Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Viva Baseball--Latino Contributions To The Game

The Viva Baseball exhibit at the National Baseball Hall Of Fame & Museum stands out among the three floors of historical displays of baseball's history in Cooperstown. Representing every country in Latin America which plays America's greatest game today, Viva Baseball is colorful, has flare and shows the strong emotions aficionados that live within the Caribbean, Central and South America have for baseball.
"That was done on purpose," stated John Odell, Curator at The National Baseball Hall Of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown. "Absolutely, it should feel different. If you walk in there and you’ve been to Latin America and you get a little bit of feeling for what it's like in those countries in this exhibit--in addition to the Latin music going on--then our designers did what we wanted them to do--show the passion that flows throughout that part of the world for the game."

Continuing Nats320's look inside Baseball's Shrine to the game, Mr. Odell chatted with Sohna and I about how The Hall Of Fame came to producing Viva Baseball. An exhibit which represents the large Latino influence on baseball over the past 70 years.
John Odell: "Viva Baseball is a great example of how we put together exhibits. When I came here almost 12 years ago, I was going through the museum with my boss talking about all these exhibits we had like the Pride & Passion exhibit about African-Americans. And he said the next one we are going to do is one on Latinos. ‘Really,’ I said. ‘When are we going to do that? That sounds great.' He said: ‘We are not ready yet. But this is what the story is. This is a growing demographic, it’s getting bigger in baseball and it’s getting bigger in the United States. It’s making a big impact on the game. We have a few Hall Of Famers, but there are plenty of ballplayers (Latinos) right now who are going to be coming into the Hall Of Fame. But we need to develop the story first. We need to find out what all the stories are, and that takes time.'"

"You can’t just do that over the course of a single season. So we talked about it for a long time. We talked with a lot of different professionals. Then we talked with researchers outside of the Hall Of Fame. Ultimately, we created an advisory group. We knew a lot about baseball in the majors, but when you start moving outside of the majors--just like we did with Pride & Passion and it made the most sense in the world. Don’t pretend that you are an expert, when you are not. Go find the experts, bring them in, and your product will be infinitely better. So that’s what we did for the Latino exhibit."

"We brought in a great group of people. Rob Ruck who wrote 'The Tropic Of Baseball.' It’s about the Dominican Republic, Milton Jamail and Alan Klein. The important part of their participation was that they were all scholars who’ve work on baseball down in the Caribbean and not just the game between the lines but how baseball interacts with the culture down there. And one of the great things we found was how long baseball had been going on down in the Caribbean and how each country down there has its own baseball history. So when we started off Viva Baseball, even before we had a name for the exhibit--which we called the Latino Exhibit during planning stages--we thought we’d talk with Juan Marichal and his contributions all the way up to Big Popi (David Ortiz), about Pedro Martinez, to Rod Carew who speaks English so well you forget he’s from Panama. He’s so bi-lingual."

"We decided to talk about all these great Latino players who are Major Leaguers. Then we found out there is a great story of this game in all these separate countries down in the Caribbean and Latin America. And we then learned more about the difficult bridge these ballplayers had to cross culturally, with language, everything in order to be able to play in the United States.  First of all, for baseball owners of the 1940’s & 50’s they are the wrong color. They might be great baseball players, but until 1947 you were not going to have any black players on your team. And after 1947 you are going to have one or two because that was the unspoken quota. You could have two because then they could room together. You couldn’t have a black and white man rooming together."
"Juan Marichal talks about this in the exhibit. Vic Power has spoken eloquently about it before he passed, Orlando Cepeda. The tough road they had to hoe in order to play baseball in the United States because of the racism, especially in the south. And there were so many Minor League teams in the south, these guys ended up playing in the south. One of the things that’s really amazing about all this is that so many of them were so good that they, along with the former players in the Negro Leagues, set all sorts of Minor League records that will never be broken because now when someone is as good as Bryce Harper (of The Washington Nationals) comes along, he gets promoted up and comes to the big leagues faster. At that time, they (the teams) were saying: ‘No, that’s alright, we already have our black man here and we have a Spanish speaking fellow here. So we are not going to move him up, because our ‘spots’ are already filled." 

