Dominican Baseball

Baseball is the favorite sport of Dominicans, not only as a game or hobby but as part of their national pride and identity. Hundreds of players in the big and minor leagues were born in the Dominican Republic and are a permanent source of pride for Dominicans, who celebrate them with great honor and excitement all over the country.

The Winter Championship of the Dominican Professional Baseball League begins in October every year, with the participation of outstanding figures of the Major Leagues. This event ends in January of the following year. During the months of the championship, Dominican people are in a permanent state of party and anxiety, watching every detail of the “ball games” between the main teams: Tigres del Licey, Leones del Escogido, Águilas Cibaeñas, Estrellas Orientales, Gigantes del Cibao, and Toros del Este. All other issues on the public agenda seem to automatically move to another level, because Dominicans “are on the ball.” Few things make Dominicans more passionate than baseball.

Like the other Spanish Antilles and the coastal areas of the continental Hispanic countries that share the Caribbean basin, the Dominican Republic embraced a sport that today speaks as much of its dominicanidad as its flag of red and blue rectangles or its merengue.

 

Did you know? The “vitilla” game in the Dominican Republic is a popular game derived from baseball, and which emerged in the late 1970s. To play it, a plastic cap is used as a ball, usually from a 5 gallon “bottle” of water for human consumption; and a “stick” usually from a broom or “suape,” that is used as a bat. It is played mainly in the streets of the underprivileged neighborhoods or in any area that is intended for that purpose (a parking lot, a field or a park, for example). This sport, which is a popular party because it generates a lot of passion and excitement both in the players and the spectators, is a completely informal, typical, non-professional pastime.

 

History of Baseball in the DR

Baseball began at the end of the 19th century in the national territory. There is no consensus on the exact date, but it is known that small groups of people practiced the sport in the last decade of that century.

The first team that was formally established was the Ozama, which soon was followed by other teams. The popularity of the game grew rapidly because the population saw in it a way to unload the frustrations caused by the political and economic conflicts that kept the country in a persistent state of instability.

The importance of Dominican players was recognized in other countries by the beginning of the 1920s. Pitcher Baldomero Ureña (Mero) was hired by the Ponce team from Puerto Rico in 1922, and, a short time later, in 1925, he became the first Dominican player to be hired to play for an American team, the Allentown. Other baseball players also began to join foreign leagues, especially from Puerto Rico and Venezuela, while star players from Cuba and Puerto Rico came to participate in the national championships. The national championship of 1929 is remembered as the “luxury championship” because of the quantity, quality and high cost of the imported players (especially from Cuba).

No other national championship took place until 1936. Its re-implementation comes hand in hand with the tyranny of Trujillo, who used this sport for his own manipulation, power, and personal glorification purposes. That is why he spared no expense to bring some of the best players from the American Negro League in 1937. The investment was so large that the country was left without professional baseball for 14 years.

In the 1950s, as the national championships were reestablished and reinforced, the first Dominicans made their debut in the United States big leagues. Osvaldo Virgil established a tradition in 1956 that only strengthened and grew richer over time. Felipe and Mateo Rojas Alou, Juan Marichal, Julián Javier, Ruddy Hernández and Guayubín Olivo are part of the group of national pioneers who, along with him, helped open a space for Dominicans in the North American professional baseball.

To find out which Dominican players are currently active in the professional Major League Baseball, please visit: http://mlb.mlb.com/rd/active_players.jsp

 

Did you know? Pedro Martínez, a former Dominican pitcher who played in the Major League Baseball, won eight times the All-Star, three-times the Cy Young and was World Series champion in 2004. He was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in 2015.

 

Hundreds of Dominican players have participated in the big leagues throughout history. One of them, Juan Marichal, was full-fledged inducted to the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown; two others – Felipe Rojas Alou and Tony Peña – become team managers; and, many others have won awards and recognitions for their excellent performances, just to mention a few examples. The export of ball players, the import of foreign ball players and the victories of the national team in the Caribbean Series, demonstrate the level and quality of the professional baseball played in the Dominican Republic.

