This very well-done book chronicles the rise of Latin American baseball players from the nineteenth century to the 1990s. As the beginning point in this study, Viva Baseball is a major step in historical scholarship concerning a major aspects of the socio-cultural aspects of the American Pastime. By the time that Regalado published this book nearly twenty-years ago Latin American players had emerged as the dominant ethnicity of all players—some 20 percent of all major leaguers and more than thirty-three percent of minor league players—and their numbers have growth since that time.
Viva Baseball takes a chronological approach to this subject, noting that in the nineteenth century a few Latin players such as Cuba’s Esteban Bellan made their way to the United States and played for MLB teams. Not until World War II, however, did large numbers start to arrive. First from Cuban and then from Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean. Some of them became stars and household names. Bobby Avila from Mexico, Venezuela’s Luis Aparicio, and Cubans Vic Power, Minnie Minoso, Luis Tiant, and Tony Oliva, were among the first. They were followed by many more—Juan Marichal, Felipe Alou, Orlando Cepeda, Rico Carty, Dennis Martinez, Rod Carew, Manny Sanguillen, and Tony Perez, among others—all of them making an indelible mark on the game and the socio-cultural landscape.
Roberto Clemente deserves a special place in this pantheon, as the Latin player of the 1960s that most redrew the landscape of baseball. Playing in relative obscurity for much of his career for the Pittsburgh Pirates Clemente never achieved the level of stardom he deserved until his remarkable performance leading the Pirates over the Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 World Series. The showcase established his legend after years of difficulties with MLB management, sportwriters, and some fans. His tragic death on January 1, 1973, which flying supplies to victims of a devastating earthquake in Nicaragua cast a mythical status on his entire life and career.
Regalado seeks to equate the experience of these Latin players to the larger aspects of all Hispanics in America. He notes that they were always strangers in the land, without knowledge of the culture, the language, and the mores of the racist U.S. society. Some adapted to it well, learned what they needed to get by, and the U.S. their permanent home. Others had more difficulty, were homesick, fiercely lonesome, and returned to their families each winter. Luis Aparicio made the point of learning as much English as possible, explaining that the bat and the ball are the same regardless of where he plays but the language is different and he needed to master that as well. Others, such as Felipe Alou went on to leadership with several different teams over the years.
Largely, Regalado finds that Latin MLB players are a microcosm of the larger Hispanic culture in the U.S. They face the same issues, prejudices, and roadblocks. Sometimes, they serve as rallying points for Hispanic society. His chapter on “Fernandomania” in 1981 is a case in point. Fernando Valenzuela’s remarkable pitching performance for the Los Angeles Dodgers galvanized millions of Hispanics who cheered for his success. And he delivered, leading the Dodgers to a World Series victory over the New York Yankees.
While there is much to praise in this book, I find the author’s lumping together of the divergent Hispanic culture into a single entity a bit unnerving. Mexican baseball is different than that played in the Caribbean, different than Cuban or South American baseball. The players come from different cultures, although they may all speak Spanish. What differences exist? How are Puerto Ricans, who are after all U.S. citizens, differ from other groups? Might we also effectively analyze those differences?
Regardless, this is an excellent entrée into a complex topic.