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The Cuban Slide

Who really broke baseball's color barrier?



By Robert Heuer

Thirteen-year-old Bobby Estalella was paging through a scrapbook in his grandparents' Miami home back in 1987 when he happened upon a 1938 baseball card that showed his grandfather wearing a Washington Senators uniform. "Seeing my grandfather's picture on a baseball card was one of the most amazing things--it really hit me hard," the Philadelphia Phillies rookie recalled last week at Wrigley Field.

"Growing up, you want to be a ballplayer, so you idolize anybody that's on the field and in a baseball card," Estalella said. He was sitting in the visitors' dugout a half hour before making his second start behind the plate since graduating from the minors in early September. "When I saw my own grandfather on a baseball card, it kind of hit me like, wow, he did it--so there's a chance that I can do it too."

Roberto Estalella died in 1990. It's a barely noticed irony of baseball history that he was allowed to play major-league ball precisely because he was a foreigner who didn't speak English. Had Estalella grown up in the United States, he would have been barred by the unspoken agreement among major-league baseball owners that kept African-Americans off the field. They'd been blackballed since 1887, when Cap Anson refused to play against a team whose lineup included a black man. A year later, some Long Island waiters formed the first all-black professional baseball team. Calling themselves the "Cubans," they spoke a Spanish-sounding gibberish on the field and hoped it would fool white spectators. The scam apparently worked: almost every black team for the next decade threw the word "Cubans" into its name.

Former Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith, whose uncle Clark Griffith had owned the Washington club, denied that Estalella was black. "It was said that some of our Cubans had black blood, which made them black according to the standards of the world," Griffith told me a decade ago, shortly before selling the franchise that he'd brought to the midwest in 1961. "They may have been black in the minds of blacks. But Bobby Estalella was not negroid. He had very thin lips and was more yellow than anything else."

I pressed Griffith on this awkward subject. Finally he wavered. "Tell me, how the hell do you classify a Negro?"

"I've told lots of reporters Jackie Robinson wasn't the first black player," said Howie Haak, the veteran scout who loaded Pittsburgh Pirates lineups with Latinos for several decades--starting with Roberto Clemente, a Puerto Rican whose skin color would once have prevented his Hall of Fame career. "There was Bobby Estalella, and Tommy de la Cruz pitched for the Reds. He was darker than my shoes. But nobody ever picked up on the story."

I did a decade ago, exploring the topic in a Reader cover story about the Cuban Minnie Minoso. Minoso lost a few of his best years to the Negro League before joining the Cleveland Indians in 1948. He'd been passed over in the early 1940s by Joe Cambria, the same Washington Senators scout who had earlier brought Estalella to the mainland.

In those years, Washington's Griffith Stadium scoreboard crew included a teenager named Bowie Kuhn. "I thought Cambria was great and I loved Bobby Estalella," recalled Kuhn, baseball's commissioner before he joined a New York law firm in the early 80s. Estalella "was a little muscular guy who I guess wasn't very good," Kuhn said. "I thought he was a superstar. And I always heard he was partially black." The Senators' Ossie Bluege remembered Estalella as "a pudgy, happy-go-lucky sort of guy who struck people the right way." Bluege said opposing players used to tell Estalella, "You may be Cuban, but you're a nigger sonuvabitch to me."

Estalella passed because the island's genetic melting pot confounded baseball's racial purists. Reflecting Mediterranean mores in which slave and master were equal in God's eyes, Cuban society wedded Spanish Catholic and African cultures. The intermingling of the masses inspired a pecking order that featured terms like prieto (dark), trigue–o (less dark), and jabao (least dark of the darks). In the coffee-and-milk equation of Cuban life, Estalella was heavy on the lighteners. Un jabao.

He was born in 1911, the year that Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans became the first Cubans to play in the major leagues. Indians, Mexican-Americans, and even a Colombian had played in the majors, but there'd been no Cuban until the business manager of the Cincinnati Reds returned from a vacation on the island with news of two great prospects he'd seen there playing winter ball. To allay fears of mongrels tainting the box score, a Cincinnati sportswriter introduced Almeida and Marsans "as two of the purest bars of Castilian soap to ever wash up on our shores."

Within a decade a dozen more Cubans entered the majors, each brandishing a clear Spanish pedigree.Their mainland success stimulated interest among Cuban fans in their winter league, which proved an indispensable training ground for American blacks during the segregated era and one of the few venues where American blacks and whites competed together. By 1947, when Robinson opened the door for Latin American prietos like Minnie Minoso, more than 50 Cubans had already played major-league ball. In 1935 Estalella was the first to blur the color line, thanks to the employment policies of Clark Griffith, an independent operator who needed the cheapest talent he could find. Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey got the credit for hiring Robinson, yet Calvin Griffith said he heard Rickey compliment his uncle as "my teacher."

In the 1940s the black press attacked Griffith and his fellow owners for collusion. Column after column excoriated Griffith for signing foreigners but shunning "men of color" in his own backyard. After he retired, Jackie Robinson let his resentment show. He wrote, "Few of them could speak English and none of them had been American citizens for any length of time, but Clark Griffith for some reason considered them more acceptable than North Americans."

