A Brief History
On October 3, 1919, Adolfo Luque, born in Cuba in 1890, became the first Latin American major league baseball player to play in a World Series. Dolf, as he was called, pitched for the Cincinnati Reds, had a long major league career, playing from 1914 to 1935. Although “non-white” players were excluded from the major leagues at the time (until 1947), Dolf and other Hispanic players with particularly light skin and especially blue eyes passed the criteria for being “white” and were allowed to play. Luque posted a good major league pitching record of 194 wins against 179 losses and a career ERA of 3. He twice led the majors in ERA and once was the major league leader in games won. With this sort of performance, it is hard to believe (today) that Latino players could have been excluded from the highest levels of professional baseball at any time. Today, players of Spanish background (whether “white” or “black” or of mixed race) make up about 27.4% of major league baseball rosters. Many of the greatest players in baseball history come from an Hispanic background.
(Note: Latino denotes people from Latin America of Iberian heritage, while Hispanic denotes any person of Spanish/Iberian heritage or name, regardless of where they are from.)
Back in 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the “color line” and players of color were allowed to play major league baseball, only less than 1% of major leaguers were African American and less than 1% of major leaguers were of Latino heritage. When we discuss racial/national origin of players, there is some confusion as many players, or for that matter humans of all occupations, come from a mixed race and or mixed national heritage background. Many so called Latino or Hispanic people may be purely of European/Iberian heritage, while others may have a high percentage of African genetic background. It may be confusing to call a person of obviously African heritage “Latino” instead of “Black” or African American, but that is exactly how the demographics are usually described. For the purposes of baseball demographics, African Americans of Hispanic descent or bearing an Hispanic surname are usually considered Latino or Hispanic instead of African American. Confused yet? We are!
While the current (2016 statistics) percentage of major league baseball players of Hispanic origin is listed as 27.4%, many teams have a much stronger Hispanic influence than the league average. The Cleveland Indians boast 15 of their 40 active players (October 2018) bearing an Hispanic surname (including Brazilian/Portuguese) and only 22 of the 40 players on their roster are non-Hispanic White, barely over half the team. Hispanic players make up a huge part of the Indians’ top producing players (Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Edwin Encarnacion). African American percentages in major league baseball have been declining, to only 6.7% of major league players, after reaching over 18% in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Again, players with some sub-Saharan African (ie, Black) heritage are not necessarily listed as African American if they are also of Hispanic heritage. Also cutting into the percentages of White and Black players is an influx of major league baseball players from Asian countries, about 2% of major leaguers over the past 15 years or so. In fact, an astounding 27% of major league baseball players (beginning of the 2018 season) were not born in the United States! So much for our “National Pastime.” Obviously, baseball has transcended the borders of the USA and has truly become an international sport. Mixed race players such as Roy Campanella, Derek Jeter, Grady Sizemore, and David Justice are usually categorized as African American, but why? Could they not just as easily be categorized as White? The fact that most people have a diverse background makes such “racial” categorizing a bit suspect in the first place, and problematic at best.
It is hard to imagine major league baseball without Latino/Hispanic players. Over the past few decades (say, back to 1960 or so), 14 National League batting average champions have been Hispanic. The American League counts an even greater number, 25 Hispanic batting champs! During the same 58 year period, the American League had 19 Hispanic sluggers lead or tie for the lead in home runs 19 times, starting in 1981, meaning that 19 of the 37 years featured an Hispanic home run champ in the AL. The National League had 11 Hispanic home run champs since 1960, and 13 if you count Giancarlo Stanton as Hispanic instead of African American (he is partly Puerto Rican). Of course, Latino pitchers have had an enormous impact on baseball as well, though less represented by Cy Young Awards, with 3 National League Cy Young winners of Hispanic origin since 1981 and the American League can boast 8 Hispanic Cy Young Award winners since 1969. Dominican Republic product Juan Marichal won more games during the 1960’s than any other pitcher and claimed a career ERA of 2.89. In 2018 Bartolo Colon, also from the Dominican Republic, became the winningest Latino pitcher in major league history with 247 wins.
Latino ball players have also provided tremendous thrills with fielding excellence, with examples such as Omar Vizquel, Nomar Garciaparra, Roberto Alomar, Ivan Rodriguez, Keith Hernandez, Aurelio Rodriguez, and others too numerous to count.
As popular as baseball is in Latin America and in Asia, it is only reasonable to believe the record books of major league baseball will continue to be rewritten with Hispanic and Asian names alongside those of White and African American players. Likewise with coaches and managers, and hopefully team executives as well.
Questions for Students (and others): Who are your favorite Hispanic baseball players? Who do you think is the greatest Latino major leaguer of all time? Why is the number of African American players in the major leagues declining?If you liked this article and would like to receive notification of new articles, please feel welcome to subscribe to History and Headlines by liking us on Facebook.
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For more information, please see…
Weeks, Jonathan. Latino Stars in Major League Baseball: From Bobby Abreu to Carlos Zambrano. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017.
Wilson, Nick. Early Latino Ballplayers in the United States: Major, Minor and Negro Leagues, 1901-1949. McFarland, 2013.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of baseball player Dolph Luque in 1911, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. See this page for further explanation.