"So in Viva Baseball, we learn about all of these kinds of things and this is the sort of history people can look at and say: ‘O’yeah, that is how we used to deal with Spanish speaking people.’ And one of the other things we wanted to do, and the ballplayers were very open to it, was talking about their experiences coming to the United States. They talk about how they didn’t know how to speak any English. So in a restaurant they would just point at the menu. Or just say: ‘chicken’. ‘Everytime I went somewhere I would just say chicken. And they would answer back whether I wanted it baked or fried and I didn’t know what they were asking and I would just nod. But I knew whatever came out was chicken.’" 
Nats320: So as you mentioned to us before, when you put together this Viva Baseball exhibit the museum wants the memorabilia to reinforce the story line being displayed?

John Odell: "That’s right. We use the artifacts to hook people into the story. When we started reaching out to different people down in the Caribbean, people who love baseball, and people found out what we were doing--we ended up getting people contacting us saying: ‘Hey, I’ve got something for you.’ And one of things we learned is that these countries are very dynamic and the sport grows when there are rivalries between teams. Sort of like the Red Sox and Yankees or The Cardinals and The Cubs. In Latin America, there was enough critical mass of ballplayers playing good baseball that each side wanted to win and that started ratcheting up the atmosphere. They feel really good when they beat those other guys."
"And in countries like Panama and Nicaragua, they’ve had good teams but they were kind of in a vacuum. They have fewer teams to play against and it’s hard to build on. But in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba--they did have many teams, many good teams where rivalries developed. As it turned out, we got introduced to the owner of the team in Santiago, Dominican Republic--Aguilas (Cibeanas). His name is Winston Llenas, a wonderful fellow. Aguilas and Licey are the two teams down in the D.R. that just have a passionate rivalry with each other. So they are the two teams. Licey is in Santo Domingo, that’s the big city and Santiago is the smaller city--the underdog kind of thing."

"For some time, I had been trying without much success to get something from Licey. I was leaving messages, leaving them in English and they are just not getting back to me. So I talked with Winston and I explained to him what I am doing and what I am looking for and I was wondering if the Aguilas have anything we could put into this exhibit? As it turns out, Winston played for a few years for the Angels in the Majors, but he was also the MVP of The Caribbean Series and was captain of the Aguilas (Eagles) as a player. Now he is the owner of the very same team giving back to Caribbean baseball what was given to him--which is a great trust as he sees it."
"‘Well,’" Winston said. ‘"I have my jersey from when we were the champions and I would like to donate that.’"  That’s perfect!! That’s Great!! That’s way better than what I was expecting. I didn’t want something from someone that played there for one year and moved on. I wanted something that showed baseball has been played there at a high level for a long period of time. He played back in the 60’s.  So this was great.  And I told him that I would like to have something from Licey--the other great team in the Dominican. He says he will help me and then gives me a contact with Licey and he (Winston) says he will talk to him."
"A little bit later the contact in Licey got back to me. I explained to him what we were doing and that Aguilas was going to have a piece in the Hall Of Fame.  Well immediately he says: ‘Licey, would like to have something in the Hall Of Fame too!!' (laughing) So now you see in the Viva Baseball exhibit the very first Caribbean Series Trophy that Licey won. Thanks to the passion and rivalry between the two teams and two cities the competition between Aguilas and Licey worked to our advantage. And it’s a great example of the story on Latino baseball that we are telling here at the Baseball Hall Of Fame." 

