RCL Exclusive

Why Puerto Rico Has Such an Oversized Impact on Major League Baseball

As the postseason begins, a baseball historian checks in from San Juan post-Hurricane Maria.

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Carlos Correa, the 2017 All-Star shortstop from the AL West champion Houston Astros, started wearing cleats with the Puerto Rican flag as Hurricane Maria approached his home. (He has since discussed his fears for Puerto Rico and his grandparents in particular: “My grandpa has Alzheimer’s, so it’s pretty tough to move around with him.”) His teammate Carlos Beltrán, 1999 AL Rookie of the Year and 2013 Roberto Clemente Award winner, pledged a million dollars to charities rebuilding post-Maria, proclaiming, “Puerto Rico, I love you. I know we will rise up.”

Indeed, Puerto Rican players from all across the majors have been responding to Hurricane Maria. It’s a reminder that Puerto Rico has a shockingly large baseball legacy for an island with less than 3.5 million people: to put this in perspective, that’s less than a third of the population of Cuba or the Dominican Republic. Puerto Rico has twice been runner-up at the World Baseball Classic. (In 2017, they lost in the final to the U.S., but just getting there is remarkable considering they have fewer residents than Connecticut.) They are aided by an incredible fan base: here they are celebrating a WBC victory over Team Italy, not exactly a traditional rival.

With the MLB postseason beginning, it seemed the perfect time to pay tribute to the place that has produced so many stars and champions. Edwin Fernández, co-editor of Puerto Rico and Baseball: 60 Biographies, agreed to help, which was particularly generous because he’s in San Juan. (While noting, “I am ok,” he also revealed there was, “No electricity, no internet, no cable TV.”)

“Even before there was professional baseball in PR, there were great ball players that emerged,” Fernández observed, as Puerto Ricans “played many games played against excellent teams from the USA, including from the Negro Leagues.” (He said they also got experience against MLB teams such as “Cincinnati in 1936.”)

A key moment came in 1938: “When the PR semi-pro league began, players such as Josh Gibson, [Satchel] Paige, Leon Day, Willard Brown, Tetelo Vargas and other Negro League stars” arrived. He noted players from “MLB and Cuba” also came, making the league the “best in the Caribbean.”

Thomas Van Hyning, author of The Santurce Crabbers: 60 Seasons of Puerto Rican Winter Baseball, described the league as a “launching pad” for players to go on to success beyond Puerto Rico. (Santurce is a neighborhood in San Juan.) Van Hyning told RCL: “My family moved to Puerto Rico in 1956 when I was two years old. Dad got to see Sandy Koufax pitch a game for Caguas later that year. I recall meeting Roberto Clemente at a 1967 baseball clinic, and conversing with [Hall of Famer] Orlando Cepeda, [MLB pitcher for 18 seasons] Juan Pizarro and [1954 World Series champ] Ruben Gomez numerous times.”

Thus Puerto Rico saw the development of players Fernández noted include  “[six-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glover] Vic Power, [1945 NL Triples leader] Luis Olmo, Clemente, Cepeda, etc.”

In 1942, Hiram “Hi” Bithorn joined the Chicago Cubs and became the first Puerto Rican to play in the majors. Dubbed the “Tropical Hurricane,” by his second season this pitcher was showing star potential, going 18-12 with a 2.60 ERA and leading the majors with seven shutouts. World War II stopped his career for two years, much of which was spent at Puerto Rico’s San Juan Naval Air Station. He wasn’t the same player when he returned, lasting just two more seasons in the majors. He was murdered in Mexico at age 35.

Of course, Bithorn had opportunities denied most Puerto Rican players, no matter how gifted: major league baseball considered him white. (Olmo told the New York Daily News in 1943, “The only reason you haven’t heard of many Puerto Ricans in the majors is that our best players are colored.”)  It was only when Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947 that the full array of talent from Puerto Rico could be discovered and a golden age of baseball began.

