Puerto Rico’s Winter Baseball League was a haven for Negro League players in the 1930’s and 1940’s, which helped the careers of more than a third of the 35 African Americans inducted in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
A total of 216 Negro League athletes played in Puerto Rico, including among others Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Joshua Gibson, Monty Irvin and Willard Brown, but most of the discussion related to the Negro Leagues in the mainland is centered around Cuban Baseball thanks, in part, to the prominence of the New York Cubans..
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“There is a lot of talk about Mexico and a lot of talk about Cuba in these conversations and Puerto Rico is hardly mentioned, and Puerto Rico has a history as rich as Cuba’s, as rich as Mexico’s,” said baseball historian Jorge Colón Delgado. “In fact, when you look at players in the Hall of Fame, there are 35 blacks in the Hall of Fame, of those, 37 percent played in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is the country with the most players in the Hall of Fame.”
Colón Delgado believes that this has been overlooked due to the fact that most of Caribbean Baseball’s books in English were written by American authors in Cuba due to its proximity to the mainland. Thomas Van Hyning penned the only books on Puerto Rican baseball: Puerto Rico’s Winter League: A History of Major League Baseball’s Launching Pad and The Santurce Crabbers: Sixty Seasons of Puerto Rican Winter League Baseball.
“By not writing in English, only in Spanish for us, we distance ourselves from that flow of history in the United States”, said Colón Delgado, member of the Baseball Writers of America investigative unit. “However, in Cuba, there were a large number of American writers who were interested in Cuban baseball and a large number of books on Cuban baseball were written, unlike Puerto Rico, where there are only two books in English and they are by the same author.”
Negro League players felt comfortable playing in Puerto Rico, explains Colón Delgado, because they were treated as equals by the fans on the Island. He pointed out a photo of San Juan Senators’ pitcher Roy Partlow being carried out by fans after defeating Satchel Paige, who played for the Guayama Brujos in the 1939 Puerto Rico Winter League.
“The way those players were welcomed in Puerto Rico, if you look (at the photo) there is a mixture of white and black folks when Partlow defeated Paige in Guayama,” adds Colón Delgado. “Look at Roy Partlow’’s face, his eyes wide open. He was scared, he believed that when the fans jumped on the field they were going to hurt him because black players were not used to being treated that way.”
This was, says Colón Delgado, one of the reasons Negro League players were motivated to return to Puerto Rico even before the current season was over and why he believes the Island must be included any conversation regarding that league. Brown and Thurman, for example, played 10 years in the Puerto Rican League.
“All of those players wanted to come back,” said Colón Delgado. “When they were in Puerto Rico they could stay in the same hotels, eat in the same restaurants, they would arrive anywhere and fans wanted to pay for anything they wanted. That’s why it’s important to highlight Puerto Rico’s contribution to the Negro Leagues.”
As an example of Puerto Rico’s role in the Negro Leagues, Colón Delgado pointed out Hall of Famer Leon Day decision to be inducted in Cooperstown in 1995 wearing the colors of the Aguadilla Tiburones. Day pitched four seasons in Puerto Rico, but had stints in Cuba, Venezuela and Mexico.
“To this day, his widow says that the Puerto Rico years were the best of his life,” remembers Colón Delgado.
Major League Baseball announced last year that it will include Negro League records as Major League statistics, and while it waits on Elias Sports Bureau audit to make it official, Baseball-Reference already includes the combined stats in their go to reference guide used by all media outlets and broadcasters covering the sport.
“This is the moment to include Puerto Rico in that historic discussion which is ongoing in America”, said Colón Delgado.