Later on, someone else was able to put us in touch with the Zorrilla family, Pedro Zorrilla--the long time owner of Santurce (Crabbers). They were able to donate the Santurce Jersey and the big trophy that came from the year Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente played on the Santurce team--which is considered to be one of the very best teams in winter ball history in Puerto Rico.  And that’s another reason why it takes time to build these exhibits because it takes time to develop relationships with people. I might be able to ask you for something as soon as I meet you, but until we’ve developed a relationship you might not be ready to lend it or donate it. So very often and this happened here, folks are interested in lending something first, then they see the care we take of it and the presentation of it and that hundreds of thousands of people get a chance to see it and they see their name ‘loaned by’ written on a card within the display and they realize we can be trusted."
"in fact, the ‘loaned by’ or ‘lended by’ or ‘donated by’ markers are new since you two came here last. Many times you will see much of the items are donated by players and, I think, that elevates the understanding of how we operate a little bit.  People see that and say: ‘Hey, this is great.’ And after that relationship and trust is achieved, many times people's loans become donations. 
Nats320: And many times it’s probably taken care of better here than sitting in a damp attic or cold basement somewhere.
John Odell: Very often that is the case. 
Nats320: With all these artifacts coming from out of the country, and you are dealing with people you may not know well enough yet--is the verification process on the authenticity of the artifact any different?
John Odell: In substance it’s not. It’s always when did you get it? Where did you get it? How did you get it? How did you come by it? Fortunately for us, these items for Viva Baseball had not gone through what many times happens to baseball artifacts here in this country. They didn’t go into and out of these auctions. And each time they go into and out of an auction, it gets harder and harder to trace where this came from? We’ve dealt with this issue any number of times. Trying to track the artifact down to who the original owner was can be difficult. You’ve been to ballparks. A ballplayers uniform, bat, glove and shoes is his equipment. But they don’t always pay as much attention to them as their personal things at home. And so if someone asked them if this is the uniform they wore on such and such date in this particular game? They will shrug their shoulders and say; ‘Sure. Probably.’"
"Does it say Set 1, year 19 whatever on it?  Sure. Well, we can walk right down to the street right here in Cooperstown, or anyplace for that matter, and see real live genuine uniforms that are close enough that if you just added in a couple of tags--if you are unscrupulous--you can create the uniform for that moment. And that’s one of the things that we have to worry about."
"When we were doing Viva Baseball, these artifacts were things coming straight out of the players own collection. Or the owners personal collection. The teams own collection. It was a little tighter and easier to verify so that we didn’t have to track it all the way back through multiple owners. When Licey said this is the trophy we got for winning the championship and it has all the information on the artifact we can say: ‘Ok, we know what this is.’  When Winston Llenas says this is my jersey and it’s been hanging up in his  office and says Llenas on the back and ‘campiones’ on the sleeve and it’s from 1967--that works for me!! (chuckling)"
"Then we had another that was a little different but it worked out fine. There was a Puerto Rican historian who when the Caribbean Series was in Puerto Rico one year, Hector Espino from the Mexican League--a great home run hitter--was a coach for the Mexican League team. He was wearing his jersey and this Puerto Rican historian recognized him and told Espino how great he was and how much he admired him and would it be possible to buy his jersey?  I think for $50 or something like that. And he got the jersey. That’s in the display that says Naranjeres. The Orange Growers or Pickers or Men.  All of those translate properly in Spanish. But that’s how he got it. He explained to us how he got it and the year he got it. Hector Espino is no longer living so we couldn’t go back to him. But even if we had, he would have said: ‘Yeah, I imagine it is.’  So those are the ways we fact check those things."

"For the more modern things in Viva Baseball, we brought Latino baseball up to today by adding in Albert Pujols artifacts. We called Omar Minaya (the first Latino GM). We called Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz to show the progression of the Latin game and how it continues on. We also called out how you see all of these Latino sounding and spelled names--like Keith Hernandez--whose family have been in the United States for a long time. He happens to have an Hispanic last name. He's Hispanic in his background, but he didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. And then you have someone like Mike Lowell. If you hear the name Mike Lowell--you might say that sounds Anglo to me. His parents escaped Cuba. He was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Miami. It’s a complicated kind of thing this whole issue of ethnicity and we wanted to talk a little bit about that too." 
"But the best part about this exhibit was learning about the Latin flavor for the game. The love of the game and the idea that, and this is a little bit different from the Anglo game. If you are really good at the game in Latin America, not only should you be playing the game well but you should be giving back to the game in a certain way by giving some personality to the game. That’s where guys like Roberto Alomar comes up with new ways to play the game. A little something special. He realized he could do something that not everyone could do. Alomar could go to his right (while playing 2nd base) farther than anybody else can, catch the ball, do a 360 and throw blind to first base and get the guy. You don’t teach that. That’s a superior athlete that says; ‘Let me try something different.’  He added a little bit of flair to the game that not only makes him better but increases the enjoyment of everybody."

"And all of that is a big part of Latino contributions to the game."

All Photos Copyrighted--Nats320--All Rights Reserved


Smirker said...

Alomar will be the next. He was a great player during the 1990's.

Smirker said...

Alomar should be the next. He was a great player in the 1990's and redefined the position of second base.