By César Augusto Márquez
In 1939 Venezuelan sports history changed when Alejandro Carrasquel became the first Venezuelan to play in Major League Baseball.
In so doing, he forever opened a door that has seen almost 400 Venezuelans pass through, from Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio and David Concepción all the way to youngsters Gleyber Torres of the Yankees and Ronald Acuña Jr. of the Braves.
A New Era
A few months before World War II began, the Venezuelan government was in transition after a period of dictatorships, the last of which lasted 27 years. The country was starting to take its first steps toward modernity.
Under those circumstances, Alejandro “El Patón” Carrasquel became one of Venezuela’s first major sports idols as he planted the first seeds that would germinate completely two years later when Venezuela won the 1941 Amateur World Series in Havana, Cuba. The tournament would later be known as the Baseball World Cup.
“The context in which El Paton debuted in the big leagues is of a Venezuela that fought to exit barbarism and a historical international context in which World War II was starting and some players needed to serve in the armed forces,” said Venezuelan historian Javier González, the author of the biography: “El Patón Carrasquel, primer venezolano en Grandes Ligas.”
Unlike this era in which international players sign at 16, Carrasquel reached the majors at 27 after a succesful stint as a pitcher in Venezuela and Cuba, where he played with Valdés, where he was seen by renowned scout Joe Cambria, who recommended him to Clark Griffith, the owner of the Washington Senators.
In February 1939 Carrasquel took his first trip from Cuba to the United States, where he landed in the port of Tampa. Actually, because of legislation in place since 1917 in the United States, no illiterate foreigner could enter the U.S. He was sent back to the port of entry.
Days passed before Griffith paid the necessary $400 fee and assumed responsibility for Carraquel. That same month he reached Orlando, Fla., the spring training home of the Senators.
The news of the imminent debut of the first Venezuelan in the big leagues was something that resonated as a great success with the sports media back home.
“News from a Cuban outlet informs us that recently our paisano and magnificent player Alejandro Carrasquel was signed to play with the Washington Senadores,” wrote the Venezuelan daily El Universal on Jan. 24, 1939.
Finally on April 23, 1939, he made his debut with 5 ⅓ innings of one-run ball against the Yankees. He had to settle for a no-decision that day, but he had the opportunity to prove that he could pitch at the highest level.
A month later, he made history again. On May 30 at Griffith Stadium batting against Nels Potter of the Philadelphia Athletics Carrasquel delivered a solo shot to left field for the the first home run by a Venezuelan in the majors.
He finished his rookie season with a 5-9 record, 4.69 ERA and seven complete games in 40 games, 17 as a starter.
Carrasquel remained in the majors through the 1945 season before accepting an offer to play in Mexico. He returned for a brief cameo as a reliever in 1949 with the Chicago White Sox, making three appearances.
“Carrasquel’s trascendence in Washington was very important because it allowed the team to count on a good pitcher capable to handle many roles during an important period like World War II, when many (American) players had to enlist in the military,” Gonzalez said.”
He did more than replace players who went off to war.
Carrasquel opened the door for almost 400 Venezuelans to follow his march to the majors. According to Baseball Reference 388 Venezuelans have played in the majors as of this week.
Even Carrasquel’s last name has great meaning for Venezuelan baseball and of their place in the big leagues. His nephew Alfonso “Chico” Carrasquel made his own mark on the history books in 1951 when he became the first Latin American to play in an All-Star Game.
“The legacy of Alejando Carrasquel has great meaning, not only for my family but also for Venezuelan baseball in general,” said Alejandro’s nephew, Emilio Carrasquel, the scout who signed longtime Seattle Mariners ace Félix Hernández.
When Jose Altuve leads the Venezuelan contingent at the Midsummer Classic in Washington this month, he’ll do it in the same city where el Patón opened the doors 79 years ago for all those men who were born in the land of Simon Bolivar.
Featured Image: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection