather than a Cuban Hall-of-Famer, “as the smallest island of the Greater Antilles, we’ll take them (Cooperstown plaques) anyway we can get them.”

How did Cuban-born Tany Perez become a "native son" of Puerto Rico?

And a little inferiority complex is not entirely misplaced – especially when it comes to rivalry with the Cubans. While Cuba still boasts a thriving winter season circuit (say what you will about its “socialist structure”), Puerto Rico’s own professional circuit has been in shambles for more than a decade (currently operating with but four clubs and no representative in the capital city). Puerto Rico rarely fares well in the arena of international tournament play while the Cubans have reigned as IBAF world champions for much of the past half-century. And this business of staking claim to another island’s native sons is hardly a one-way affair. One popular Cuban baseball website (the Miami-based http://www.Cubanball.com) has long made a practice of labeling as “Cuban players” those big leaguers who parents or grandparents were Cuban-born but who trace their own roots to Puerto Rico, New York, and Miami. (An illustrative case here is that of Puerto Rican-born Jorge Posada – a showcase name in http://www.Cubanball.com listings of Cuban ballplayers. Posada is no more technically a Cuban than Tany Pérez is a Puerto Rican.)

I have long labored on my own campaign to straighten out this issue of legitimate ballplayer nationality. My own policy began with my initial inventory of Latin American big leaguers (a nation-by-nation listing) in my 1994 book Baseball with a Latin Beat; it is based largely on the country of birth (with a handful of allowances made for cultural identification and/or language usage). I have consistently listed José Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro as Cuban big leaguers, even though both departed their original homeland as infants and learned all their ball-playing skills on the U.S. mainland. There are numerous cases of ballplayers with Hispanic heritage but North American birthright – e.g., John Candelaria, Keith Hernandez, Bobby Bonilla and even Ted Williams – who I would label Americans and not Latinos. For me “Latino” ballplayers are those born in Caribbean or Central and South American nations. It is an arbitrary distinction but one that makes more sense than the alternatives. (For example, most would label Joe DiMaggio or Yogi Berra as Italian-American ballplayers, but not as Italian ballplayers.)

But the cases are often not very clean cut and one often has to fudge a bit. Dickie Thon (Puerto Rico) and Moises Alou (Dominican Republic) both suffered the accident of U.S. birth because of their fathers’ temporary employment (Felipe Alou was playing for the Braves based in Atlanta and Thon’s father was a student at Notre Dame University in Indiana); both grew up, however, as Spanish speakers with stronger identifications to their fathers’ homelands than to the country of their own birth. And then there are the difficult cases of Rod Carew (born in the Panama Canal Zone but raised in New York) and Ozzie Virgil (born in the Dominican and also raised in Gotham). Carew is universally celebrated has Panama’s greatest big leaguer and Virgil is always credited as the first Dominican to reach the majors (though Felipe Alou was in fact the first true Dominican MLB import, since he developed his baseball skills in his homeland while Virgil learned the game on the streets of Queens). Apply the logic that Cooperstown now seems to be applying to Tany Pérez and both the Dominican Republic and Panama would be suddenly stripped of their celebrated original big league pioneers.

Obviously I have trouble with recasting Tany Pérez as Puerto Rican rather than Cuban merely because he lived his adult life in San Juan. Tony (Pedro) Oliva left Cuba at nearly the same time and age as Pérez and settled in Minnesota. But no one has yet labeled Oliva as a “native son” of the United States. Much the same could be said about numerous other Cuban big leaguers who escaped the revolution in the late fifties and early sixties and settled in North America – among the number would be Orlando Peña, Octavio “Cookie” Rojas, Raúl Sánchez, Luis Tiant Jr. and Miguel Cuéllar. If Cuéllar and Tiant are still referred to as Cuban big leaguers, then why make Tany Pérez a Puerto Rican? Nor does Ossie Guillen have his baseball heritage attached to the USA rather than Venezuela, simply because he has long resided mostly in North America and some time back elected to become an official citizen of his adoptive country rather than his native one.

It has always been a rough road to Cooperstown for Cuban ballplayers. Dolf Luque was the first Latino to impact the majors back in the teens, twenties and thirties and his achievements were indeed impressive and then some: nearly 200 career victories, a franchise-record (still standing) 27 wins for Cincinnati in 1923, the first World Series appearance (1914) and also first World Series victory (1933) by a Latin American pitcher, and much more. But the reigning stereotype of a hot-tempered and language-butchering Latino killed any chance for serious Cooperstown consideration. Martin Dihigo (Cuba’s first inductee back in 1977) was praised by many of his own generation as the best all-around ballplayer ever to walk the planet; but the very racism that kept Dihigo from ever performing in the white man’s big leagues also meant that his eventual Cooperstown presence would remain somewhat “shadowy” at best. Luis Tiant Jr. owns big league stats that compare favorably with any other Latino hurler (Juan Marichal and Dennis Martínez both included); but “El Tiante” (the big league Latino strikeout king) has somehow never managed to sufficiently impress Cooperstown voters and for reasons difficult to fathom. Orestes Miñoso was the heart and soul of the fifties-era Go-Go Chisox (only a fragment of his four-plus decade career) yet remains on the outside looking in while Chisox teammate Nellie Fox boasts a Cooperstown plaque touting a far less impressive statistical record.

