| The king of sports
Dominicans in the Major Leagues
Table of Dominicans in the Major Leagues
Dominican professional baseball teams
The king of sports
Baseball began in the Dominican Republic at the end of the 19th century. There is no consensus as to the exact date, but we know that in the last decade of the century, small groups practiced the sport.
The first formally established team was Ozama, which was quickly followed by other squads. The popularity of the sport grew quickly, as the people saw it as a way to release the frustrations caused by the political and economic conflicts that left the country in constant instability.
In the early 20s, other countries began to recognize the value of Dominican players. In 1922, the pitcher Baldomero Ureña (Mero) was hired by the Ponce de Puerto Rico team and in 1925, he became the first Dominican ballplayer to be drafted by a U.S. team: Allentown. Other baseball players also began to join foreign leagues, especially in Puerto Rico and Venezuela, and stellar players from Cuba and Puerto Rico arrived to participate in national Dominican championships. The quantity, quality and high cost of imported players (especially from Cuba) in the national series of ’29 gave it the name “the luxury championship”.
Another national series was not held until 1936, after the expenditure of ’29. Its re-implementation came from the hand of Trujillo, who used the sporting event for his ends of manipulation, power and personal glorification. Consequently, he spared no expense in 1937 in bringing the best players from the U.S. Negro players league. The monetary investment was so great that the country would remain without professional baseball for 14 years as it recovered.
In the 50s, upon reestablishing and reinforcing national championships, the first Dominicans debuted in the U.S. major leagues. In 1956, Osvaldo Virgil inaugurated a tradition that continued to grow over time. Along with him, Felipe and Mateo Rojas Alou, Juan Marichal, Julián Javier, Ruddy Hernández and Guayubín Olivo compose the group of national pioneers that helped to open the door for Dominicans in U.S. professional baseball.
Today, more than 385 Dominican players have participated in the major leagues. One of these, Juan Marichal, has entered the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Two others, Felipe Rojas Alou and Tony Peña, have coached teams; many others have received awards and recognition for their excellent performance. It is no accident that the professional ballplayer with the most lucrative contract in the history of the major leagues is the son of Dominicans immigrants to the United States.
The exportation of ballplayers, the importation of foreign players and the triumphs of national teams for the Caribbean Series, in which the DR has the most victories (15) of any country, demonstrate the level and quality of professional baseball that is played in the Dominican Republic.
Baseball in the DR: the king of sports
As in the other Spanish Antilles and the coastal zones of the continental Hispanic countries that share the Caribbean basin, the Dominican Republic has made baseball its sport to such an extent that it has become a part of dominicanidad, as much as its flag of four reds and blues or its merengue.
Juan Marichal, Felipe Rojas Alou, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramírez, David Ortiz and even Alex Rodríguez make up the most prominent symbol of the historical, political and economic evolution of a nation that underwent a long independence process before coming into its own, in some opinions, in 1873, when annexationist forces were finally put down. The sport is inextricably linked to socio-economic and political processes that have affected the lives of the Dominican people since the last decade of the 19th century, developing the recreational activity, which today reflects the vicissitudes, pains and hopes that the DR has experienced.
Perhaps the sport was brought by Cuban immigrants trying to escape the Cuban war for independence, but the more credible story affirms that the first people that played baseball in the country were U.S. businessmen linked to the nascent beer industry in Santo Domingo. The most probable story is that both versions together brought about baseball’s beginning, along with other undocumented events. What happened first is not so important as how its introduction and welcome to the country occurred. In the first place, the new geopolitical sphere that has come to dominate the local and Caribbean scene for more than a century and secondly, a certain desire to leave the Hispanic, colonial heritage behind in the past to look to the future and modernity, represented by the United States of America in the 20th century motivated the acceptance of the sport.
