¡Pleibol! In the Barrios and the Big Leagues Part 4: Pastime of the Américas

¡Pleibol! shares the experiences of Latinas and Latinos whose love for the game and incredible talent have changed baseball and transformed American culture forever.

By Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Baseball card album from the Cuban Leagues Cover (1945/1946) by FelicesSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

¡Pleibol! #4

This five-part series takes audiences on a journey into the heart of American baseball to understand how generations of Latinas/os have helped make the game what it is today.

The distinctive sound of a bat connecting with a baseball; the sight of the diamond itself; fans and vendors clamoring around the stands. 

Baseball card album from the Cuban Leagues (1945/1946) by FelicesSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

Throughout the 1900s, immigrants and migrants from the Caribbean—Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico—as well as from Mexico, Venezuela, the northern coast of Colombia, and Brazil, knew the sights and sounds of baseball before coming to the United States.

Baseball was already a vibrant part of their home communities. At the same time, generations of Latina/o ballplayers are homegrown in the United States, playing in the U.S. and abroad.

El Paso Shoe Store baseball team (1930s) by UnknownSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

Baseball Across Borders

Before African American legend Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947, racial restrictions and segregation kept non-white players from playing in Major League Baseball. 

American All-Stars, Caracas, Venezuela (1945) by UnknownSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

The Negro Leagues were professional baseball leagues made up of African American, and some Latino, players. Between the 1930s and 1950s, many Negro League players—including stars like Buck Leonard—made their way to leagues throughout Latin América, where they found a more accepting racial climate.

Buck Leonard

In the first half of the 1900s, more than 240 Latinos played in the Negro Leagues because Jim Crow segregation blocked them from Major League Baseball. Players learned that talent alone did not result in acceptance. Latin American leagues also presented opportunities for African Americans and Latinos when Major League Baseball did not.

American All-Stars, Caracas, Venezuela, 1945
Buck Leonard (far right, top), Jackie Robinson (far left, bottom) and other Negro Leagues All-Stars on tour in -Venezuela.
- Gift of Walter “Buck” Leonard

Buck Leonard on base (1940s) by Scurlock StudiosSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

Buck Leonard played baseball year-round, especially as he ended his career. He participated in the winter leagues in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Venezuela between 1935 and 1955, and in the Mexican League from 1951 through 1955.

Buck Leonard playing for Negro Leagues team the Homestead Grays, Washington, D.C., 1940s
- Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Buck Leonard’s Mexican League contract (1951) by Asociacion Mexicana de Liga de Beisbol, No AmateurSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

Look Closely

How much was Buck Leonard paid in 1951?

The Mexican League often paid more than the Negro Leagues, but neither paid their players as much as Major League Baseball. In more recent years, multimillion-dollar contracts look much different than the single double-sided page Buck Leonard signed with the Mexican League. 

Look at the details of this contract.

Buck Leonard’s Mexican League contract, 1951
After his career in the Negro Leagues, Buck Leonard played in the Mexican Leagues.
- Gift of Walter “Buck” Leonard

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Salazar and Orozco families’ baseball scrapbook (around 1920s) by Elisa A. Orozco-O'NeilSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

International Careers

Baseball scrapbooks demonstrate international lives and, in this case, feature women’s invisible work to remember the careers of male family members. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Rose Marie Salazar meticulously recorded baseball clippings of her husband, Alonzo Orozco, and and brother David Salazar, in the U.S. Southwest and Mexico.

Salazar and Orozco families’ baseball scrapbook, California, around 1920s 
- Gift of Elisa Orozco-O’Neil

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El Paso Shoe Store baseball team (1930s) by UnknownSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

El Paso Shoe Store team, Los Angeles, California, early 1930s
Rose Marie Salazar-Orozco kept this photo of her husband, Alonzo Orozco, and her brother, David Salazar. The teammates are indicated in marker.
- Gift of Elisa Orozco-O’Neil

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Rose Marie Salazar-Orozco’s silver bracelet (1935) by UnknownSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

Rose Marie Salazar-Orozco’s silver bracelet, 1935
Rose Marie Salazar-Orozco received this bracelet from her younger brother, Ernesto, as thanks for writing to him during his time in the Mexican Baseball League.
- Gift of Elisa Orozco-O’Neil

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handmade ball (1993) by Pedro ChávezSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

Handmade ball, Havana, Cuba, 1993
- Gift of Pedro Chávez

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Many would rather play with makeshift equipment than not at all. Handcrafting baseball and softball gear is a tradition found in Latino communities across the Américas

Tampa Smokers baseball players (1950s) by UnknownSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

The Power of Baseball in Cuba

In the late 1800s, Cubans became the “apostles of baseball,” spreading the game across the Caribbean. The first Cubans to learn the game were children of the Cuban elite sent to study in the United States during the 1860s. They returned home with baseball equipment, knowledge of how to play the game, and enthusiasm for sharing what they acquired.