 

Did you know? David Ortiz, better known as ‘Big Papi,’ is another great example of a Dominican baseball player with an impeccable professional career in the Major Leagues, where he participated from 1997 to 2016, when he retired from the sport. Ortiz was a 10 times All-Star, three times champion of the World Series, and ranked among the 20 best in the world in the history of baseball, in home runs (541 throughout his career).

 

Baseball Excitement

It is known that exactly on June 17, 1898, the Base-Ball Club was established in the city of Santo Domingo, and whose honorary President was William Orr, administrator of the Brewery. It is also known that it soon began to expand to other towns – in fact, three other communities: Santiago, San Pedro de Macorís, and La Vega – disputed the primacy of organized baseball in the country.

From the beginning, baseball became very popular to the point that, only in the capital, at least two significant spaces were assigned for its practice in the period that goes from 1894 to 1910; these were the properties called “La Sabana del Estado,” located in the outskirts of the city, and the Colombina Square within the city walls. Later, in the second decade of the 20th century, others joined: the so-called “Patio de los Báez,” a group of lots located between the Padre Billini and Arzobispo Portes streets; El Gimnasio Escolar (1911); and the Licey Park, in Villa Francisca, which opened on October 4, 1914.

Ozama was the first team to be registered. The Licey team was created on November 7, 1907, to play against the Ozama; Licey is, to date, the team with the greatest tradition and drive in the history of Dominican baseball. It was the boom time of the sugar industry and its foreign capital; of the negotiation of the repayment of the immense international loans that were being claimed by the demanding US creditors; of the subsequent expropriation of the national customs; and of the high political instability with the governments that followed one after the other without control, and the popular uprisings. Perhaps as a consequence and partly as a channel of all that turmoil, this sport became ever more popular over time, with many other groups emerging across the country. Although they had in general an ephemeral life span, the following teams are worth mentioning: in Santo Domingo, Casino, Santo Domingo, Receptoría, Gimnasio Escolar (which barely lasted a year), Nuevo Club (1911), the team of Escuela de Agricultura (School of Agriculture), the team of Escuela Normal (School of Education), the teams of the educational institutions such as Trinitaria and Duarte, San Carlos, Columbia and Patria, Legalista (1914) and Herold (1914); in Santiago, Yaque and the Inoa (1912); Unión de Azua (1910); Macorís, of San Pedro de Macorís (1910).

The first national championships took place during this heated historical moment (1911); foreign players were hired for the first time to reinforce the local teams (in 1912, Licey imports Cuban players during the national championship of that year already underway); the first international series was held in Dominican soil, where a blended national team (“Escogido Dominicano”) faced  the Ponce team of Puerto Rico; and even an illustrated magazine dedicated exclusively to baseball events entitled La Pelota (The Ball), whose Editor was Luis Eduardo Betances (1913), was published. National and local matches, Series and championships with massive attendance and entertained with music, and joyful partying of fans celebrating the victory of their teams, and the inclusion of the sport in the National Olympic Games, even though it was not part of the World Olympic Games (1915), demonstrate the excitement that the sport produced in the Dominican spirit.

It was clear that the politicians of the time were aware of this. At the opening of the Licey Park, then-President of the Republic, Dr. Ramón Báez, threw the first baseball pitch (1914). In 1913, the ViceConsul of the United States in the country, Mr. Bohr, served as referee during a match between Nuevo Club and Licey. That same year, the appointed United States Minister in the Dominican Republic reported to the Secretary of State of the United States, among other things, that the importance of the popularity that baseball was having in the country could not be underestimated since, undoubtedly, it could be “a real substitute for the excitement of uprisings” (Naboth’s Vineyard, Sumner Welles, Vol. II, p. 722, Savile Books, 1966).