Enthusiasm for baseball
“A real substitute for the excitement of revolutions”
It is known that precisely on June 17, 1898, the Base-Ball Club was founded in Santo Domingo, whose honorary president was the manager of the Cervecería Nacional Dominicana, the national beer producer, William Orr. The club quickly began to expand to other towns. In fact, the three communities of Santiago, San Pedro de Macorís and La Vega argue over the origin of organized baseball in the country. From its beginning, the game became very popular. In the capital, in the period from 1894 to 1910, at least two large spaces were set aside for its practice, the one on the outskirts of the city named “la Sabana del Estado” and the urban field named Plaza Colombina. Later, in the second decade of the 20th century, others appeared: the so-called “Patio de los Baéz” a group of lots located between the streets Padre Billini and Arzobispo Portes; also El Gimnasio Escolar (1911) and Licey Park, in Villa Francisca, opened October 4, 1914.
The first team recorded in existence is Ozama. In order to compete with this team, the Licey team was founded (November 7, 1907), which to this day is the team with the greatest tradition and influence in the history of Dominican baseball. It was the time of the growth of the sugar industry and its foreign capital; the time of the negotiation of payment to the immense international companies that were being pressed by U.S. creditors; the time of the expropriation of national customs offices and the time of high political instability that occurs with governments lacking control. Perhaps as a consequence of such confusion, the public followed the sport more and more, as various other groups emerged throughout the country. Though these groups were generally quite ephemeral, the following teams stand out: In Santo Domingo, Casino, Santo Domingo, Receptoria, Gimnasio Escolar (it barely lasted a year), Nuevo Club (1911) the team of the Escuela de Agricultura, the team of the Escuela Normal (teachers’ college), those of educational establishments, such as Trinitaria and Duarte, San Carlos, Columbia and Patria, Legalista (1914) and Herold (1914); in Santiago, Yaque and el Inoa (1912); Unión de Azua (1910); and Macoris of San Pedro de Macorís (1910).
In a historic national moment, the first national championships were held (1911). In 1912, foreign players were hired for the first time to reinforce local teams (Licey imported Cuban players to the national championship for that year). In 1913, the first international series was held on Dominican soil, with the national team (“Escogido Dominicano”) facing off against the Ponce de Puerto Rico team. An illustrated magazine was even published dedicated exclusively to this baseball event titled La Pelota and edited by Luis Eduardo Betances (1913). Games series and local and national championships had massive attendance and were filled with music and joyful celebrations of the fans for the victory of their team. The sport was also included in the national Olympic games though it had not yet entered the world Olympics (1915). All of these moments demonstrate the effervescence that the game provokes in the Dominican spirit.
It is clear that the politicians of this era were conscious of the popularity of the game. At the opening of Licey Park, the first pitch was thrown by the then president of the Republic, Dr. Ramon Baéz (1914). In 1913, the U.S. vice-consul in the country, Mr. Bohr, acted as referee in a game between Nuevo Club and Licey. In the same year, the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic mentioned to the U.S. Secretary of State, among other points, that the importance of the popularity of baseball in the DR should not be minimized, as it could serve as “a real substitute for the excitement of revolutions”, (Naboth's Vineyard, Sumner Welles, Vol.II, p.722, Savile Books, 1966).
Baseball and the U.S. intervention
From the beginning, Dominicans saw the playing field as a stage for liberation and victory when the battles of daily life seemed to continually be lost. During the U.S. intervention (1916-1924), in addition to the semi-anarchical front that the guerrillas, in the mountains or the more civic resistance formed by intellectuals (based on principle, in order to lend credibility to their protest), baseball became the means by which the population coped, though minimally, with their frustrations toward the foreign invader. The games between Dominican teams and groups composed of U.S. marines or military men were true patriotic displays in defense of Dominican dignity. Strong local teams formed for this purpose, one of which, “El Escogido” (1921) was a product of a triple alliance between the groups Delco Light, Los Muchachos and San Carlos. The press trumpeted each victory won by national teams, which were the majority. After a noted Licey victory over a team of Marines, one journalist said “The U.S.M.C. teams will not win even one baseball challenge here, as they are simply inferior to our players. The physical fitness of our under-fed boys is superior to that of the chubby, ruddy-faced whites.
Long before the intervention, games had been held between local teams and groups from American boats that dropped anchor on the coasts of the country. It was precisely in one of these games, on September 20, 1914, between the Nuevo Club and the sailors of the battleship Washington, that the Dominican pitcher Indio Bravo (Enrique Hernández) threw the first no-hitter in the history of Dominican baseball, striking out 21 players and allowing only one, on an error, to get to first.
