Winter Pro Baseball’s Proudest Heritage Passes into Oblivion
by Peter C. Bjarkman | August 30, 2007
The lately defunct Puerto Rican professional baseball league, tracing its unparalleled heritage all the way back to the fall of 1938, was easily the longest continually-running winter circuit in existence. It also boasted the proudest legacy and perhaps the most colorful past of any pro circuit outside the confines of major league baseball. And now—after a slow and agonizing death throes stretching across a couple of decades and punctuated by the 2004 demise of the Santurce Crabbers and a number of hurricane-plagued seasons in the late 1990s—this grand institution of winter season baseball suddenly is no more.
Puerto Rican professional baseball league was the Latin American baseball league with the longest uninterrupted period of play, dating back to its beginnings on Nov. 13, 1938.
Nostalgic middle-aged natives of San Juan are quick to recall growing up watching such big league icons as Frank Robinson, Robin Yount, Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt, and Steve Carlton, alongside native sons Roberto Clemente, Félix Millán, Willie Montañez, Rubén Gómez, and Terín Pizarro, among legions of other top-draw headliners performing before standing-room only throngs of 20,000-plus in pristine Hi Bithorn Stadium. Their fathers and uncles still wax poetic about Frank Howard’s tremendous blast that cleared the wall of quaint Sixto Escobar Stadium on the Old San Juan beachfront and dropped amongst swaying palm trees at ocean’s edge. The fall and winter rivalries between the Caguas, Ponce, Mayagüez, Santurce and Guayama ball clubs were as rich in colorful legend as anything offered by the rival Caribbean winter league hot beds found in Cuba, Venezuela and the neighboring Dominican. But the sad reality is that it has already been nearly a quarter of a century since Puerto Rican baseball first lost most of its glamour and thus also most of its magnetic tug on a once-teeming local fan base.
The Puerto Rican League once boasted a remarkable legacy in terms of both blackball history during pre-integration days and big league history in the decades immediately following Jackie Robinson. Even in the barnstorming epoch, before the 1938 founding of an “organized” winter circuit, the island was already a regular off-season port of call for the top clubs of the Negro league circuit as well as celebrated visiting Cuban League (Almendares in the 1920s), Venezuelan (Concordia in the 1930s) and Dominican (Licey in the 1940s) ball clubs. Exotic Sixto Escobar Park (erected in 1930) was an idyllic training grounds for such Negro league legends as North Americans Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, and Cubans Martin Dihigo and Alejandro Oms; it was also the cradle of such local island legends as the incomparable slugger Pancho Coimbre, Borinquen immortal Perucho Cepeda (father of Cooperstown’s Orlando Cepeda), and Dominican nonpareil Juan “Tetelo” Vargas. From the early fifties through the early seventies the circuit also earned its reputation as “the launching pad” for such future North American greats as Mike Schmidt and Reggie Jackson and for such home-grown notables as Clemente, Luis Arroyo, Pizarro, and Rubén Gómez.
Numerous explanations might be offered for the demise of the once most-venerable but lately most-troubled winter circuit. The decline of baseball interest in Puerto Rico has been frequently attributed to such factors as the lack of participation in the October-January league by recognizable Puerto Rican big leaguers (Don Mattingly was the last polished Triple A star to play there in the mid-80's and then go on to a stellar MLB season); or to the fact that the island is now subject to the First-Year Player Draft (which drains away most of the top young local talent); and also to the rise in popularity of rival sports like soccer and basketball. But the establishment of MLB's Arizona Fall League as a major focus of off-season player development certainly has not helped. That Puerto Rican fans will still turn out in droves to see top-level native pro stars was proven by the 2006 World Baseball Classic's opening two rounds in San Juan. That event witnessed packed grandstands at 20,000-seat Hi Bithorn Stadium (especially for showcase battles between the host team and Caribbean rivals Cuba, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic). But rosters filled mostly with unheralded minor leaguers from the north spark little fan enthusiasm in a modern-era of high-priced, celebrity-oriented professional sporting events.