The Cuban presence probably helped U.S. sportswriters begin to see the color bar as a farce. In 1932 the Tribune's Westbrook Pegler was the first prominent reporter to challenge baseball's race barrier in print. And a year later, when Cuban Adolfo Luque came out of the New York Giants bull pen to help hand Washington a World Series defeat, Pegler described his "purplish Latin American complexion." It was Luque's performance that compelled Griffith, who as Cincinnati's manager had put Almeida and Marsans in his 1911 lineup, to take a more systematic approach to tapping the inexpensive island talent.

In 1983 I dialed Estalella's phone number in Miami. "I didn't know how to speak English but went on learning little by little," he said softly in Spanish. The highlight of his nine-year American League career was a pinch-hit grand slam off Detroit's Bobo Newsom. "I never had a problem in the minor leagues or the major leagues," he explained. "You have to be careful and do what managers tell you. I can say with some certainty that we always understood each other."

Estalella's friendly air evaporated when I posed my awkward question about his "black blood." The words "Tiene usted sangre negra?" triggered a hostile denial.

His angrily quivering voice came to mind as I prepared to meet the young man who is proudly carrying the Estalella name into the 21st century.

Bobby Estalella was selected by the Phillies in the 23rd round of the 1992 draft. After four years of minor-league ball he got his first taste of the major leagues last September. This year, after completing an all-star season in AAA ball, he again joined the Phillies. The first-string catcher was given a rest the next evening, and in his first start in a year Bobby hit three home runs in a victory over the Expos. Then it was back to the bench. His next chance came two weeks later, the opener of a three-game set in Chicago.

He was in a crouch playing catch when I introduced myself. When I mentioned that I'd interviewed his grandfather he sounded astonished. He extended his big right hand, then listened attentively while continuing to play catch.

"Your grandfather broke into the majors when he was 24," I said, and told him a story I'd heard from Calvin Griffith. In 1935 Griffith, also 24, was in his first year as president of a minor-league team affiliated with the Senators. He thought he'd discovered the next Babe Ruth. He convinced his uncle Clark to make an addition to the Washington roster.

"Your grandfather was playing for the Chattanooga, Tennessee, ball club in a game in Norfolk, Virginia," I said. "He hit two home runs against the wind with a long black bat. Calvin Griffith swore that the bat literally bent in half both times."

After discovering that 50-year-old baseball card, Bobby read through the family clippings. He knew his grandfather's physique had earned him the nickname "Tarzan" in Cuba. He didn't know what Americans had called him. According to Calvin Griffith, because of his knack for charming women they called him "Snake."

I told him other things he'd never known about his grandfather. Roberto was the second Cuban to be discovered by Joe Cambria, Griffith's scout on the island for nearly 30 years. Once Robinson opened the door for players of all complexions, Cambria brought them up by the boatload.

"Did your grandfather ever talk to you about what it was like playing baseball back in that era?"

"He said it was a lot more difficult, especially for him coming out of Cuba," Bobby replied. "He had to work harder at it just because he was Latin and wasn't American speaking. He didn't speak the language very well or maybe that he didn't understand it as well. In that sense, he had a tough barrier to deal with."

"Your grandfather was said to have a 'drugstore glove,' which meant that when he played third base he stopped many ground balls with his chest," I said. "I read that there was one stretch when he was so popular that people called the ballpark to see if he was in the lineup before deciding whether to come out to the game. Maybe that was 1942, because that seemed to be his best year."

"I don't know," Bobby said. "I do know that he played in the majors from 1935 to 1949, except for three years when he was in the Mexican League."

"Did you know that many American blacks before Jackie Robinson were resentful?" I said. "They were mad Cubans could play in the majors but that native sons could not. Your grandfather told me that the racial barrier was absurd."

Bobby said he was too young to learn about that dimension of his grandfather's life. "He always taught me to be respectful and to treat others the way you want to be treated. That's how I've gone about things. You respect others, and they'll respect you in turn. He was always friendly to everybody. So I learned a lot from him in that way."

"If many of the Cuban guys had been Americans they wouldn't have been allowed to play in the majors back then because of their color," I explained. "Your grandfather was considered one of those Cubans. In fact, he was considered the first black player."

"I figured that that kind of thing happened in that time and era," Bobby responded. "But my grandfather never stressed that. All of this that you're sharing is news to me. I don't know, it's different being Cuban or Latin or whatever you might say. I mean, but no matter what barriers they showed him, he was always respectful to everybody."

Bobby gave me the address and phone number of his father, Victor, a ballplayer who spent his prime as a soldier in the Vietnam war. He rose, shook hands, went to greet a fan at the side of the dugout, and went back to the clubhouse to change into his uniform.

Up in the press box, I asked former major leaguer Bobby Wine, an advance scout for the Atlanta Braves, what he thought of Bobby Estalella. "He's got some power. He's a strong kid. But I've never seen him catch."

The Phillies trounced the Cubs 10 to 5 that humid afternoon in a game cut short after six innings by a lightning storm and torrential rain. Estalella had a hit, a run, a run batted in, a walk, and a strikeout. Catching, he called the pitch that Ryne Sandberg transformed into his last Wrigley Field home run. And he cut down Sammy Sosa trying for his 200th career stolen base with a perfect peg to second.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bobby Estalella photo/ The Phillies: Rosemary Rahn/ Roberto Estalella photo / Brace Photo.

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