(The following is a post by Marcos Castillo, Junior Fellow, Hispanic Division, Summer 2018.)
The opening of the new “Baseball Americana” exhibit here at the Library of Congress, prompted me to think about the origins of our national pastime. The exhibit highlights the history of baseball in the Library’s collections. Baseball is not only a national phenomenon, but exerts a worldwide fascination as well. As a baseball fanatic for most of my life, I have definitely fallen victim to the obsessiveness and excitement that the game inspires in so many people. Specifically, the rich culture, passion, and exhilaration that Hispanic players bring to the game never fail to captivate me. While interning in the Hispanic Division of the historic Library of Congress with access to its remarkable collections, I have been thinking about how baseball has become such a significant part of Latino and Latin American culture.
When tracing how Hispanics became part of U.S. baseball, we have to look back to the 1860s when the first Latin American-born player joined a professional U.S. league. Estevan Enrique Bellán, born in Havana, Cuba in 1849, made his debut in the US in 1868. Even before his appearance, international Cuban students studying in the United States brought the game back to their homeland. In this way the sport started gaining popularity in Cuba, and eventually led to the inaugural game of the Cuban baseball league in 1878. This may have set off a trend in Latin America and soon other countries, including the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Mexico, formed their own leagues, producing many players who would play in the US. Just like for several minorities, it took some time for Latin players to be accepted into mainstream American baseball, but as we see today, they have taken over the sport at a fast pace. This is in large part due to outstanding players like Roberto Clemente (1934-1972) from Puerto Rico, Tony Pérez (1942-) from Cuba, Rod Carew (1945-) from Panama, and Fernando Valenzuela (1960-) from Mexico. Latin America is now a key region for developing players’ skills and a leading source for scouts looking for new talent.
Today, on average, foreign-born players make up about one third of the entire U.S. Major League Baseball (MLB) organization, with Latin born players being the majority of that group. In 2017, Latino players made up 31.9 percent of the MLB, the highest number ever in that league’s history. Latinos are represented on every major league team; each team has at least one Latino-born player. Some of the current greatest stars in baseball are either from Latin America or are of Latin American descent, including: José Altuve (Venezuela), Nolan Arenado (Cuba/Puerto Rico), Robinson Canó (Dominican Republic), Aroldis Chapman (Cuba), and Francisco Lindor (Puerto Rico).
Apart from sheer numbers, Latin American players act as ambassadors for the game, delighting old and new fans with the special animation and vigor that they bring to the sport. As some Latino players have said, the way they play the game is quite different from the classic, and seemingly dull, way that many Americans believe the game should be played. With their sense of passion, excitement, and celebration, Latino players have influenced the style of play within the major leagues and provided the animation that the sport has been seeking for years. The exhilarating play not only attracts fans, but also motivates young ballplayers to continue pursuing their dream of playing league ball regardless of their circumstances. The unique Latin American style keeps players connected to their home countries and is a source of pride to Latin Americans and US Latinos alike.
Thanks to men like Estevan Enrique Bellán, and all those who followed in his footsteps, players across the world, have become empowered to compete for their dreams and goals. On a personal level, had it not been for professional Latino baseball players who were my role models, it would have been very difficult for an average player like me to envision myself playing on a college baseball team with an athletic scholarship. And the influence of the role models on me goes beyond baseball! If it were not for my favorite player, Mariano Rivera (1969-) from my family’s home country of Panama, I would not have had the privilege of being part of the LC Junior Fellows internship program here at the Library of Congress—and I would not have written this post—because baseball is what originally influenced me to pursue a college degree and continues to motivate me toward that goal.
As a member of the Hispanic community, and the ultimate baseball fan, I marvel at both the impact of baseball on the Latin American community and the community’s impact on baseball. From the strong foundation that early players laid in the 19th century to the great players of today’s Major League Baseball, there is no doubt that Hispanics have had an historic influence on baseball and still have much more to achieve. With the game constantly expanding and the number of Latin players increasing, baseball will probably continue to evolve in unforeseen ways, and it will always reflect the contributions of past, present, and future Hispanic players. Baseball continues to inspire and amaze me in more ways than I can describe. Who will be inspired next and what influence will they have on the world?