Though most sports-savvy individuals know Jackie Robinson as the first black Major League Baseball player, few are familiar with the sports figure instrumental in bridging the racial divide for Latino and other black players.
University of Illinois professor Adrian Burgos delivered the first talk in the Selig Distinguished Lecture in Sport and Society series, presented in part by the University of Wisconsin Department of History.
Over 100 were in attendance to hear Burgos outline Alejandro “Alex” Pompez’s efforts to deconstruct boundaries in segregated professional baseball leagues.
Burgos said Pompez, a baseball owner and scout, was a champion of integration efforts in the early 1900’s. His career spanned nearly seven decades, and he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Pompez built an effective team by using his Cuban heritage, as well as his bilingualism, to recruit previously disregarded black and Caribbean populations to play in American leagues, Burgos said.
When Pompez’s mother moved the family back to her native Cuba after her husband’s death, Burgos said Pompez was hardly entering a “race-neutral” zone, a concept that still does not exist today.
Through his interactions with recent immigrants living in Key West and Tampa communities, Pompez became a valuable liaison between the national baseball league, the Negro League and players from the Caribbean, Burgos said.
“He was taught to fight for one’s own nation and viewed the United States as a vast and interconnected cultural terrain,” Burgos said. “He understood issues involved in a player’s cultural adjustment.”
Pompez also had a keen understanding of how race and segregation varied according to different regions and social circumstances, Burgos said, as well as the difficulty of learning the nuance associated with language and American social norms.
Pompez joined the New York Giants, an organization he would remain with for 25 years. He would become owner of the New York Cubans and the Cuban Stars baseball teams during his career, he said.
In considering Pompez’s life, Burgos said his story affirms the view of integration, both in baseball and society, was a process instead of one isolated event.
He added while trailblazers such as Robinson were innovators to be commended for making major contributions to the cause, the continuing integration struggle was no less real for the players that came after him.
He also said Pompez owed his longevity in baseball to his ability to continually reinvent himself, even after run-ins with the mob and prosecution for racketeering.
Baseball acted as a way of raising consciousness for the issues and worked to involve his fellows in bringing social inclusion to other aspects of society, Burgos said.
The legacy of Pompez bears important applications to modern day social questions, he said, including issues of masculinity in the context of professional sports leagues and the public’s role as human actors in shaping similar expectations.
Maha Baalbaki, a UW junior, said she attended the lecture because she received a scholarship from Bud Selig, the current commissioner of Major League Baseball.
She said attending guest lectures is a valuable contribution to a more holistic college experience without being a purely academic activity.
The lecture also depicted some of the real-world issues relating to race graduates may be faced with in the future after their time at UW, Baalbaki said.
“I liked how the lecture included the issue of race. You don’t usually hear about that in baseball anymore,” she said.