Friday, May 29, 2009

Latino baseball exhibit added to Hall of Fame

The HOF adds a Latino exhibit
Jorge Arangure, Jr., ESPN, May 27, 2009

A recent informal survey by the Hall of Fame concluded that its number of Spanish-speaking visitors had not significantly increased during the past three years, which is not surprising. What is there for Latinos?

The new exhibit has a plethora of authentic relics, like this Cuba jersey.

Only seven of the 289 Hall of Famers are Latino, and the Hall of Fame electorate (there will be only roughly 20 Latino voters from a total of an estimated 600 voters this year, according to the Baseball Writers Association of America) hardly represents the percentage of Latinos on the field, much less reflects the number of Latino fans.

And that's been an improvement from the time when Latinos weren't represented at all.

In previous years, how could voters (either from the BBWAA or from the Veteran's Committee) have accurately gauged the cultural impact of a certain Latino player when they might not have been aware of how a player's contributions extended beyond American borders? Who but those familiar with the Latino experience could have accurately gauged the context -- the cultural alienation, the racism -- in which Latino players performed?

Consider the case of the Cuban Luis Tiant, whose statistics favorably measure with contemporaries Jim Bunning and Jim "Catfish" Hunter, both of whom are Hall of Famers. Neither Catfish nor Bunning experienced the difficulties that Tiant faced being dark-skinned, Latino and Spanish-speaking at a time when such things could be an impediment to a player's success.

In fact Tiant's father, who pitched in the Negro Leagues, never was given the opportunity to pitch in the majors.

Hall of Fame curator John Odell said such issues played no part in the development of ¡Viva Baseball!, the Hall's new permanent display that celebrates Latinos' contributions to the sport. But such an exhibit is an important step in creating a Hall that accurately represents baseball's diversity on the field and its growing Latino fan base.

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A trophy ball that was given to a Latin player in 1871.

"Exhibits at the Hall are never designed with generating audience as an objective," Odell wrote in an e-mail. "As a history museum that chronicles the many stories that baseball touches upon, we evaluate our exhibit needs based on trends, achievements, and cultural contributions to the game … Certainly the opening of ¡Viva Baseball! could not have been more perfectly timed than right now. The rise of the Latino star is not a new story but today's collection of Latin players at the Major League levels has never been greater."

Certainly the exhibit is a triumph. Created by the Hall with the help of an advisory board comprised of scholars who have exhaustively written about the game's Latino roots, the exhibit spans decades and crosses borders in a space of about 1,000 square feet.

For the grand opening last weekend, the Hall brought in two of the seven Latino inductees, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda, and also Roberto Clemente Jr., son of Roberto Clemente, who was the first Latino Hall of Famer.

Also present were Dodgers scouting legend Ralph Avila, who helped transform the Dominican Republic into baseball's largest talent pool, and current Rays scout Andres Reiner, who, while with the Houston Astros, was critical in the rise of Venezuelans in the game.

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Johan Santana's original scouting reports from 1995.

Avila and Reiner donated several of their scouting tools, including speed guns and stopwatches, which are on display. Perhaps the most interesting of those is Reiner's scouting report for Mets star Johan Santana, whom Reiner signed in 1995.

"Taking as reference that he has only started to pitch 6 weeks ago, his curve ball is very good with good rotation, but basically he is in a learning stage," the report reads.

Yet for all the good the exhibit represents, a larger sense of inclusion will come when more Latinos are inducted, whether they are players from the past or current stars. But such legacies may suffer because of unfortunate timing. The rise of the Latino as transcendent superstar in the game in the past 20 years comes at the same time as performance-enhancing drugs, meaning Latino fans are likely to see the exclusion from the Hall of some of the biggest Latino stars to have ever played.

Players such as Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada are all long shots at this point to be elected because of their links to PEDs. Even a former star like Sammy Sosa, who has never failed a test nor has had any solid evidence brought to light against him, may not got elected. Mere circumstantial evidence taints Sosa's candidacy.

If baseball is to truly celebrate Latinos in baseball, then perhaps it may be the perfect time to revisit the candidacy of several pioneers, whose importance to the game goes beyond their statistics. Noted Latino baseball scholar Adrian Burgos Jr., author of "Playing America's Game," sends the following list of players who should be considered: Tony Oliva, Orestes "Minnie" Minoso, Louis Tiant, Vic Power, Felipe Alou, Davey Concepcion, Adolfo Luque and Negro League players Alejandro Oms, Horacio Martinez and Tetelo Vargas.

Either in addition to their statistics or in spite of them, these players merit consideration for their overall contributions to the game. In the case of Alou, the first Dominican to regularly play in the majors (Ozzie Virgil is the first Dominican to appear in a game), his statistics alone don't merit consideration in the Hall, though he was a three-time All-Star who twice led the league in hits. But when you also consider Alou's managing career-- he was the first Latino to win a manager of the year award -- his impact in helping the game grow in Latin America is immeasurable.

"Through the exhibit, people will see us as human beings," Cepeda, who waited 25 years from the end of his playing career to be elected into the Hall, said. "To get here we had to go through many obstacles."

Write Jorge at in English or Spanish.

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