Baseball in the Dominican Republic Part I

14 Jan

Baseball was introduced to the Dominican Republic in 1866 by Cuban dockworkers whom had learned the game from American sailors. Between then and 1878 many Cubans fled their homeland taking up residence in the Dominican Republic to escape the Cuban Ten Year War. Soon, teams formed and tournaments were being held cementing the games place in society long before the arrival of American Marines in 1916. Immediately it was love affair and the game began it’s path towards the thriving industry it is today, as well it’s place as the most popular team sport in the country. Baseball in the D.R. is not just a sport, it is a way of life, and for some an escape from poverty.

The oldest remaining team from the 1900’s is the Tigers del Licey which formed in Santo Domingo in 1907. Three other teams have lasted from that era as well including Estrelles Oriental’s, Sandino (Now known as Las Anguilas), and Leon del Escogido. By the 1920’s as travel became more available these were the teams which began traveling abroad to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and North America, first displaying the talents of Dominican players. During the 1930’s the Dominican league began it’s real evolution to becoming an international force when American players from the Negro Leagues began joining the league on at least a part time basis and introduced a new style of play to the islands. Among the best known were legendary Hall of Famers Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and Josh Gibson whom was regarded as “The black Babe Ruth.”

While the purchase of these players to compete on the Ciudad Trujillo Dragons for the season elevated baseball to a new level in the D.R. and culled political support for then president Rafael Leonids Trujillo, it also bankrupt the league and devastated the national treasury which Trujillo was plundering mercilessly. Professional baseball in the D.R. then ended for fourteen years. Amateur baseball however took over and elevated it’s status soon becoming more competitive than the professional league had been in the opinion of many professional scouts of the era. Spurred by winning the Caribbean championship in 1948, professional baseball returned in 1951 with the backing of wealthy citizens. Two significant changes also occurred that year as the first night game was played on October twenty third, and the professional league changed their schedule to begin winter play while the amateur league took up the summer schedule.

It was during the 1950’s that Major League Baseball began turning it’s focus to players from the Caribbean, but specifically from the Dominican Republic as the color barrier in baseball fell after Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby entered and thrived in the League. Ozzie Virgil was the first Dominican to make the jump to the majors, but it was the “Dominican Dandy” Juan Marichal along with the Alou brothers, Matty, Felipe, and Jesus, that really took awareness to the next level. With these players becoming established stars and the Dominican professional leagues switch to a winter schedule, the island not only became a mecca for recruiting talent but developing talent. With no conflict in the professional schedules Dominican players at various stages of the American professional league as well as American players, began playing in the Dominican professional league. Some were there for the paycheck, but more often than not it was seen as an alternative to the Mexican winter league and a chance to develop and showcase their skills.

Today some joke the D.R.’s main exports are sugarcane and baseball players, but it is closer to the truth than one might think. The sad fact is the D.R. is a struggling underdeveloped economy which is in large part propped up by baseball. Pictures of kids playing baseball on rocky fields with taped balls, sticks for bats, and homemade cardboard gloves are everywhere. Even the greats like Vlad Guerrero started out that way. For a young man on the island with a poor socio-economic background there are basically two choices, minimum wage labor or baseball.

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