Studying baseball's other color line
By DAN GERINGER, Philadelphia Daily News, Jan. 12, 2010
LIKE MOST PHILLIES diehards, Jeffrey Shultz spends the winter counting the days until pitchers and catchers report for spring training in Florida. Unlike his fellow fans, Shultz also pursues his lifelong quest to unravel the mysteries of racial and ethnic discrimination in Major League Baseball.
He's as concerned as the next person about whether the Phillies blew another shot at a championship by not keeping pitching ace Cliff Lee to form a daunting duo with newly acquired superstar Roy Halladay.
But he's equally worried that although baseball has come a long way since 1950, when the Phillies and the New York Yankees played the last all-white World Series, a vestige of the double-standard "color line" days remains.
Young, foreign-born Latino prospects, who are not eligible for Major League Baseball's lucrative draft because they are not U.S. citizens, sign as free agents for thousands of dollars to play in the minors, while American prospects get hundreds of thousands.
"You can hire 10 Dominican players for the price of one American college player," Shultz said. "That college kid [Stephen Strasburg] who signed with the Washington Nationals for millions? That deal doesn't happen for kids coming out of Dominican baseball academies."
Last fall, Shultz, an anthropologist and education professor at Arcadia University in Glenside, Montgomery County, began teaching "Baseball and Beisbol: The Evolution of Race and Ethnicity in the Major Leagues," focusing on the tangled history of Latino ballplayers before and after Jackie Robinson broke MLB's color line.
"Everybody talks about Jackie Robinson, but nobody knows what happened with the Latino players," Shultz said. "I've spent my entire life trying to make sense of this mystery."
Shultz's passion for scrutinizing the culturally controversial back alleys of the majors comes from his extraordinary past.
His German-Jewish father's family escaped the Holocaust on one of the last boats out of Europe in 1939.
His parents moved from New York to Puerto Rico in 1948, a year before Shultz was born, to open a factory there, so he grew up on a farm near Arecibo in the 1950s, playing baseball in a pasture 100 feet from his house.
The bases were cow patties. The dozen or so kids he played with were part of the extended Puerto Rican family that owned the farm.
"I grew up with that family like they were my cousins," Shultz said. "The family patriarch treated me like he treated his own grandkids. When they got spanked, I got spanked. I was part of their family."
The kids' skin colors ranged from very dark to very light, Shultz said, but that was simply reality, not a barrier.
"It was clear to me from a very young age that there were differences between my family and the other kids," he said. "We spoke English at home. They spoke Spanish. We were Jewish. They were Catholic. We were from the United States. They were Independentistas - members of the political party that wanted Puerto Rico to break off from the United States."
But to Shultz these were like the difference between beisbol and baseball - different culture, same game.
"There was a big mango tree in back of our field," Shultz said. "We'd play baseball, then go eat mangoes."
From the cow pasture in Arecibo to the sandlots in San Juan - where the family moved when Shultz was a young teenager - baseball was never about skin color for him. It was always about the game.
In the racially turbulent '60s, Shultz became painfully aware that skin color was a defining issue in the States, but he didn't understand why.
Decades later, at age 60, a boyhood voice inside Shultz continues to ask why - especially about Latino players, whose "color line" history is more hidden than the Jackie Robinson breakthrough.
"The Latino color line in the majors shifted depending on what the owners needed," Shultz said. "They let light-skinned Latinos play in '40s because the war created a shortage of major leaguers, but those Latinos couldn't be darker than a certain shade.
"Luis Olmo played outfield for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the early '40s before Jackie Robinson broke the color line," he said. "Olmo was from Arecibo so I met him in town when I was a kid. My father was darker-skinned than he was."
Shultz said that the rise of Latino ballplayers in the majors can be traced within three generations of the family of Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.
Amaro's Cuban-born grandfather, Santos Amaro, chose to play in the Mexican League because he was dark-skinned and Major League Baseball's color line would have forced him to play in the Negro Leagues here.
His son, Ruben Sr., born in Mexico, played for the Phillies in the 1960s, coming in with the first wave of black and Latino players following Jackie Robinson.
Third-generation Ruben Amaro Jr. was born in the United States, so he was in the Major League Baseball draft, just like all other American-born players (including those from Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. commonwealth.)
"So the three generations of his family epitomize the changes in Major League Baseball," Shultz said, "from his grandfather not being allowed to play in the major leagues to Ruben Jr. taking full advantage of the system and rising from major-league ballplayer to general manager."
Shultz acknowledges that he is somewhat obsessed by the bittersweet story of Vic Power, another Arecibo native son, whose frankness on matters of race - told by a Southern waiter that the restaurant didn't serve Negroes, Power said he didn't eat Negroes, he just wanted rice and beans - kept him in the New York Yankees' minor leagues until they sent him to the Philadelphia Athletics in 1954.
"I remember reading articles about Vic Power as a child and understanding something about racism and exclusion that I couldn't have learned any other way," Shultz said.
"I have a little Vic Power shrine in my study - signed baseballs, photos and every baseball card of his," he said.
Power had a fine 12-year major league career. But Shultz, an invited guest when the Baseball Hall of Fame opened its "Viva Baseball" tribute to Latino players last spring, said that when he asked Orlando Cepeda about Power, the great outfielder/first baseman "said that if the Yankees hadn't kept Power in the minors so long, he would have been in the Hall of Fame because he was that good."
When Shultz asks himself why he has devoted 30 years of his teaching career to examining racial and ethnic injustice, he talks about "another side to my relationship with Puerto Rico, a side quite different from the idyllic stories of playing baseball in the cow pastures with my friends."
In 1966, Shultz said, his father's Arecibo factory, which made artists' brushes, was bought by a larger company that closed the factory and moved it to the Dominican Republic, where labor was cheaper.
"This meant that a couple hundred people, some of whom had worked for my father for 20 years, were now unemployed on an island where unemployment figures ran as high as 30 percent," Shultz said. "My father was devastated by the news." And Shultz carried a feeling of guilt around for years.
"Now, my predominant feeling is anger," Shultz said. "Anger over exploiting a people, using them when they needed them and then spitting them out in order to earn a few more bucks somewhere else.
"This confluence of these two sets of emotions - love for a place that was home in my formative years, versus anger at what people who look like me did to the people of the island - leaves me with a real sense of ambivalence and sorrow," Shultz said.
And so he continues to examine the ongoing history of exploitation in Major League Baseball, a business much like a factory.
While Shultz anxiously awaits late February, when Phillies pitchers and catchers report to Clearwater, Fla., he also awaits the day when young Dominican and other foreign-born Latino players are eligible for the draft and the big bucks that American hopefuls enjoy as a birthright.