The internationalization of Dominican baseball
The worth of Dominican players had to be recognized. In 1922, a national team traveled abroad to play for the first time. Licey, reinforced with players from other teams and carrying the name “Estrellas Dominicanas”, went to play in Puerto Rico. There they won 6 of 11 encounters. Due to their brilliant game, the players began to be drafted by teams from neighboring countries a year later. The first was the Licey pitcher Baldomero Ureña (Mero), who was signed by the Ponce team of Puerto Rico. Various others followed immediately, also hired to play in Puerto Rico: Ninín, Ernesto Sánchez, Mateo de la Rosa, Guagua Vargas, Fellito Guerra and the famous Tetelo Vargas. The latter was 17 years old when he was drafted by the Humacao Starts. It should be added that, in 1925, Baldomero Ureña (Mero) became the first Dominican called to play on a U.S. team, Allentown.
In the following years, the participation of national players in foreign leagues, as well as the participation of foreign players in local leagues, intensified. The national championship of 1929 is specifically remembered as “the luxury championship”, for the large number of imported ballplayers (from Cuba and Puerto Rico) that were paid incredibly high salaries. The participation of Dominicans was minimal. It was said of Escogido, for example, that “it was a Cuban team reinforced by the incredible Tetelo Vargas”. The expense was so burdensome for the country’s economy that until 1936, no national series were held, which caused many of the professional players to go to Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the United States. In the last season of the 20s, the teams Licey, Escogido and Sandino (founded in 1928 in Santiago), which the Santo Domingo press called “the Águilas Cibaeñas”, competed.
Trujillo and baseball
The first period of the Trujillo dictatorship was rocky for professional baseball. The economic hangover from the luxury championship of ’29 and the Cyclone San Zenón that destroyed the country and the baseball stadiums of the capital (the Gimnasio Escolar and the hippodrome La Primavera) affected the performance of the teams. Still, Trujillo immediately took this sporting activity as one of his tools of power, manipulation and personal glorification on a local and international level.
One of his first measures was the formation of the General Trujillo team, which in 1931 began a tour of Latin America. The team visited Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua and Mexico in a journey that was extended due to the fact that a scam left the group without money to return when planned. Two of the players (Ninín and Titico) had to work in Cartagena to pay for the tickets.
All of the national championships held during the course of the dictatorship were titled with some direct reference to Trujillo and his family. In 1936, the year in which the series was reestablished, it was named “Certamen Mayor Trujillo” and the teams competed for the Copa Julia Molina. There were names like “Reelección Presidente Trujillo” in 1931; “Campeonato Era de Trujillo” in 1951; “Pro Elección del General Héctor B. Trujillo Molinas” (1952); “Leonidas Radhamés” (1953); “Campeonato Benefactor” (1954); “Campeonato Padre de la Patria” (1955-1956); “Campeonato Reelección Presidente Trujillo” (1956-57); “Campeonato Leonidas Radhamés” (1957-58); and “Campeonato 24 de Octubre”, as Trujillo was born October 24, 1891, (1959-60).
The Championship of ‘37
The national championship of 1937 was famous for the quantity and quality of foreign players hired and the quantity of money shelled out to pay them. Given that the crown of the season before had stayed with the Estrellas Orientales de San Pedro de Macorís team, Trujillo unified the teams of the capital and created the “Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo” (March 4, 1937), which featured the best foreign players he could get.
The order was to win no matter what. This team and other rivals were reinforced with stellar players from the U.S. Negro leagues and Cubans, among them Statchel Paige, George Scales, Martín Dihigo, Clyde Spearman, David Thomas, Lázaro Salazar, Santos Amaro, Cocaína García, Ramón Bragaña, William Perkins, Silvio García, Rodolfo Fernández, Chester Brewer, Ernest Carter, Josh Gibson, Harry Williams, Leroy Madlock, James Bell, Sammy Bankhead and Eustaquio Gutiérrez (Cuban umpire).