Winter league baseball throughout the Caribbean has been dealt a near fatal blown over the past three decades by a professional baseball structure that prevents high-salaried MLB superstars native to the region from desiring (or even being allowed by their agents) to participate in off-season competitions in their homelands. But in the broader view, the death knell for winter Caribbean baseball seems only the latest chapter of an ongoing saga which has seen Jorge Pasquel's rebel Mexican League (1940s), the Negro leagues (1950s), and the North American minor leagues (1950s and 1960s) all crumble as viable alternatives to MLB's televised baseball entertainment enterprise. Recent MLB raids of top players from the Japanese pro circuits might well suggest that the top rival Asian baseball empire will be the next to fall; the Cuban League appears today to be the only healthy surviving alternative baseball universe, and its days are also likely numbered (given the tenuous hold on the island nation of an aging and embattled socialist government system that has long successfully kept the encroachments of MLB recruiting at bay). Political strife in Venezuela also suggests that the Venezuelan Winter League circuit (which had its own 2003 season cancelled in midstream due to renewed civil unrest involving the increasingly unpopular government of ballplayer-turned-socialist politico Hugo Chávez) may also be on the verge of an inevitable meltdown.
The biggest immediate impact of the loss of the Puerto Rican circuit might well be felt by the once-proud but also lately sagging February winter playoff tournament known as The Caribbean Series. For the moment one can only speculate on what the immediate fallout will be—for winter baseball as a whole—of this suspension of play in Puerto Rico. For one thing, an immediate crisis now faces the traditional February Caribbean Series, the annual championship playoff between the four winter circuit champions, which is scheduled this year for its Golden Anniversary 50th renewal in Santo Domingo. The event will now seemingly be reduced to an impractical three-team affair, not at all a promising prospect. There is talk of a replacement league based in Puerto Rico, one involving an expansion of the island's popular amateur league (Liga Double A) into a six-team and 20-game circuit that would be called the Liga Invernal Boricua. It would run throughout November and December with playoffs in January; each 25-man roster would have 16 native amateur players and nine "imported professional players" with major league affiliations. But such a circuit would not likely produce sufficient talent to be competitive in the annual year-end Caribbean round-robin championship event.
Some have speculated that the newly resurrected winter league in Nicaragua would be the biggest beneficiary of these developments and an appropriate substitute for Puerto Rico in Caribbean Series play. But the Nicaraguan League is also a "developmental" rookie circuit boasting only a considerably limited talent pool. Maybe it is time for a radical departure on the part of the Alianza Latina de Béisbol and the Confederación de Beisbol del Caribe (administrative bodies governing the winter circuits) in the form of an overture to officials of the Cuban League. The presence of the Cuban champion (either Santiago or Industriales, boasting such big-league-level talents as sluggers Alex Mayeta or Alexei Bell, or hurlers Yadel Martí or Norge Vera) in this mix would certainly do much to stimulate wider fan interest and elevate the quality of Caribbean Series competition. But the Alianza has unfortunately already gone on récord on this matter when Confederation Commissioner Juan Francisco Puello remarked at last year's event (in San Juan) that Cuba would be welcome only if it "fulfilled all the requirements of professional baseball" (perhaps meaning that the Cuban government would have to release its players to MLB signings, not a very likely or welcome scenario). Puello commented further last February that the Caribbean Series was “as healthy as ever,” that it had gotten along just fine for decades without Cuba, and that it certainly didn't need Cuba now. Such exaggerations of the tournament's true health status seemed something of an idle boast a year ago, and they certainly seem like an even further stretching of the truth now. With Puerto Rico now temporarily out of the picture, the U.S. Treasury Department would no longer have any say on Cuba’s participation in the February Caribbean championship classic. That might be the one silver lining inside this sad story of the loss of a once-glorious Puerto Rican winter league.
Peter C. Bjarkman is author of the award-winning A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) plus the forthcoming Baseball’s Other Big Red Machine: A History of the Cuban National Team (McFarland, 2009). Bjarkman is considered the foremost authority on Cuban baseball history and is also a leading collector of Cuban national team game-worn uniforms. He has made more than 40 visits to Cuba since 1997.
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