 

Baseball and the American Intervention

From very early on, Dominicans saw in the playing field the stage to fight and win the battles that they seemed to constantly lose in daily life. During the US intervention (1916-1924), in addition to the opposition, semi-anarchic resistance by the “gavilleros” in the mountains, or the one formulated by intellectuals of the main cities to make their heartfelt protest evident, baseball became the means with which the humble population minimally compensated its frustrations in light of the foreign invader. The games between Dominican teams and those formed by the marines and military personnel of the homeland of Abraham Lincoln were true patriotic exploits in which the national dignity was “at play.” Hence, strong local teams were formed, one of which, “El Escogido” (1921), was the result of a triple alliance between the Delco Light, Los Muchachos and San Carlos teams. The press did extensive coverage of every match won by the local teams, which were the majority. After a renowned victory of the Licey against a “team” made of Marines, a newspaper report read: “The U.S.M.C. teams will not win a single baseball challenge here because they are simply inferior to ours. The physical culture of our poorly nourished youth is superior to that of those rosy-cheeked, chubby white guys.”

Long before the intervention, matches had been played between local teams and crews of American ships that docked on the coasts of the country. It was precisely during one of them, held on September 20, 1914 between Nuevo Club and the sailors of the US Navy cruiser  Washington, that Dominican baseball player Indio Bravo (Enrique Hernández) pitched a no-hitter, a first in the history of Dominican baseball, striking out 21 players and allowing only one, by mistake, to reach first base.

 

Internationalization of Dominican Baseball

The value of the Dominican players soon had to be recognized. A national team for the first time travelled to play abroad in 1922. It was Licey, which, reinforced with players from other teams and under the name of “Estrellas Dominicanas,” played in Puerto Rico and won 6 out of 11 matches in the island. Due to their brilliant game, players began to be hired by teams from the neighboring countries a year later. The first was the pitcher of Licey, Baldomero Ureña (Mero), who was signed by the Ponce team of Puerto Rico. He is immediately followed by several others, who were 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 just 17 years old and was hired by the Humacao Stars. It is worth adding that, in 1925, Baldomero Ureña (Mero) became the first Dominican to be hired to play for an American team, the Allentown.

The participation of national players in foreign leagues intensified in the next few years, as well as the presence of foreign baseball players in the local leagues. The national championship of 1929 is especially remembered as the “luxury championship,” due to the high number of imported players (from Cuba and Puerto Rico) who were paid very high salaries. The participation of Dominicans was minimal, to the point that it was said that the Escogido team, for example, “was a Cuban team reinforced with wonderful Tetelo Vargas.” The spending was so extreme for the country’s economy that during the following seven years, that is, until 1936, the National Series were not held again. Therefore, many of those who were professional players at that time had to go play in Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the United States. The Licey, Escogido, and Sandino (emerged in 1928) teams of Santiago, which the press in Santo Domingo called “las Aguilas Cibaeñas,” faced each other during that last season of 1920.

 

Trujillo and Baseball

The first period of the Trujillo dictatorship was very poor for professional baseball. The economic aftermath of the luxury championship of 1929 and of Cyclone San Zenón that destroyed the country and the baseball stadiums of the capital (Gimnasio Escolar and La Primavera Tracrace), affected the performance of the teams. Even so, Trujillo immediately added this sport activity to his tools of power, manipulation and personal glorification, both locally and internationally.

In this sense, one of his first actions was to put together the General Trujillo team, which embarked on a tour of Latin America that began in 1931. Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua and Mexico were the countries that were paid a visit as part of a tour that had to be extended more than was necessary. Because of a scam, the group ran out of money to return back home when they had originally planned. Two of the players (called Ninín and Titico) had to work in Cartagena to pay for the return tickets.

