There are likely to be some stars of Puerto Rican descent in the Major League Baseball playoffs. Chances are Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado will continue to help lead the Mets, while Javier Vazquez and Geovany Soto have fans in Chicago thinking big with the White Sox and Cubs, respectively.
They have followed generations of baseball legends from Puerto Rico in what has become a rich tradition on the island, which has produced more than 250 MLB players. Like most people who know something about the role Jackie Robinson played in integrating MLB for African-Americans, many think of Roberto Clemente when they think of pioneers from the island. The Roberto Clemente Coliseum stands as a testimonial to Clemente’s life as well as his death in 1972 as a hero.
Far less known, but every bit the pioneer, was Hiram Bithorn. The national stadium that sits across the way from the Coliseum in San Juan was named Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Opened in 1962, it honors the island’s first citizen to play in Major League Baseball.
And as we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, it is a special time to reflect on the past and honor the historic figures who paved the way. For Puerto Rican baseball players, everyone needs to look back to Hiram Bithorn.
Bithorn played for the San Juan Senators. He was a fine pitcher but was not the best player on the island, where winter ball was king. It seemed unlikely he would be chosen to break the barrier in the majors. However, a combination of his personal background and the onset of World War II helped pave the way to Bithorn’s ascension with the Chicago Cubs.
On April 15, 1942 — 13 years before Clemente would play in the majors — Bithorn made his debut. Bithorn was light-skinned, had a name that did not sound Latino, and joined a field of Major League players who had been seriously depleted by World War II. The United States entered the war after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and more than 70 MLB players had joined the U.S. Armed Forces before the 1942 season. They were joined by almost 140 more before the 1943 season started. That was more than half of the players in the 16-team leagues.
Bithorn’s family was of Dutch and Spanish origin, making him look more European than stars like Perucho Cepeda, whose son, Orlando, would become one of baseball’s best once the racial barriers fell. Perucho Cepeda had hit .377 in the 1941-42 winter season. Pancho Coimbre hit .438 with the New York Cubans of the Negro Leagues in 1942. But it was Bithorn who got the call.
Bithorn went 9-14 in his first season. In 1943, he went 18-12 with 19 complete games and led the league with seven shutouts. No one from Puerto Rico has broken that record. But Bithorn joined the Army and, as others who had done so, lost his career momentum when he returned. He went 6-5 with the Cubs in 1946 and ended his career with the White Sox. A sore arm hastened the end of what was once a promising career.
Bithorn posted a 34-31 career record with a 3.16 ERA. He completed 30 of the 53 games he started, and finished with eight shutouts. He pitched in the Mexican winter leagues but never regained the touch that would have allowed him back into MLB.
Tragedy struck when a Mexican policeman shot and killed Bithorn, then 35, on Dec. 31, 1951. The circumstances were cloudy at first: The officer said Bithorn identified himself as a member of a communist cell and acted violently. In the end, the police officer went to prison for the murder of Bithorn.
He was still such a source of pride for Puerto Rico that the stadium was named after him in 1962. Now it is no surprise to see great Puerto Rican players in MLB. But when you look at the careers of today’s stars, remember they are all walking on the road created by Bithorn.
About the Author: Richard E. Lapchick is chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management graduate program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 13 books, Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card in sports, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He is a regular commentator for ESPN on issues of diversity in sports.