At long last and at the dawn of a new century (2000) Tany Pérez finally broke through the seemingly impenetrable sugarcane ceiling as Cuba’s big league immortal, although one might reasonably argue that contemporary Tony (true name Pedro) Oliva was an equally legitimate candidate for that inaugural honor (Oliva being the first big leaguer ever to claim batting titles in both of his inaugural two seasons). The past half-century has seen a limited Cuban presence in the majors, of course, due mainly to a celebrated political estrangement between Castro and the United States. While a handful of recent “defectors” (José Contreras, brothers Liván and Orlando Hernández, Kendry Morales, and Yunieski Betancourt, to name only the most accomplished and most celebrated) have enjoyed major league successes, one can only speculate about what might have been the North American professional league impacts of Cuba’s greatest stars of the past four decades – Omar Linares, Orestes Kindelán, Braudilio Vinent, Germán Mesa, Lázaro Valle, Victor Mesa, Pedro Luis Lazo, or the current crop including Freddie Cepeda, Alfredo Despaigne and Yulieski Gourriel.

Recent induction of Negro leaguers José de la Caridad Méndez and Cristóbal Torriente only seems to cloud the issue of Cuban residents in Cooperstown. I have already written extensively elsewhere about the Cooperstown credentials of both Méndez and Torriente and I will not repeat all those arguments here. (Readers wishing a fuller version of my case against Méndez and Torriente can find a more elaborate version on-line at http://sabr.org/content/mysteries-and-misconceptions-surrounding-conrado-marrero.) Suffice it to say here I am not at all certain that either actually merits Cooperstown status. Both were swept in as part of a mass induction of former blackballers by a special Negro Leagues Committee back in 2006, and the reputations of both rest far more on romanticized myth, embellished word-of-mouth reports (usually from John McGraw), and outsized legend than they do on substantial documented facts or the time-tested measures of actual recorded statistical achievement.

Méndez is famed for several eye-popping performances against barnstorming big leaguers visiting Cuba at the turn of the last century. Yet serious questions have to surround the quality of play in the Cuban winter league of that era, the less-than-seriousness efforts on the part of vacationing big leaguers who faced those more highly motivated Cuban black stars, and especially the shortness of Méndez’s own injury plagued career (which barely meets the ten-year standard for normal enshrinement of big leaguers). Torriente’s sketchy legend is built mainly on an often -reported (and much exaggerated) single exhibition in Havana (1920) where he out-slugged Babe Ruth; but that rather silly exhibition (in which most of the New York Giants battled huge hangovers and Torriente’s three homers were struck off a first baseman and not a true big league hurler) has now been exposed by scholars as nothing more than a sham contest involving drunken and unmotivated North American professionals. Most of the rest of Cristóbal Torriente’s Negro circuit performances outside of Havana have evaporated in the dustbin of history. Great pioneering ballplayers, undoubtedly. Legitimate Cooperstown Hall-of-Famers – the jury is out on that one.

Is Jose Mendez a true Cooperstown Hall-of-Famer? Evidence seems thin.

But back now to the current case of Tany Pérez. Is this “native son issue” actually “very much ado about nothing?” After all, history – baseball history as much as political history – is indeed something of a fanciful tale scripted by the winners. This is just another way of claiming that the national pastime – the one celebrated in Cuba as much as the one celebrated in North America – is never very far removed from politics. Nonetheless there is a serious implication here for baseball fans residing in both Havana and San Juan.  Make Tany Pérez into a Puerto Rican and the result is that Cuba still has no Cooperstown Hall of Famers who actually played in the majors – only Blackball legends Dihigo, Méndez and Torriente – shadowy legends that many would contend merely snuck in through the back door. Could this in the end be a matter of politics? Does Cooperstown maintain its own Cuban embargo of sorts? Or – perhaps worse – could it simply be that the folks writing the press releases up in Cooperstown don’t actually know the finer points of baseball history? Could it be that some staffer in Cooperstown didn’t realize that Roberto Alomar and Tany Pérez were actually born in different Caribbean island nations?

I would like to suspect the first scenario – the one having to do with politics and remnants of Cold War ideology. But I rather fear the latter one – the one having to do with mere shoddy history and record keeping. I have to conclude that someone in charge of Cooperstown publicity actually didn’t know the true national identity of Tany Pérez.

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