This generation spread baseball across the island, teaching others how to play and forming baseball clubs that became the foundation for baseball’s central place in Cuban national identity and culture.

Minnie Miñoso Baseball Card front (1955) by Bowman Gum Inc.Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Minnie Miñoso

Minnie Miñoso was a key figure in the generation that bridged baseball from segregation to integration. From 1946 to 1948, he played in the Negro Leagues with the New York Cubans. 

In 1949 Miñoso debuted as the first Afro-Latino in the majors, just as the color line was dissolving. Pioneering integration meant enduring intense and sometimes violent racial animosity. He responded with exceptional on-field performance.

Minnie Miñoso Baseball Card stats (1955) by Bowman Gum Inc.Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Minnie Miñoso baseball card, 1955
Minnie Miñoso batted a .320 average in the 1954 season with the Chicago White Sox.
- Ronald S. Korda Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

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Baseball signed by the Chicago White Sox (1953) by Chicago White SoxSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

Ball signed by 1953 Chicago White Sox, Chicago, Illinois, 1953
- Ray Dornbach Collection, purchased from Americana Mail Auction through George Rinsland 

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Minnie Miñoso’s signature appears in the center, just over the stamp.

Luis Tiant, Jr. jersey (2015) by Luis Tiant, Jr.Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

The Cuban Revolution

The Cuban Revolution of the 1950s left diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States strained. Cuban baseball players who chose to play professionally in the United States had to defect and could not return to Cuba; exit visas were often denied to their families.

Luis Tiant’s career spanned 20 years, most notably with the Boston Red Sox from 1971 to 1978. Cuban-U.S. diplomatic relations broke down in 1961 and ballplayers had to choose between continuing their careers or returning to Cuba. Luis Tiant Jr. signed with the Cleveland Indians.

Because of U.S. embargoes on travel to Cuba, 15 years passed before he would see his family on the island.

Luis Tiant Jr. jersey, signed in 2015
- Gift of Luis Tiant

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Jose D. Abreu painting by Reynerio Tamayo (2017) by Reynerio TamayoSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

Cuban artist Reynerio Tamayo painted Chicago White Sox player and defector José Abreu guided by Cuba’s patron saint, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. The baby Jesus in her arms also gestures to the son Abreu had to leave behind.

Reynerio Tamayo’s José D. Abreu, 2017, acrylic on canvas
- Gift of Reynerio Tamayo and Leonardo Rodríguez

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Tampa Bay Smokers team photo (1947) by UnknownSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

The Tampa Smokers

In Florida, the Minor League Tampa Smokers were named for the prolific cigar industry in the region. The team played across Florida, the southern United States, and Cuba. They also became known for developing several Cuban Major League players.

Tampa Smokers Team Picture, Tampa, Florida, 1947
- National Museum of American History

Tampa Smokers baseball players (1950s) by UnknownSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

Tampa Smokers, Tampa, Florida, 1950s
Cuban American brothers Reggie, Bennie, and Manny Fernandez of the Tampa Smokers relax after a game.
-Gift of Jean Plowden

Baseball card album from the Cuban Leagues Cover (1945/1946) by FelicesSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

Look Closely

Who do you see on the pages of this book?  

Baseball card album from the Cuban Leagues (1945/1946) by FelicesSmithsonian's National Museum of American History

Many famous baseball players made their debut in the Latin American leagues.

Baseball card album from the Cuban Leagues, 1945–1946
- Gift of Mike González

View object record

Credits: Story

This series of five stories is based on an exhibition that opened at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in July 2021. Objects pictured here may differ from those currently on view at the museum.

This exhibition received generous support from the Cordoba Corporation and Linda Alvarado, with federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.

The traveling exhibition was organized by the National Museum of American History in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.

Series Production Team
Margaret Salazar-Porzio
Exhibit Curator
Cultural and Community Life
National Museum of American History

Robin R. Morey
Curatorial Assistant
Cultural and Community Life
National Museum of American History

Marc Bretzfelder
Emerging Media Producer
Office of the Chief Information Officer

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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