Everyone knows about Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball’s color line. Most folks at least know the name Pumpsie Green, the last man to be the first black player for a major league team. In between them there were 14 other men who became the first black player for their respective clubs. You may know the person who integrated your favorite team if it was around back then but many if not most people would have a really, really hard time naming more than a few from all of the others.
That’s why this article about Carlos Paula at the Baseball Hall of Fame’s website, by author Larry Brunt, is fantastic.
Paula, a fast, muscular slugger from Cuba, integrated the Washington Senators. He was not a fantastic player. After making his debut in 1954 he played in only 157 games across three seasons for Washington and never appeared in the big leagues after 1957. The long accepted story of Paula’s short career is that he was a defensive liability — which is true; he had a great arm but a poor glove — but it’s not the whole story. Not at all.
As Brunt explains, Paula’s career got a late start because, even though everyone who saw him thought he was a star in the making, the Senators kept him down on the farm for a puzzlingly long time. Then, once he did arrive, there seemed to be an almost pathological fixation on what Paula didn’t do well as opposed to what he did do well. In 1955 he went on a 22-game stretch when he hit .450, with 10 doubles, 3 triples and a homer among his 36 hits and struck out only 4 times. It was barely covered by the press. A lot of play, however, was given to his mistakes and an alleged “hitch” in his swing about which his manager complained but no one else really seemed to see. He’d go 3-for-5 and an article would appear that only mentioned his base running mistake. Stuff like that.
More troubling was the way in which he was profiled by the press on a personal basis. His heavily accented English was phonetically reproduced in the paper, with the clear purpose of making him out to sound uneducated. There were stories of his life in Cuba — some obvious fabrications — which made him out to be a rube. Over time he literally became a punchline. And not just during his playing career. Paula’s name was invoked for decades after he was out of baseball, used exclusively for a dumb or mistake-prone player. One high-profile Boston scribe continuing to use Paula’s name as a go-to joke into the 1980s.
Brunt’s research and the detail he puts into this article is fantastic. It tells both the story of a baseball player and the story of a baseball establishment that did everything it could to marginalize and debase him. Some of the examples are, to be sure, quite extreme by modern standards, but you can still see the same general pattern of treatment of Latino players today. The fixation on their weaknesses rather than strengths. The tendency to fill in gaps of knowledge about the man with stereotypes and assumptions. In this the story serves as both history and general critique of how Latino players fare in the eyes of a primarily white press and baseball establishment.
This is must read stuff, folks.