Roberto Clemente Day should focus on importance of Latinos to baseball –

MLB announced this year’s 30 nominees for the 2015 Roberto Clemente Award on Monday. The announcement came in advance of 14th annual Roberto Clemente Day, to be held at big league parks across the circuit on Wednesday.

Formerly known as the Commissioner’s Award, the Roberto Clemente Award not only represents part of MLB’s effort to acknowledge the legacy of one of the game’s all-time greats but also to motivate its current batch of stars to aspire to be the role model that Clemente was for Latinos and all of baseball.

MORE: Classic photos of Roberto Clemente

Celebration of Clemente’s legacy as a humanitarian, as much as his greatness on the baseball diamond, marks one of the few moments MLB pauses to celebrate the contribution of  Latinos in baseball. In as much as Clemente Day pays homage to the Puerto Rican great who died tragically on a humanitarian mission to bring relief supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims, Roberto Clemente Day is not a Latino celebration.

Despite it coinciding with the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, Roberto Clemente Day is just as much an opportunity for MLB to acknowledge each year’s group of nominees, a few of whom may happen to be Latino, and to launch the online voting to determine the season’s recipient of the Roberto Clemente Award, which is announced during the World Series.

Indeed, Roberto Clemente Day has a very different tenor than Jackie Robinson Day.

Roberto Clemente Day is not treated within MLB or the media as a moment to critically reflect on the place of Latinos in baseball today. Or to reflect about what Roberto Clemente might have to say about the treatment Latinos receive from MLB as an institution, the Commissioner’s Office, or from the sporting press.

Some might say there is little need for such reflection. Perhaps they would contend that Clemente would be impressed with the sheer numbers of Latinos present in baseball. That their demographic presence in the Majors as well as in the minor leagues assuredly must translate into organized baseball doing right by Latinos.

That would be too simplistic for Clemente.

The Puerto Rican who played his career with the desegregation of baseball as the backdrop was too sophisticated a thinker and too much of an activist to think that mere presence was indicative of the change he aspired to see in baseball and in the society around him.

After all, Clemente played on Pirates teams throughout the 1960s and early 1970s that were among the most diverse in baseball. But that diversity on the field and in the Pirates clubhouse did not necessarily translate into a local (or national) press corps that understood Clemente or Latino cultures. Or in front offices that were attuned to what Latino players and fans needed or desired to ease the cultural adjustment they encountered or to feel fully welcomed within MLB. Latinos and African Americans had to campaign for MLB teams to do more about the segregated towns they chose to maintain as their spring training homes. Or from challenging the hotels that continued to bar big leaguers from either staying in the hotel or eating in the in-house restaurant. Or from permitting the host of annual get-to-meet the team’s players breakfast, luncheon, or golf tournaments from excluding the African American or black Latinos.

Awareness that more than presence mattered is what drove Clemente, Felipe Alou, and other Latino players to advocate for the Commissioner’s Office to have an official specifically tasked to deal with Latin American affairs in the Commissioner’s Office. Something they successfully lobbied for during William Eckert’s tenure as Commissioner—a position later dissolved in the reorganization of the Commissioner’s Office under Bowie Kuhn.

For certain, major league organizations are much more attuned to the challenges that Latinos confront on the way to realizing their big league dreams. It is now standard practice to have at least one member of the coaching staff that can communicate with players in Spanish. Organizations take more seriously teaching cultural literacy to its young Latino prospects at their Dominican baseball academies in the hopes of better preparing for the challenging path to the big leagues. Similarly, MLB has instituted reforms that have made the process of signing Dominican and Venezuelan prospects more regulated and perhaps a bit more humane.

On the other hand, there remain issues that highlight how Latino difference is treated within the orbit of organized baseball, by the press and within the Commissioner’s Office. Issues that some believe would perhaps be handled differently, if the Commissioner’s Office actually had a Vice President for Latino Affairs.

During an early August visit to Kansas City a number of Royals fans asked me about the press treatment of Royals’ pitcher Yordano Ventura. A couple of Latino fans in particularly wondered whether the discourse of Latinos as headhunters, hot-tempered, and violent in the media coverage following a number of incidents that involved Ventura would be as permissible if Ventura were African American versus a black Latino. Such questions shed light on how Latinos often wonder how the press and even MLB treat or punish Latinos more harshly than other players for violations of the written rules of the game.

What press coverage and on-field reaction likewise illuminate is that Latinos bring a different culture of playing baseball, one developed in the Caribbean from over a century of the game being played there. Indeed, Latinos are seen as the biggest violators of the so-called unwritten rules of baseball , which are typically enforced by white American players.

Dominican Carlos Gomez has found himself in the middle of several such incidents. Such as the 2013 game between the Brewers and Braves where Gomez’s bat flip and slow-walk admiration of a home run prompted the unwritten rule enforcers Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann into action. McCann in particular planted himself in front of home plate, barking expletives at Gomez and physically blocking the Dominican from completing his circuit around the bases.

The verve Latino players bring to the game is thus policed on the field and in the press as indicative of how they refuse to assimilate to the “American” way of playing the game. Accusations that likewise dogged Clemente himself when he played. That he should be content with how things were in baseball, not be so vociferous in pushing for change or challenging the rules and practices of segregation or race in U.S. society.

Roberto Clemente Day should be part of a series of events where the contributions of Latinos in baseball is both celebrated and used to educate the sporting public. Clemente’s humanitarianism was not limited to what transpired beyond the playing, but also in changing the culture of baseball to respect all players, Latinos included.

SN contributor Adrian Burgos Jr. is professor of history at the University of Illinois. His expertise includes Latinos in baseball and the Negro Leagues. The author of “Cuban Star: How One Negro League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball” (Hill & Wang, 2011) and “Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line” (University of California Press, 2007), he consulted for the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s ¡Viva Baseball! exhibit, Ken Burns’ “The Tenth Inning” and on the forthcoming “Jackie Robinson,” among other exhibits and documentaries.


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