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How Latinos changed baseball in America

Correction: The headline of this story has been updated to accurately reflect the history of baseball.


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: With ballparks filling up around the country as pandemic restrictions ease, it's time to take me out to the ball game.

Jeffrey Brown looks at a new exhibit on the long history of Latinos playing baseball, and how they have changed it fundamentally in this country.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Fenway Park in Boston, 2017, the flag of the Dominican Republic covers the famed outfield wall known as the Green Monster, a tribute to beloved Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, a deeply moving moment even for baseball historian and lifelong Yankees fan Adrian Burgos.

Adrian Burgos: I cannot have imagined a day when the flag of the Dominican Republic would be unfurled over the Green Monster.

And it signaled a couple of really important things to me. One was the power of the game to help transform ideas and feelings about a community.

Jeffrey Brown: Today, Latinos, born outside and within the U.S., make up some 30 percent of Major League ballplayers, including some of the game's biggest stars, prominent in the recent All-Star Game.

But the long history of Latinos and baseball in this country is less known. And that's the focus of a new bilingual exhibition at Washington's Smithsonian Museum of American History. It's titled Pleibol: In the Barrios and the Big Leagues.

Margaret Salazar-Porzio: In the Barrios and the Big Leagues: It's about how Latinos have been able to make a space for themselves.

Jeffrey Brown: Curator Margaret Salazar-Porzio wanted to capture the game at ground level, through more than a century, and what it meant to families and communities.

Her team held a series of gatherings around the country to meet individuals and collect material for the exhibition. Some, like this high school letterman jacket, were then repaired by the conservation staff.

Also here, a scrapbook using "LIFE" magazine, a stickball bat made from a broom handle, an old and very worn-in mitt.

Margaret Salazar-Porzio: We were hearing the same stories over and over again, whether you were in California or you were in Texas or you were in Florida. And so...

Jeffrey Brown: And these stories were?

Margaret Salazar-Porzio: Well, those were stories about family, about community. Those were stories about how my father played this game and he was an agricultural worker or he worked on the railroad, but he made sure to incorporate baseball into his everyday life.

They were about women playing in the barrios, being able to play because maybe their team was sponsored by their local church. After a while, we realized that these hyper-local stories were actually part, they were microcosms of a larger kind of American experience for Latinos and Latinas.

Jeffrey Brown: A key point, Latino immigrants brought the game with them as far back as the 1860s, from longstanding traditions in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere.

Among many other examples, workers for sugar companies in Colorado's so-called Spanish colonies formed teams like the Greeley Grays, and the game gave them something more than a bit of fun in a country that was often unwelcoming so many other ways.

Margaret Salazar-Porzio: Sometimes, the networks that came out of baseball were networks that allowed them to find health care and to find services that they needed, to become part of their local churches or support local community centers and businesses.

And so some of it was, yes, we can play baseball and we can become part of these larger communities, but then, other times, they weren't accepted and they had their own community. And they were fine with it, you know?

Jeffrey Brown: And baseball was part of that identity.

Margaret Salazar-Porzio: And baseball was part of that identity, absolutely.

Jeffrey Brown: At the national level, there's the 1939 uniform of a young Marge Villa, who later became a star in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and renowned game-changers like Roberto Clemente, his San Juan, Puerto Rico, uniform, his Pittsburgh Pirates cap helmet from 1960, and Fernando Valenzuela, the center of Fernandomania, as a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1980s.

But this is also a story of discrimination and the color line in baseball and America.

Adrian Burgos: Roberto Clemente himself said about Latino players, particularly Black Latino players: We had two strikes against us, one, because we're Black, and the other because we're Latin, we're foreign.

Jeffrey Brown: Historian Burgos, a professor at the University of Illinois, served as an adviser to the exhibition, and has written widely about one key figure, Orestes "Minnie" Minoso, who starred in his native Cuba, in the Negro Leagues in the U.S. when Blacks were excluded from Major League Baseball, and then with the Chicago White Sox when the color line was finally broken.

Burgos is among those pushing for Minoso's accomplishments to finally gain him entry to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Adrian Burgos: He was a pioneering player, and the excellence that it took to excel, the persistence, the resilience, while the majority of the league was not yet integrated, while many of the hotels that the Chicago White Sox stayed in did not welcome Black individuals.

There is so much that Minoso had to deal with on and off the field. For him to perform at that level is what a Hall of Famer is.

Jeffrey Brown: Burgos and curator Salazar-Porzio point to continuing problems, lack of representation among managers and front offices, racism still heard in the stands, but also how Latinos have permanently changed the style, the look, even the tastes of the game and ballpark, amid broader changes in American culture, including at museums themselves.

Officials at the Smithsonian Museum of American History told us that all future exhibitions will have bilingual signage. This one, says Salazar-Porzio, can help lead the way.

Margaret Salazar-Porzio: It shouldn't be so transformative, but, for our institution, it is

To have a fully bilingual show that was planned to be so from the very beginning, to have the -- this fundamental premise of it be that Latinos have changed this quintessential American sport, that is a transformative moment.

Jeffrey Brown: The exhibition Pleibol is on in Washington for the coming year. A smaller traveling version is in select cities around the country.

For the "PBS NewsHour, " I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Judy Woodruff: So good to see all of this.

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