Inside the special Hall of Fame exhibit honoring obstacles, racism faced by Hispanic Caribbean baseball players

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A report from the Texas Rangers’ Sport Day.

Down the hall, somebody is pondering Babe Ruth’s full uniform, the one he wore when he was honored at Yankee Stadium shortly before his death. Across the way are trinkets from Lou Gehrig’s career, including the charm bracelet he had made for his wife of his awards.

Over here, though, in a brightly painted room, meringue music plays. The floor is a map of the Caribbean Sea with the island of Cuba, generously represented, as a starting point. A boy jumps from it over to Hispaniola, which the Dominican Republic and Haiti share. He jumps once more to Puerto Rico, home of Ivan Rodriguez, member of this year’s National Baseball Hall of Fame induction class.

And it helps make John Odell’s point.

Odell is a curator at the Hall of Fame Museum, and he was just launching into an explanation behind the “Viva Baseball” exhibit, which pays homage to the Latin American influence on the game.

“You see, everybody does the same island hopping that baseball did as it spread,” Odell says. “And it was the Cubans who spread it. We tend to think it was Americans who brought the game to Cuba, but it was Cubans, who brought it back from college. And it gained popularity there because it was too American and America is democracy and Spain at the time ruled Cuba with an iron fist. The way you surreptitiously revolted against the Spanish was playing this American, democratic game. Then the Cubans spread it to the other islands.”

The Viva Baseball exhibit is pictured at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, photographed on Tuesday, May 30, 2017. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News)

In turn, the islands have given back to America, wave upon wave of talent. The Latin influence on the major league game began in the 1950s and has only increased with time. Nearly 30 percent of the players in the major leagues are Latin American.

When Rodriguez is inducted Sunday, he will become the ninth Latin American major leaguer (there are three Hall members elected for their Negro League careers). He will be the third in the last seven years. Vladimir Guerrero of the Dominican Republic fell just short of joining Rodriguez and making it the first class with multiple Latin American natives.

Instead, that will probably happen next year when Guerrero (Dominican Republic), Edgar Martinez (Puerto Rico) and first-year eligible Omar Vizquel (Venezuela) could all be on stage together.

And in coming years, the list continues to grow. Mariano Rivera. Eventually Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre.

Viva Baseball, indeed.

This is why the Hall of Fame endeavored to install a permanent exhibit devoted to Latin American baseball more than a decade ago. Most of the museum is dedicated to a timeline of the game’s history and to unique records and accomplishments.

The Viva Baseball exhibit is something different.

“We knew we wanted to tell the story, but it took us a while to figure out how we wanted to tell it,” Odell said. “We have a lot of people who know a lot about major league baseball, but we needed to break out of the mold for that. We needed to tell the cultural story, the behind-the-scenes story, the issue. The game of baseball is not only our national pastime; it is their’s.”

The exhibit is bilingual in every aspect. Some of the captions under artifacts are in English first and Spanish second and some the other way around. On interactive video questions posed to various Latin American players about their experience, some of the audio is in English with Spanish subtitles and some is reversed.

That is not random. It is done, Odell said, to give visitors a better appreciation for some of the obstacles that Latin American players faced. While most players now go through academies where English lessons are taught and players arrive in the U.S. with at least a rudimentary grasp of the language, many who came as recently as the 1990s often had no English skills at all.

In a video interview, Orlando Cepeda, who came to the U.S. in 1955 from Puerto Rico, explains his plight when it came to something as simple as eating.

“For a couple of months, all I ate was apple pie and chili con carne,” Cepeda said. “That’s all I knew how to get. But then I was able to switch to ham fried rice. So I said to myself, ‘I have to get better.'”

And ordering food wasn’t the only issue. Many players dealt with racism, too.

“For you to go somewhere you have to learn to deal with hardships, with obstacles,” Cepeda added. “That was in the back of my mind.”

Among the artifacts on display is a proposed Bill of Rights for Latin players, suggested by Felipe Alou back in 1964 in a Sport magazine article. In a famously retold story, Alou once demonstrated the difference between the poverty he came from in the Dominican Republic and accepted baseball behavior. When Giants manager Alvin Dark, who also once asked his players not to speak Spanish, overturned a postgame buffet, Alou got on the floor and ate, staring Dark straight in the eye.

The message: Where he came from, food was too precious to be wasted.

As one winds through the exhibit, one of the last displays is a wall of screens that plays a video entitled “Passion!” narrated by Spanish language baseball broadcaster Jaime Jarrin, who was honored by the Hall of Fame in 1998. Jarrin guides the viewer through a testament to Latin American passion for the game as images of Latin American greats flash on the screen.

The last image: a catcher in full gear, winking.

It is Ivan Rodriguez.

He is no longer just a testament to Latin American baseball, but a bonafide Hall of Famer.

Latin legends

Former Ranger Ivan Rodriguez will be the 12th Latin American player to get inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. Here’s the list:

 

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