Cuban Star: How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball
(Hill and Wang, 2011)
In February 2006, the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced its intention to induct Alex Pompez—numbers king in Harlem; owner of the Cuban Stars, a Negro-League team; vice president of the Negro National League for two years; and the first Latino director of international scouting for any Major League Baseball team—into the organization, along with 16 others from the Negro-League era. The news of Pompez’s induction sparked outrage among some baseball purists, who cited his illegal gambling activities and his involvement with “notorious mobster” Dutch Schultz as antithetical to the highest ideals of the Hall. As members of the special Negro-League committee that elected Pompez for induction, Adrian Burgos, Jr. and his colleagues were chastised for their selection. Cuban Star: How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball is Burgos’s attempt to justify Pompez’s induction.
Born in 1890 in Florida to Cuban parents, Pompez witnessed the political power of baseball in his own and other immigrant families. Back in Cuba, Spanish authorities viewed the people’s interest in baseball as a vehicle for insurgency against their colonial authority and twice banned the game from being played on the island. Whether in Cuba or in Key West where Pompez was born, however, Cubans overwhelmingly played the game. To them,
...baseball provided more than recreation and diversion; it helped define them as a people. Cubans viewed baseball as much their game as that of the United States. Cuban nationalists envisioned baseball as an expression of their culture, one that distinguished them from Spaniards who controlled Cuba.
In Part I of the book, Burgos relays Pompez’s days running numbers in Harlem and his involvement in Negro-League baseball. Burgos states how widespread the numbers game was in that neighborhood, at its peak providing full or partial employment for 30,000 people. Pompez became wealthy and invested his money in the Cuban Stars, (later renamed the New York Cubans) and other Negro-League activities.
Money earned running numbers was part of the foundation upon which the formal Negro Leagues were constructed. Black baseball was not unique in this regard: numerous businesses in Harlem and other Black urban centers were financed in part through numbers money. Numbers bankers filled a financial void, especially because when banks would not lend Black people money to grow through education and small businesses, the numbers people often filled the gap.
Burgos gives a play-by-play account of Pompez’s involvement with Dutch Schultz while explaining the differences between the two men: Pompez was a numbers man employing individuals who always paid out when folks won; Schultz was a mobster who asserted his power over numbers men like Pompez through intimidation and violence, using the money he earned to pay off police officers and politicians. Eventually, Pompez turned state witness for Thomas Dewey, special investigator of mob activities. “He became the only guy who ever snitched on the mob and lived to tell about it,” said Hall of Famer Leon Day in a previous interview. Pompez left the numbers game and devoted himself to baseball.
It’s as an owner of the Cuban Stars and the New York Cubans that Pompez begins to revolutionize baseball. He followed the path, and then overhauled the model Abel Linares started when he first introduced Cuban players into the Negro League. Pompez devoted more time and energy into such trades; he often traveled to Cuba, recruiting players he would hear about through his network of contacts who kept him informed of up-and-coming talent. Pompez’s Cuban Stars team was the most diverse in the Negro League, with a roster of English-speaking black players and Spanish-speaking Latinos.
The baseball entrepreneur knew all too well the impact of such lines on his own life, and how they were doubly complex when someone was both Latino and black. No dividing line could be drawn through him: he lived in both worlds. His Harlem was multilingual, not English only. His Harlem world was full of differences yet filled with people dealing with similar struggles to maintain their human dignity in a society where they were constantly reminded that race mattered.
Pompez didn’t concentrate his scouting efforts solely on U.S.-born blacks, but extended them to blacks in the Caribbean too. He explored Panama, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, becoming the first Negro-League owner to sign players from the region.
With integration came the demise of the Negro League. Burgos takes readers into the negotiating rooms where team owners discussed trying to keep the league alive. In 1947, the New York Cubans finally won a Negro-League World Series championship with Luis Tiant, Sr. and Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso. Yet the team lost money that year and the next—stadium attendance around the Negro League was low, as black audiences shifted their attention to the integrated majors; in addition, Negro-League teams received no compensation from the majors when the Negro-League players switched leagues. The New York Cubans folded after the 1948 season, and Pompez became a scout for the then New York Giants.
Pompez was the Giants' inside man for Negro-League and foreign-born talent. With his experience, he made the Giants the most diverse team in baseball for two decades.
Whereas the [New York] Dodgers had initiated baseball’s project of integration, the Giants set a new standard for diversity by internationalizing integration, as evident in the team’s multinational contingent of black and Latino players.
He was crucial in signing Felipe Alou and Hall of Famers Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, and Orlando Cepeda, among others. He later worked exclusively with Horacio Martínez, a former player with the New York Cubans, in farming talent from the Dominican Republic.
Pompez was sensitive to the cultural shock many Latino athletes experienced in the United States. He helped players find housing, provided language lessons, taught them how to interact with the media, and advocated for players in conversations with team executives. Citing a previous interview, Burgos quotes Cepeda relaying Pompez’s importance to his career. “Alejandro Pompez had 100 per cent to do with my career. In 1955, the Giants wanted to release me from spring training and he begged the Giants not to let me go because I had a future in the big leagues. And he fought with them until the end.”
Cuban Star goes beyond box scores, giving baseball’s early players and executives their due, and showing the courage it took for minorities to play the game in the Jim Crow era. If you’ve ever wondered about the history of Latin American and black players in American baseball, then Cuban Star: How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball by Adrian Burgos, Jr. is a must read. Bring it to the ballpark with you—the stories it offers will surely enhance your time between innings.