“The great years were the 1950s up to the ’70s,” Fernández recalled. “At that time local teams made arrangements with MLB teams to let their main prospects play during the winter.” The result? “PR baseball improved and those players sped up their path to the majors,” enabling Puerto Rico to witness “Willie Mays in 1954-1955 with the Santurce Crabbers.” Indeed, it produced a collection of players to rival any in baseball history: “In that team the outfield was Olmo, Mays and Clemente.”

Fernández noted “over 40 HOF greats played or managed in the PR League,” including “[Cal] Ripken Jr., [Roy] Campanella, [Willie] Mays, [Rickey] Henderson, [Reggie] Jackson, [Eddie] Murray, [Gary] Carter, [Satchel] Paige, [Earl] Weaver, [Frank] Robinson, [Bob] Gibson.”

Unfortunately, it is an era lost: “Today, that relationship [between MLB and Puerto Rico] is not in place.” (He cited factors including the rise of free agency for the change.)

Even so, the flow of talent continues. The first Puerto Rican player to make the Hall of Fame was Roberto Clemente. Clemente’s death in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve in 1972 at just 38 while delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua only months after collecting his 3,000th and final hit has often overshadowed his remarkable achievements before then. He won four batting titles, the National League MVP and two World Series, collecting the Series MVP in 1971. Plus there were 12 Gold Gloves in right field, as he showed off what is generally conceded to be the best outfield arm in baseball history—broadcaster Vin Scully said, “Clemente could field the ball in New York and throw out a guy in Pennsylvania.” (Watch the clip below and discover that doesn’t seem like an exaggeration.)

Clemente also displayed an incredible generosity, giving free baseball clinics in Puerto Rico. Throw in that he still had some great baseball ahead of him—in his final season, he batted .312 and made his fourth straight All-Star team and earned his 12th straight Gold Glove on a Pittsburgh Pirates team that won the National League East—and his death becomes even more tragic.

Clemente was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1973, as the mandatory five-year waiting period after retirement was waived. Since Clemente, four more Puerto Ricans have been inducted: 1958 NL Rookie of the Year and 1967 NL MVP “Baby Bull” Orlando Cepeda, two-time World Series champ as a star of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” Tony Pérez (who was born in Cuba but made Puerto Rico his adopted homeland), 12-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glover at second base Roberto Alomar and 1999 AL MVP and 13-time Gold Glover at catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, the most recent inductee in 2017. Fernández predicts the next three will be “[five-time Silver Slugger winner and celebrated designated hitter] Edgar Martinez, then Carlos Beltrán and Yadier Molina.”

Yadier is the youngest of the three Molina brothers. Eldest Bengie played catcher in the majors for 13 seasons while winning two Gold Gloves and a World Series. Jose Molina played catcher in the majors for 15 seasons while winning two World Series. And baby brother Yadier has been in the majors for 14 seasons and counting, thus far winning eight Gold Gloves, two World Series and a Silver Slugger while making six All-Star teams.

Of course, there are Puerto Rican players in the majors who should have deeply impressive and extremely lengthy careers ahead of them. Fernandez named a trio currently in the playoffs:

-Carlos Correa (Houston Astros): At 23, he’s already a Rookie of the Year and All-Star.

-Francisco Lindor (Cleveland Indians): Also 23, he’s a two-time All-Star at shortstop.

-Javier Báez (Chicago Cubs): The old man of the trio at 24, he played five different positions on the team that finally reversed the Curse in 2016, winning NLCS MVP along the way.

All three are on teams poised for deep playoff runs: The Astros won 101 games, the Indians won 102 (including a mind-blowing 22 straight) and the Cubs know they’re capable of winning it all because they just did so last season. As we watch Puerto Rican players potentially create a new chapter in their home’s baseball legacy, may we remember Clemente’s immortal words:

”Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world, and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.”

Below, watch Orlando Cepeda’s Hall of Fame speech, which starts with his description of leaving Puerto Rico for the United States.