City Paper is not for tourists
Leonhard’s report praised the league’s quality of play and the fans’ baseball savvy. But the pitcher also joked of roaches big enough to snatch his sandwich from a bus’s luggage rack, and of the successful on-field use of a voodoo cross made from chicken bones. Shortly before opening day, the San Juan Star excerpted Leonhard’s piece, emphasizing the bugs-and-black-magic angle. As a result, the once-heroic ballplayer was angrily called la cucaracha and pelted with oranges and beer bottles by spectators. This strong reaction was, perhaps, predictable. Van Hyning (who spent a quarter-century on the island) and native Puerto Ricans suggest that the island is such a small place that fans and players maintain a closeness unthinkable on the mainland.
In Puerto Rico, baseball is crucial to the national psyche—and beneficial to the American major leagues. The Puerto Rican Winter League has long served as a proving ground for unpolished stars-to-be, from Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax in the ’50s to Johnny Bench and Steve Carlton in the ’60s and ’70s to Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr. in the ’80s and ’90s. In the bargain, Puerto Rico gets to root for future stars, and visiting players take home a smattering of Spanish and familiarity with a foreign culture they might never have known otherwise. Having games on Puerto Rican soil allows for a healthy role reversal between U.S.-born players and their Latin American counterparts, a growing presence in the game.
Puerto Rico’s Winter League resurrects interest in this generally forgotten corner of the baseball map. Besides recognizing the big-league greats, Van Hyning plucks from obscurity dozens of sluggers and hurlers, many of them native-born Puerto Ricans, who failed to achieve superstardom in the majors: Pancho Coímbre, Willard Brown, Hi Bithorn, Bob Thurman, Perucho Cepeda (father of Orlando Cepeda), Canena Márquez, and Tetelo Vargas. In this sense, Van Hyning’s study is reminiscent of pioneering research on the Negro Leagues, which flourished before Jackie Robinson crossed baseball’s color line in 1947. The author is a baseball maven on a mission to chronicle the forgotten players of his youth. He does an admirable job of assembling scanty statistical information into a credible, encyclopedic volume.
Even so, Van Hyning neglects the key element that lends intellectul heft to the work of Negro League historians: the sociocultural context for his subject. While his enthusiasm for players’ on-field exploits is obvious, Van Hyning fails to plumb the tensions laid bare in the Leonhard incident—why, if Latin Americans feel so ambivalent about the U.S., do they love an “all-American” game so much?
And while Van Hyning recognizes that the late Roberto Clemente is as pivotal a hero for Puerto Ricans as Robinson was for African-Americans, he fails to explain why early Puerto Rican baseball—which featured such Negro League giants as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson—seems in retrospect to have been decades ahead of mainland baseball in racial unity. Perhaps the most significant consequence of Van Hyning’s work will be to encourage future researchers, himself included, to fill in the gaps.