All the national championships that were celebrated during the period of the tyranny were named using some direct reference to Trujillo and his family. Thus, we have that the 1936 team, with which the series is re-established, was called “Certamen Mayor Trujillo” (Trujillo Mighty Contest) and competed in the Julia Molina Cup; in 1937, “Reelección Presidente Trujillo” (President Trujillo Re-election); “Campeonato Era de Trujillo” (Trujillo Era Championship) (1951); “Pro Elección del General Héctor B. Trujillo Molina” (Pro Election of General Héctor B. Trujillo Molina) (1952); “Leonidas Radhames” (1953); “Campeonato Benefactor” (Benefactor Championship) (1954); “Campeonato Padre de la Patria” (Father of the Homeland Championship) (1955-1956); “Campeonato Reelección Presidente Trujillo” (President Trujillo Re-election Championship) (1956-1957); “Campeonato Leonidas Radhamés” (Leonidas Radhames Championship) (1957-1958); “Campeonato 24 de Octubre,” Trujillo was born on October 24, 1891, (1959-1960).

 

The 1937 Championship

The national championship of 1937 became famous because of the quantity and the quality of the hired foreign players and the amount of money it cost. Since the trophy of the previous season (1936) had gone to the Estrellas Orientales team of San Pedro de Macorís, Trujillo unified the teams of the capital city and created the “Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo” (March 4, 1937), which was endowed with the best foreign reinforcement players he could get.

The slogan was to win at any cost; therefore, no expense was spared. This and the other contender teams incorporated stellar players of the Negro American League of the US and Cuba, among which are worth mentioning 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 referee).

The average salary of these imported players was $150 pesos a month – the Dominicans only made 24 pesos a month – but payments were much higher. Martín Dihigo and Josh Gibson were paid $2,500 pesos for five weeks of play, at the rate of two games per week; while eight players cost US$30,000 to the Dragones Ciudad Trujillo. As Joseph Arbena, Ph.D in History, points out, one of the consequences of this type of measures taken and encouraged by the Dictatorship was to convert the Dominican Republic, before any other country (including the United States), into the place where baseball players got together and played, whereas in their own countries they were segregated- white, black, mulatto, mestizo, Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, North American.

The search for baseball players for the championship of 1937 caused a scandal in the United States and a diplomatic “impasse” between the two countries: Because the salaries offered were higher than in the neighboring nation, the players did not hesitate much in accepting, which caused the leaders of the Pittsburg Crawfords and Homestead Grays to accuse a Dominican scout and the Dominican consul who accompanied him of attempted theft of their players, putting them both in prison. The Dominican government and its Foreign Affairs Office had to intervene, setting them free after paying a US$500 bail.

In turn, the North American players who decided to come to the Dominican Republic were expelled from the Negro Baseball League for having abandoned their teams. Statchel Paige, one of the expelled players, created his own team called Trujillo All-Stars, winning the Denver Post tournament.

In spite of the players he had at his disposal, it was not without much difficulty that Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo managed to emerge victorious; the team’s management brought in a voodoo priest from Haiti to “help” it claim success.

 

Amateur Baseball During the Dictatorship

The championship of 1937 represented a huge investment of economic resources, and again the country was left without professional baseball. For 14 years, until 1951. Hence, the subsequent period was known for the strengthening of amateur baseball. It is estimated that in 1944, between Saturday and Sunday, more than 15 games were held in the capital city, with a participation of around 30 teams and more than 350 players. In addition, two new spaces were opened to hold baseball matches, the Molinuelo Park (1943) and the Perla Antillana Racetrack, which included a “play” (1944). All this activity resulted in the Dominican Republic winning the amateur baseball world championship in Colombia in 1948.

The members of one of those Santiago teams died in what is considered the biggest tragedy suffered by the Dominican sport. They were in route to their hometown by plane after playing two games in the city of Barahona. The aircraft crashed due to bad weather. 32 passengers died and, among them, 18 players.

