- Cuban Star: How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball
Adrian Burgos’ new work, Cuban Star: How One Negro-League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball is a welcome follow up his Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line. This new tome moves the study of Latinos’ roles in U.S. history forward by delving into important (and mostly overlooked) subtopics such as entrepreneurship and sports. Further, Burgos’ analysis of Spanish-surnamed people and racial identity adds greater complexity to the discussion of this issue, particularly in the state of Florida.
Burgos’ extensive research brings to life the experiences of Cuban immigrants (of various racial hues) in Tampa and Key West as they sought to navigate the post-Plessy vs. Ferguson era of that state’s history, all the while seeking independence from Spain for their homeland. Not surprisingly, baseball was an important element in this story, and Burgos ably reveals the value of this sport to ethnic identity, community, labor, and revolutionary politics as well as a way to challenge the racial stereotypes of many whites in the Sunshine State. The work also brings to the forefront of community life an array of entrepreneurial activities (both legal and extra-legal), shedding more light on the verve and tenacity of Cubans (and other Latinos) in the U.S. as they countered the limitations of American society.
Cuban Star extensively details the day-to-day operational challenges Alex Pompez and other Negro League owners encountered in seeking to survive in the difficult terrain of segregated professional athletics. As noted in works by Michael Lomax, such baseball empresarios often turned to “extra-legal” sources (in Pompez’ case, the numbers racket—“la bolita”) in order to generate much-needed cash flow in support of their financially-strapped nines. The heart of Burgos’ work relays for readers, in extensive detail, the inner workings of Pompez’ criminal enterprise. Indeed, if there is one quibble with this work is that it seems as if Burgos goes too far out of his way to justify this practice as one of the only ways to challenge the limits imposed by racial discrimination (p. 81). Since there has been much work done on the role of the African-American entrepreneur (The History of Black Business in America  by Juliet E.K. Walker, as a prime example), the analysis of black and Latino business in New York City might have been a bit more nuanced.
While an illegal business helped keep Pompez’ franchise afloat, Burgos also examines how his eye for talent maintained the squad’s competitive standing against the greats of the Negro League for many years. It was this expertise in acquiring skilled athletes that set the stage for a final “remake” of Pompez in the world of baseball: as a talent scout for the [End Page 339] Giants. This proved to be yet another path-breaking (and successful) undertaking as Pompez helped the Giants procure the services of future Hall-of-Famers such as Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, and Juan Marichal. This association also helped to open wide the doors of opportunity to more African Americans and Latinos in Major League Baseball (on the field, and eventually, in management as well).
In summary, Burgos ably demonstrates the significance of the life story of Alex Pompez and its value as a potent example of the contradictions inherent in both baseball and American life in general. The promise of “talent” being the chief consideration for individual advancement has always been an integral part of the “American Dream.” The reality, however, has been much more complicated. Thanks to the fine research and writing of Adrian Burgos, the chronicle of Alex Pompez’ journey takes its rightful place in the pantheon of true (and historically messy) “All American” biographies.