The book: “Cuban Star: How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball”
The author: Adrian Burgos, Jr., an associate professor of history at the University of Illinois.
The vital stats: Hill and Wang (MacMillan), 302 pages, $28
The pitch: While technically not a new publication out in 2012, were’s making an allowance for the fresh paperback version of the 2011 original that arrives later this month, revitalizing the story of Alejandro “Alex” Pompez in the wake of the latest Jackie Robinson celebration around baseball.
Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006 as a Negro League owner of the New York Cubans, Pompez also was known for running one of the most infamous numbers rackets in Harlem. So he’s in, and Pete Rose isn’t? So he’s in, and Buck O’Neill isn’t? It was enough to outrage then MSNBC “Countdown” host Keith Olbermann to call anyone on that committee which let Pompez in over O’Neill a member of the “Worst Person in the World” category.
Burgos was one of them.
Having just finished a book called “Playing Ameirca’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line,” Burgos found himself with “the distinct honor” (as he calls it) of being part of the Negro League group that allowed 17 to be put into the Hall in 2006. This book, in a way, gives Burgos hundreds of pages of reasons why he’s right and Olberman isn’t.
Pompez was “a trailblazer who over the span of seven decades — from his Negro-league days through his major-league scouting work — opened pathways for talent from once-insignificant territories,” Burgos writes. “His story not only complicates how most scholars have written about race in America and the working of the color line … but also what we think we know about the process of dismantling baseball’s color line.”
Pompez, you see, was an Afro-Cuban-American. When the dots were connected between the advancement of the black player, and the Latino player, he never was part of the process because of stories about his running numbers in Harlem for a time. Even though he was directly connected to stars such as Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey and the Alou brothers.
He was both black and Latino, encountering race in nearly all of its complexities, but “most who knew him recall his warm smile, endearing personality and determination, qualities that convinced most prospects and parents to place their trust in him,” says Burgos.
Read more, and decide for yourself.
An excerpt: Page 208:
“Evidence of the wily baseball man’s successful work was all around the big leagues by the end of the 1950s: Cepeda, Marichal, Alou and McCovey, among others, had come through the Giants’ minor-league camp to become stars. That success inspired Robert Boyle to examine the case of ‘Latin Negros’ in the big leagues in a lengthy 1960 Sports Illustrated article. Through the study Boyle came to understand why Latinos such as Felipe Alou would declare that Pompez was ‘king to us.’
“‘Alex was like a father to all of us,’ recalled Manny Mota. ‘He took us under his wing …He prepared us in what to expect in a different country and a different culture.’ …
“The employment of Pompez by the Giants was the closest the Negro leagues came to a stakeholder emerging out of its executive ranks. First as a scout and then as its director of internatinal scouting, he would impace the pace of the Giants organization’s incorporation of previously excluded talent. This position enable dhim to select a number of players who would literally be the pioneers of integration in different minor leagues. From his decades in the Negro leagues, Pompez knew the barriers that could prove to be stumbling blocks to prospects. He sought to mentor the young men who became his charges and implemented innnovations such as language instruction at the Giants minor-leauge camp to help with cultural barriers and thereby facilitate their transformation into ‘Latin’ Giants.”
How it goes down in the scorebook: Size him up as you wish, but his statue in the game during his involvement benefited from Pompez being there. And now, from Burgos (pictured above from a lecture he gave in Madison, Wis., linked here) documenting it.
How big was Pompez? He appeared on the TV quiz show “What’s My Line?” in1960, Burgos notes. “The first (panelist) successfully surmised that Pompez was a scout for the Giants.”
Can Olbermann make that claim?