The lethargy in terms of professional practice was not an impediment for our best players to continue to excel abroad, and for foreign players and teams to continue visiting our country. In fact, on February 29, 1948, the Dodgers of Brooklyn and the Royals of Montreal arrived in Santo Domingo to hold spring training sessions. Jackie Robinson, the star who had managed to move to the big leagues two years earlier and the first black man to attain such an achievement, was among them.

 

Academies

The Dominican Republic is a country with abundant training camps or academies supported by the main United States Big League teams, including the Yankees, the Atlanta Braves, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Kansas Royals and the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, of the Japanese league.

Nowadays, all professional baseball teams of the Big Leagues have their academies in the Dominican Republic. You may find more details and information about them here: http://mlb.mlb.com/dr/academies.jsp

The Dominican Republic has become the main baseball training venue outside of the United States. Young Dominican, American, Mexican, Panamanian, Venezuelan, and Puerto Rican players prepare and compete in the Dominican Summer League (http://www.dominicansummerleague.com), during which newcomers are chosen to travel to the United States for their possible incursion in one of the North American leagues.

For updated news, more information and other curious facts about Dominican baseball in the Big Leagues, please visit: http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/features/dr/index.jsp

 

Dominican Baseball Teams

Tigres del Licey
Fundado en 1907
Quisqueya Stadium
Tel: (809) 566-3261, (809) 567-3090
http://www.licey.com

Aguilas Cibaeñas
Established in 1937
Cibao Stadium
Tel: (809) 575-4310, (809) 575-1810, (809) 575-8250
http://aguilas.lidom.com/home/

Leones del Escogido
Established in 1921
Quisqueya Stadium
Tel: (809) 565-1910
http://www.escogido.com
http://mlb.mlb.com/milb/stats/roster.jsp?sid=l132&t=t_ros&cid=671

Estrellas Orientales
Established in 1911
Tetelo Vargas Stadium
Tel: (809) 529-3618
http://www.estrellasorientales.com.do/

Azucareros del Este
Established in 1983
Francisco Micheli Stadium
Tel: (809) 556-6188, (809) 556-6189
http://lostorosdeleste.com/

Gigantes del Cibao
Established in 1997
Julian Javier Stadium
Tel: (809) 566-4882, (809) 588-8882, (809) 588-8854
http://gigantessfm.com/

 

Caribbean Baseball Series

It is the most important professional baseball tournament in Latin America, where national teams from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela and Puerto Rico participate. It is said that this annual event was born in Cuba, in 1949. The Dominican Republic participates in it since 1970. The countries rotate each year the venue of the tournament.

 

Did you know? The Dominican Republic holds the record for the most championships won in the Caribbean Series (19, to 2016), with the Tigres del Licey team having the most crowns in the Dominican Republic, followed by the Aguilas Cibaeñas and then the Leones del Escogido.

 

For more information on the Caribbean Baseball Series, visit: http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/events/winterleagues/league.jsp?league=cse

 

Links of Interest:
Professional Baseball Team of the Dominican Republic (LIDOM): www.lidom.com
Tigres del Licey: http://licey.com
Águilas Cibaeñas: www.aguilas.com.do
Leones del Escogido: www.escogido.com
Estrellas Orientales: http://www.estrellasorientales.com.do
Gigantes del Cibao: http://gigantessfm.com
Toros del Este: http://lostorosdeleste.com
Major Baseball League: http://mlb.mlb.com/home
Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame: http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Caribbean_Baseball_Hall_of_Fame
Stories of the Caribbean Series: http://latinobaseball.com/?option=com_content&view=article&id=140&Itemid=6

Sources:
Béisbol en República Dominicana: Crónica de una pasión, Orlando Inoa and Héctor J. Cruz, Verizon, 2004.

Professional Baseball League of the Dominican Republic (LIDOM)
Various newspapers
Major League Baseball (MLB)
Lo Dominicano | All Things Dominican. GFDD, 2015.

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