As Americans celebrated Columbus Day on Oct. 12, 1963, two teams of Latinos gathered in New York for an exhibition that would be the last game played at the Polo Grounds.
The horseshoe-shaped park had been the long-time home of the New York Giants and, for 1962 and 1963, the first home of the New York Mets expansion team.
But it had a last blast, with 14,235 fans coming to see the likes of Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, Luis Aparicio, Felipe Alou, and a very young (and still unknown) Tony Oliva.
The game was a dual fund-raiser, designed to help the Hispanic-American Baseball Federation, which gave baseball equipment to inner-city youths, and the Latin American Baseball Players Association Hall of Fame, a new group that immediately inducted four retired players: Cuban native Dolf Luque, the first Latino to appear in the World Series; Puerto Rican legend Pedro Cepeda, Orlando’s father; Hiram Bithorn, the first Puerto Rican to reach the big leagues; and Pancho Coimbre.
According to Adrian Burgos Jr., history professor at the University of Illinois, “They wanted to start a Hall of Fame to honor Latino ballplayers. Part of it was recognizing that MLB and the sportswriters were not going to give them their due so they would have to honor their own.”
Roberto Clemente, the most celebrated ballplayer born in Puerto Rico, eventually became the first Latino elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame but that didn’t happen until 1973.
Clemente, Cepeda, Marichal, and Oliva were among the future Hall of Famers in the Latino all-star game. Clemente managed the National Leaguers to a 5-2 win.
Among the other participants were Zoilo (Zorro) Versalles, who won American League MVP honors two years later; Pedro Ramos, who struck out eight hitters while suffering the loss; and Hector Lopez, a Panamanian outfielder who managed the AL squad. Lopez and Vic Power homered for the American League, while Alou connected for the NL side in a pre-game Home Run Derby.
Filling out the rosters wasn’t easy, since Latinos had less than a 10 per cent presence in the majors before 1967. In the Polo Grounds exhibition, the Nationals added
two Virgin Islanders — Al McBean and Joe Christopher — while the Junior Circuit imported future Mets coach Joe Pignatano, an Italian who had spent that season in the minors. His last active season was 1962, when he was with the original Mets.
The National League team also needed a ringer to catch. Cuno Barragan, born in California to Mexican parents, had only one at-bat in the majors in 1963 but got to play in the exhibition game.
“It was an amazing feeling having my father involved that day,” said Cepeda years later. “It brought tears to my eyes.”
Nicknamed The Baby Bull because his father had been known as The Bull in Puerto Rican baseball, Cepeda was embraced by San Francisco fans as a rookie in 1958, the first year the Giants played
there after moving from New York. Willie Mays was an established star by then but Cepeda was considered one of their own by West Coast fans.
Unlike the current MLB All-Star Game and its multiple commercial entanglements, the 1963 Latino game was considered a point of pride by the players.
“It didn’t matter that it was charity and that it wasn’t a ‘real’ All-Star Game,” Cepeda said. “When you put on your uniform, you played hard and tried even harder to win. And that’s what everybody did in that game.”
During the festivities, Cepeda was voted the most popular Latino player and Marichal, his teammate with the Giants, was named the top Latino pitcher. Power, a fancy-fielding first baseman, was selected the top Latino player — perhaps because Oliva was a minor-leaguer who had not yet won any of his three batting crowns or eight All-Star selections.
“I went because I was invited,” he said. “And I finished that year in the majors. I really don’t know why they invited me.”
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