The history of Black baseball can’t be written without the inclusion of Latin America. Since the onset of professional baseball, the two have been intertwined. This was true not just in terms of how they formed their own leagues and blazed their own trails through history but in how Afro-Latinos came to America and found themselves facing segregation right alongside their Black American counterparts. The two also found themselves intertwined in the freedom that Black ballplayers found to ply their trade in Latin American countries.
A quick jaunt to the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database (if you are in any way a fan of baseball history and statistics this site should be included among the true must use resources of the baseball statistics world) shows how intertwined Black baseball and Latin America were throughout the history of the Negro Leagues. It was a river that flowed both ways, for every Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige taking their talents to Mexico or Puerto Rico there was a Cristóbal Torriente or Juan Vargas finding their way to American ballfields. For the purposes of this article, our main concern is the river of talent that flowed from America into Latin America and why that may be the case.
The Black ballplayers who found themselves playing in Latin America are a who’s who of the baseball world. The aforementioned Gibson and Paige played in Latin America and were joined by Cool Papa Bell, Grant Johnson, Oscar Charleston, Willie Wells, Hilton Smith, Nip Winters, Dick Lundy, Joe Williams, and on and on and on. Some played only for a season or two, while others, like Ray Dandridge, spent years in the Latin American baseball scene. In terms of talent, there’s no questioning that the best and brightest of the Negro Leagues went to play baseball in Latin America.
When it comes to why they went things get a mite more complicated. Some did only go in the winter and operated in that way just like modern-day baseball players who use the Latin American Winter Leagues as a way to supplement both their playing time with and income from their summer league team in America. There were plenty who took this route and spent many years making good money playing their summers for a Negro Leagues club and their winters in Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, etc.
For some players, they left for more money. Whether it was Jorge Pasquel and the rich Liga Mexicana de Béisbol contracts he offered in the 1940s or Rafael Trujillo and his desire to have the Dominican Republic recognized as a baseball powerhouse in the late 1930s, money was the key factor. Negro Leagues players left their home teams because they were offered more money by leagues, teams, organizations, and dictators in Latin America. It made sense for them to make the jump then and it still makes sense today. They were athletes in the prime of their careers and they deserved to be paid top dollar no matter where they could get those dollars from.
That’s not to say that there weren’t repercussions for the players who jumped ship. Some, like Paige, were still under contract when they would decide to leave their Negro Leagues team in the middle of a season to go play somewhere in Latin America. Many found themselves banned from the Negro Leagues as a result, officially and unofficially. These player defections hurt the Negro Leagues greatly and they had to fight back in some fashion. Of course, at the end of the day, Negro Leagues team owners needed to make money, and if the players could help them do that the bans would be lifted as soon as they expressed a desire to return to the states. However, for some the ban and the good money they were being paid abroad simply gave them more of a reason to stay in their Latin American country for even longer.
Outside of money, the main reason voiced by most Negro Leaguers for embracing the jump to Latin America was inclusion. In the various Latin American leagues, they did not have to worry about segregation or racism at the same level they did in America. That’s not to say that they did not face any racism, Afro-Latinos were subject to plenty of racism, but it wasn’t of the same overt and loud variety as that found in the states. They could play on the same team with white and Latino ballplayers, then after the game, they could get a drink or eat a meal together. Words cannot adequately express the relief they must have felt at being able to eat a simple meal with a teammate without having to worry if their skin color would stop them from being allowed to eat at the restaurant they were visiting.
For years ballplayers from the Negro Leagues prospered and thrived in Latin America. They enjoyed freedom from racism and segregation to go along with the better salaries. They also enhanced their style of play by adopting and adapting their approach to the game to match that of their Latin American teammates until they returned to the Negro Leagues and eventually transformed that collection of leagues’ play into the riskier and looser style of play that became synonymous with Black baseball. The Negro Leagues and Latin America could not have existed as they did without the other. Without Latin America and the role, it played in the Negro Leagues the Negro Leagues as we know them would not exist. What a different baseball world that would be.