The average salary of these imported players was $150 pesos monthly, Dominicans only received $24 pesos per month, though it eventually rose to much more. Martín Dihigo and Josh Gibson were paid $2,500 pesos for five weeks of playing two games per week, while eight players made a sum of $30 thousand dollars for the Dragones Ciudad Trujillo. As Dr. Joseph Arbena affirms, one of the consequences of these types of measures taken or encouraged by the Dictatorship was that it made the Dominican Republic, before any other country (including the United States), into the country where ballplayers, separated in their countries, came together to play, including whites, blacks, mulattos, mestizos, Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and North Americans.
The search for baseball players for the championship of ’37 started a scandal in the United Status and resulted in a diplomatic impasse between the two countries. By virtue of the fact that the salaries offered in the Dominican Republic were much higher than those offered in the neighboring nation, the players did not hesitate to accept, which made the directors of the Pittsburg Crawfords and Homestead Grays accuse a Dominican agent and the consul accompanying him of trying to steal their players, throwing them both in prison. The Dominican Government and Chancellery had to intervene; they bought the freedom of the two men for a $500 fine.
The U.S. players that decided to come to the Dominican Republic were expelled from the Negro Baseball League for abandoning their teams. Statchel Paige, one of those expelled, created his own club called the Trujillo All-Starts, which eventually won the Denver Post tournament.
In spite of the players at his disposal, it was not without difficulty that the Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo won the victory in the series. The management of the team even brought in a voodoo priest from Haiti to “help” them win.
Amateur Baseball during the Dictatorship
The investment of economic resources in the championship of ’37 was enormous and again the country was forced lose professional baseball again for 14 years, until 1951. That period was characterized by the strengthening of amateur baseball. It is calculated that in 1944, between Saturday and Sunday, there were more than 15 games played in the capital, with the participation of around 30 teams and more than 350 ballplayers. In addition, two new spaces for games were opened, Molinuelo Park (1943) and the Hipódromo Perla Antiallana (1944). All of these activities allowed the Dominican Republic, in 1948, to win the world amateur baseball championship, held in Colombia.
The members of one of the teams from Santiago died in what was considered one of the greatest tragedies of Dominican sports. They returned to their city by plane after playing two games in the city of Barahona. The aircraft crashed due to bad weather. 32 passengers died, among them 18 players.
The lethargy of professional practice was not an impediment for our best players to continue gaining recognition abroad and for visits to continue from foreign players and teams. In fact, February 29, 1948, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Montreal Royals arrived in Santo Domingo to hold their spring training. With them, the star Jackie Robinson arrived, who, two years earlier, had moved into the major leagues, becoming the first black man to do so.
Today the Dominican Republic is sowing training fields or academies that maintain the principal teams of the U.S. major leagues, among them the Yankees, the Atlanta Braves, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Kansas City Royals and the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, from the Japanese league. The last large investment, Baseball City, is one of the most ambitious complexes for baseball player development in all of Latin America. With an initial investment of 100 million Dominican pesos, equivalent to over 2 million dollars, the complex contains the academies of the four major league teams, the Chicago Cubs, Minnesota, Cincinnati and Arizona.
The Dominican Republic has become the principal location for the sport of baseball outside of the United States. Young Dominican, U.S., Mexican, Panamanian, Venezuelan and Puerto Rican players come to prepare and compete in the Dominican Summer League, from which the rookies are chosen to travel to the United States for a possible place in one of the U.S. leagues.
According to a study published in 2003 by the Office of the U.S. Major League Baseball Commissioner, whose only other office in the world is found in the Dominican Republic, the major leagues bring in more than 76 million dollars annually to this country, generating more than 1,200 direct and 900 indirect jobs. This money enters the country through different routes: payment of bonuses to new players, operation of the academies, salaries to the Dominican players in the major leagues (of which at least 20% enters the national economy), salaries of players in the minor leagues, the Dominican Summer League, observation trips to the Dominican Republic and the donations and support given to governmental bodies.
Text excerpted from:
Béisbol en República Dominicana: Crónica de una pasión , Orlando Inoa y Héctor J. Cruz, Verizon, 2004.
Liga dominicana de béisbol profesional