The Secret History of How Mexico Pushed Baseball Toward Racial Integration

From the late 30s through the 40s, for black American ballplayers, there was a real “Field of Dreams”. It was south of the border, in Mexico.

“I remember my time in Mexico fondly. It was one of the best years of my life,” says Monte Irvin who played in Mexico in 1942. Irvin was one of the biggest young stars in the U.S. Negro Leagues, before he went south to play for the Azules de Veracruz in a state off the Gulf of Mexico. He wanted to return to Mexico for the 1943 season, but he got drafted to join the Army during World War II. When the color barrier broke down in the U.S. major leagues in 1947, Irvin was one of the talents who got the attention of the bigger clubs and made his debut with the New York Giants in 1949, where he became a star. For all his accomplishments with the Giants, Irvin is now a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Monte Irvin
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Monte Irvin is the perfect example of the quality of black players that came to the Mexican League in those years. There were more than 150 black U.S.players that came to Mexico from 1937 to 1946, looking for better salaries and social conditions. Fourteen of them are now Cooperstown Hall of Famers, including the greatest pitcher of segregated baseball, Satchel Paige, and the greatest hitter, Josh Gibson.

“It was the first time in my life that I felt free,” adds Irvin. “We could go anywhere we wanted, eat anywhere we wanted, do anything we wanted and not have to worry about anything. We just had a wonderful time and I owe that experience to Jorge Pasquel.”

Jorge Pasquel, according to Irvin, was the George Steinbrenner of Mexico. He was the owner of the biggest import-export business in the country. Rich, handsome, and fierce, Pasquel knew no limits. His larger-than-life persona included dating Mexico’s biggest movie star at the time, María Felix. He brought glamour to the baseball diamond at the same time that he angled for popularity as politician.

Jorge Pasquel with Danny Gardella and Rodriguez Olmo.
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Officially, Jorge Pasquel entered to the Mexican Baseball League in 1940 as the owner of a new team, the Azules de Veracruz. But before that, he was the main sponsor of the league, signing and paying black stars to play for all the league’s teams. With his connections and wallet, Pasquel recommended a black Cuban super star to the Aguila, also in Veracruz in 1937. Martin Dihigo carried the team to the championship in 1937 and 1938. The Mexico City Agrario team, archrival to the Aguila club, countered by signing Satchel Paige, the greatest black American pitcher of the time, who in 1938 became the first African American to play in the Mexican League.

By 1940, there were 63 African-American players in Mexico – a Mexican ‘Field of Dreams.’

Pasquel built it, and they came. His master plan was to have major league caliber baseball in Mexico during the summer season. To do this, he strengthened his relationship with the Cuban League,  which played in the winter, to guarantee that his stars could work all year long.

By 1940, there were 63 African American players in Mexico: a Mexican ‘Field of Dreams.’

Under Pasquel’s leadership the Mexican leagues thrived. Cool Papa Bell, regarded as the fastest black man in baseball, won the batting Triple Crown playing for Veracruz. Then in 1941, Josh Gibson, the greatest black power hitter of his time, smashed 33 homers in just 358 at bats, also on the Veracruz team. Black American players such as Ray Dandridge, Wild Bill Wright and Willie Wells, would be favorites among the Mexican crowds.

“I am not faced with the racial problem,” said Wells, who in Mexico received the nickname “El Diablo,” for his aggressive style of play. “We live in the best hotels, we eat in the best restaurants. We don’t enjoy such privileges in the U.S. I didn’t quit Newark and join some other team in the United States. I quit and left the country. I’ve found freedom and democracy here, something I never found in the United States. Here, in Mexico, I am a man.”

Segregation in the U.S. stretched into almost every corner of life in the United States at that time, including baseball. But players in the Negro Leagues developed  an exciting style of play, based in speed, aggressiveness, athleticism and wit. A single was stretched into a double, a double into a triple, and a deep line drive to the gap could be an inside the park home run.

The Negro Leagues stars not only played to win, they played to show that they were as strong, as determined, and as smart as the white players in the Major Leagues.

And they brought that caliber of baseball to Mexico.

Jorge Pasquel
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But Jorge Pasquel didn’t stop there. In 1944, he raided the U.S. Major Leagues, seducing white players with huge salaries.  He ended up integrating baseball in Mexico years before the United States. Rogers Hornsby, a veteran with seven batting championships in the Major Leagues went south in 1944 to manage and play for Pasquel’s Azules team. White American players like Danny Gardella, Sal Maglie, Lou Klein, Max Lanier, Mickey Owen, Vernon Stephens and others, took the offer and left the Major Leagues, ignoring their contracts and going south as well. White Latino players like Roberto Ortiz, Luis Rodríguez Olmo, Adrián Zabala, Salvador Hernández, Tomás de la Cruz, and several others did the same.

Jorge Pasquel had essentially declared war on the U.S. Major Leagues. He offered blank contracts to superstars such as Ted Williams, Bob Feller and Joe DiMaggio so the players could name their price. They ultimately refused to jump to Mexico, but Pasquel had shown his hand.

“I’ve found freedom and democracy here, something I never found in the United States. Here, in Mexico, I am a man.”

The 1946 season of the Mexican League was a dream come true. On March 21, Mexican President Manuel Avila Camacho threw the first pitch of the first truly integrated baseball league in the world. In Mexico, white American players could receive orders from black managers, as was the case with Veracruz, managed by Ramon Bragaña, a black Cuban, in a team stocked with the best white American players that Pasquel could get.

Max Lanier, a white American, led in ERA; Booker McDaniels, African American, in strikeouts. Martin Dihigo, a black Cuban, was leader in win/loss average. Claro Duany, a black Cuban, took the batting title; Roberto Ortiz, a white Cuban, lead in home runs and RBIs.

Rogers Hornsby
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Several American newspapers carried regular coverage of what was happening in Mexico. The Major Leagues saw Jorge Pasquel as a real threat, and took action. The players who had ignored their contracts to jump to Mexico had to return or they could face a lifetime ban. Every player paid by Pasquel could be blacklisted. But despite the pressures from the North, the color barrier had been lifted. The United States was behind the curve but soon followed Mexico’s lead.

The United States was behind the curve but soon followed Mexico’s lead.

Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945 and debuted with them two years later, becoming the first black player in the Major Leagues. Pasquel sent an agent with a huge offer to try to persuade Robinson to come to Mexico. He refused.

Robinson’s signing marked the beginning of the end for Jorge Pasquel’s grand experiment. Young black stars such as Larry Doby, Sam Jethroe or Don Newcombe, whose natural destination in earlier years would have been Mexico, appeared in the Major Leagues between 1947 and 1950, instead. Other veteran black stars like Claro Duany or Silvio García opted not to return south. Some of them would become huge stars in the Major Leagues, like Roy Campanella. In the next ten years, 57 black players would play for the U.S. Major Leagues, depleting the Mexican League.

The final demise of Jorge Pasquel and the Mexican “Field of Dreams” occurred in 1951, when he announced the Azules would be dissolved and that he was leaving the league.

Pasquel tragically died in an airplane accident a few years later but his legacy was showing black baseball players that not only could they be treated as equals to whites, but that they could be better. The white players learned that they could share a clubhouse with black players by and that colorblindness was the best way to win games.