In 2013, Latino players held more than twenty-eight percent of all major league contracts--a number that has steadily increased over time. The spread of baseball to Latin America was directly related to the economic interests of the United States. The game was exported to Cuba in the 1860s and to Mexico during the railroad expansion era of the 1880s. The petroleum boom of the 1920s brought the game to Venezuela. Due to a ban on black players, only light-skinned Latinos were allowed in the majors during the first half of the twentieth century. From 1871 to 1950, less than sixty Latin Americans found spots on major league rosters. The breaking of the color barrier in 1947 dramatically altered the face of the sport not only for African Americans but for Latinos as well. In my next few posts, I'll be ranking the top Latin players of all time (RETIRED PLAYERS ONLY).
Let's begin with infielders!
Born in Camaguey, Cuba, Perez made his major league debut in 1964. Over the next two decades, he established himself as one of the top players at his position. He drove-in 90 or more runs in eleven consecutive seasons from 1967 through 1977. Reds manager Sparky Anderson once commented that there was no other player he would rather have at the plate with the game on the line. Perez was a vital cog in Cincinnati's "Big Red Machine." He played on four pennant-winning Reds squads and later appeared in a fifth World Series with the Phillies. In all, he made seven All-Star appearances while finishing among the top ten in MVP voting four times. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000.
Cepeda hailed from Ponce, Puerto Rico. Originally property of the Giants, he captured Rookie of the Year honors in 1958. He enjoyed several successful seasons in San Francisco--most notably the 1961 campaign, when he led the NL with 46 homers and 142 RBIs. He finished second in MVP voting to Frank Robinson that year. He finally captured the award in 1967 while playing for the Cardinals. Cepeda was carefree and easy going. He earned the nickname "Cha Cha" for the Latin music he played in the clubhouse before games. Interestingly, he had decent speed for a slugger, finishing among the top ten in steals on four occasions. Cepeda was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1999. At the time, he was just the sixth Hispanic player to be enshrined. He might have arrived in Cooperstown sooner had he not been convicted for importing marijuana in 1975.
A product of La Habana, Cuba, Palmeiro was extremely versatile, winning three Gold Gloves while becoming only the fourth player to gather more than 500 homers and 3,000 hits. A reliable RBI man, he reached the century mark in that category ten times. He would probably be in the Hall of Fame had he not falsely testified before Congress regarding steroid use. Palmeiro denied using steroids then tested positive in 2005. As a result, he has yet to capture more than 12.6% of the Cooperstown vote.
Though Carew played in more games as a first baseman, he actually began his career at second base and served more seasons in that capacity. After capturing Rookie of the year honors in 1967, the Panamanian native established himself as one of the most productive hitters in the game. Over the course of his career, he captured seven batting titles and was named to eighteen All-Star teams. He garnered AL MVP honors in 1977. He was enshrined at Cooperstown in 1991.
Alomar was among the most decorated second basemen in history with ten Gold Gloves to his credit. He was adept with a bat as well, capturing four Silver Slugger Awards and finishing among the top ten in MVP voting on five occasions. Originally from Ponce, Puerto Rico, he later took up residence in Tampa, Florida. He helped three different teams to multiple playoff appearances. He won two World Series rings with the Blue Jays. Though he was vilified for an unpleasant run-in with an umpire, he made amends and salvaged his reputation. He ended up in the Hall of Fame class of 2011.
Trillo was an exceptional defensive second baseman for several teams, capturing three Gold Gloves and earning four All-Star selections. Born in Venezuela, he spent a majority of his career with the Cubs. He led NL second basemen in assists for four straight years. He had wide range and a throwing style that has been described as "whip-like." A competent offensive presence, he hit .270 or better seven times, peaking at .292 in 1980--the same year he helped the Phillies to their first world championship.
Born in Venezuela, Aparicio demonstrated a pleasing combination of speed and defense. Appearing most often as a leadoff hitter, he topped the American League in steals for nine straight seasons. A ten-time All-Star, there were few players with surer hands and a stronger arm. He currently ranks among the top ten of all time in putouts and assists. He was rewarded for his defensive excellence with nine Gold Gloves. His induction to Cooperstown took place in 1984.
Another Venezuelan, Concepcion was a two-way player for Cincinnati's "Big Red Machine." Between 1973 and 1982, he hit .280 or better seven times while collecting five Gold Gloves. Devoutly religious, he is remembered for making the sign of the cross before each at-bat. Though he is not in the Hall of FAme, similarity scores compare him favorably to inductees Pee Wee Reese and Aparicio.
A product of the Dominican Republic, Fernandez spent time with seven different clubs during a highly successful major league career. He received a Gold Glove every year from 1986-'89. A switch-hitter, Fernandez used his ample speed to gather 30 or more doubles on six occasions. He finished in double digits for triples three times, leading the league in 1990 while playing for the Blue Jays. Through 2007, he held the franchise record for hits. He was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008.
Campaneris was among the most versatile players ever. He demonstrated this early in his career by appearing at every position in a game during one of owner Charlie Finley's wild promotional stunts. It has been argued by many that Campaneris was the greatest A's shortstop of all time. Hailing from Pueblo Nuevo, Cuba, he arrived on the scene in 1964. Over the next eight seasons, he would lead the league in steals six times. He helped the A's to three straight World Series victories from '72-'74. He appeared on six All-Star teams in all.
(Most of the best Latino third basemen are still active, but there are at least two historical players worth mentioning)
A Mexican import, Castilla spent portions of nine seasons in Colorado and benefited tremendously from hitter-friendly Coors Field. Nearly seventy percent of his lifetime homers and RBIs came as a member of the Rockies. His most productive span occurred between 1995 and 1999, when he hit .302 while averaging 38 homers and 112 RBIs per year. He led the league with 131 ribbies in 2004. Defensively, he fielded his position several points above the league average.
Also from Mexico, Rodriguez wore seven different major league uniforms during his seventeen-year career. He enjoyed his longest stretch with the Tigers from 1971-'79. Though he never hit for high averages, he had moderate power, finishing in double digits for homers five times. He was far stronger on defense, leading AL third basemen in fielding percentage, assists, double plays and range factor twice apiece. Shut out by Brooks Robinson of the Orioles year after year, Rodriguez finally captured a Gold Glove in 1976.