During a recent late summer vacation, I had the chance to read “Cuban Star” by Adrian Burgos Jr. If you are a fan of history and baseball, especially Latin baseball, then you must read this book. It is the biography of Alex Pompez, a Negro League owner from the 1910s to 1940s, and later the first MLB Latin American scout, for the Giants, in the 50s and 60s.
Pompez, a mulatto Cuban-American born in Florida, was the first professional baseball team owner to look for ballplayers in the Caribbean and Latin America, first bringing over Cubans to play on his Harlem-based Negro League teams, the Cuban Stars and New York Cubans, and later signing ballplayers from Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Panama.
As a Negro League team owner, Pompez also extensively scouted and signed some of the best African-American players of the day. His Cuban Stars were the essentially the first to field an “integrated” team of American (albeit African-Americans) and Latin players in the professional ranks. This all coming at a time when the Jim Crow Laws were well in effect throughout the South of the U.S., and bigotry in general was still very much prevalent throughout the country.
Pompez was not only a baseball team owner; he was also one of the largest numbers racketeers in Harlem for many years. Even though this was an illegal gambling operation for which he was eventually convicted and served time, in the context of history he was operating a fairly successful and community-charitable enterprise in a time period which did not give people of his background (i.e. mulatto Latino) very many opportunities to succeed in other professions.
Burgos writes how Pompez was one of the first baseball executives to help break down so many of the color and cultural barriers in baseball, and that he was well regarded as an upstanding and principled man when dealing with everyone he came across, especially the young Latin players he signed. Pompez is perhaps most famous for later becoming a New York (later San Francisco) Giants baseball scout, and signing the likes of Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, and the Alou brothers. Pompez would use his eye for baseball talent, people skills, and ability to transcend between both cultures to help players acclimate to their surroundings in the U.S., which wasn’t very easy if your skin color was different and you didn’t speak the language of the U.S. in the 1950’s and 60’s.
This book is very detailed-intensive, not a surprise seeing as how Burgos is a history professor and backs up his assertions with lots of source material. Some of the commentary on the Dodger’s attempts to integrate baseball with Jackie Robinson (who played on some of Pompez’ winter barnstorming teams) are interesting when observed through the perspective of Pompez, a man who effectively lost his Negro League team with zero compensation after MLB teams began to poach players from the New York Cubans and other Negro teams.
All in all, this was a great book and I highly recommend it.