When Pudge, Igor, Rafael and Dickie went to Harvard

A different type of lecture: baseball's importance in Latin America

The hallowed halls of Ivy League schools are quite different from Major League Baseball clubhouses and diamonds. Both are exclusive scenes. Sure, occasionally they overlap, even for Latinos, such as the case of outfielder Fernando Pérez, who played two seasons for the Tampa Bay Rays after attending Columbia University.

Yet not everyone who has the desire or the intellect is able to become an Ivy League student. Just the same, not every talented Latino fulfills his dream of becoming a major leaguer, much less emerging as a star.

But on an April day in 1992, these two worlds collided: Ivy League and Major League, Harvard and the Texas Rangers.

A Different Seminar

Those who entered the classroom that day were not your usual seminar attendees at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The sharply-dressed Latino men who present in the seminar room were both the subject of the day’s lecture and evidence of that history lesson.

The lecture topic, too, was different: Baseball’s importance in Latin America. As was the speaker: the Puerto Rican-born Luis Rodríguez Mayoral, then assistant director of public relations with the Rangers and the first Latino to hold such a front office position with Texas.

Mayoral’s turn at the lectern hints at a second, hidden lesson, one that extends beyond the topic or the Latino players from the Texas Rangers going to Harvard for a day. This lesson is rooted in the role that Rodríguez Mayoral performed as a pioneering figure in MLB front offices.

Rodríguez Mayoral represents the importance of diversity within the front office staff. Fully bilingual, as part of his PR role, his portfolio included outreach to the Latino community in Arlington, Texas, and surrounding areas. This involved organizing events that took the Latino players into the community.

An underlying motive for this community engagement was to facilitate the cultural adjustment of players, as bringing them around the Spanish-speaking community also gave them a little bit of home. Rodríguez Mayoral also served as the Spanish-language broadcaster for the Rangers — then the only American League team that aired all its games in Spanish.

He quickly earned the young Latino players’ trust; for them, he was the voice of experience. Just as important, he served as a cultural translator who familiarized the young Latinos in the Rangers organization with life in the United States.

Rodríguez Mayoral had seen so much during his baseball travels, starting in the 1960s. He covered baseball as a sportswriter for several newspapers on the island. He worked as a scout for the Pirates and White Sox in the 1970s and 1980s.

During those years, he befriended Puerto Rican superstar Roberto Clemente. Witness to the English-language press treatment of Clemente, Rodríguez Mayoral became an advocate for greater recognition of the particular experience of Latino players. In 1970, he founded Latin American Baseball Players’ Day, an event where players were recognized at an American League and a National League park each year.

That Rodríguez Mayoral was doing this work for the Rangers in the early 1990s was rather ahead of the diversity initiatives later undertaken by major league organizations. For certain, franchises were increasingly turning to Latin America for talent. That effort became evident during the 1990s as the percentage of Latinos players in MLB increased from 13.2 percent in 1989 to 23.5 percent by 1999, according to research by baseball historian Mark Armour.

It was not until 2016, however, that MLB required each team to hire a Spanish translator. Notably, many teams have expanded that job into a Latino liaison position, a person who not only aids players with language communication, but also cultural adjustment. In so doing, these organizations are reviving the important work that one April day in 1992 brought two star Latino ballplayers nicknamed Pudge and Igor to Harvard.

Harvard Students for a Day

The front of the Harvard classroom was filled by talented, young Latino men. This was an exciting day for them, their first time stepping into an Ivy League classroom.

Most familiar with the collegiate setting was the Rangers’ Havana-born first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, an All-American player at Mississippi State. Seated closest to the lectern in dapper attire was Juan “Igor” González, of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Then 22, González was about to make his mark that season as a fearsome slugger, when he would lead the American League with 43 home runs. Over 17 seasons, he would surpass 40 five times and finish with 434 career dingers.

Next to Igor sat shortstop Richard “Dickie” Thon, near the end of a career derailed by a pitch that fractured the orbital bone over his left eye. Born in South Bend, Indiana, when his father Fred Thon, Jr., was attending Notre Dame, his surname obscures his Puerto Rican roots. Dickie grew up in Puerto Rico, where his grandfather, Fred Thon, Sr., had been a star player and, later, manager in the Puerto Rican Winter League during the 1940s.

Among the others seated at the front was Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez, born in Manatí, Puerto Rico, and not yet 21 years old — barely old enough to be a college senior — but about to become a perennial major-league all-star.

The gathering had significant meaning for the half-dozen Latino players who accompanied Mayoral.

“I remember it like if it was today, even though it has been 25 years since I have been there,” González shared in a phone interview. “For us, to go to Harvard was a privilege, because it is a university known around the world, with incredible prestige. From there have come presidents, many prominent people, not only in politics, but in different walks of life.”

The exclusivity of the institution was not lost on the 6-foot-3 González, who stood out for his lean physique and chiseled muscles. “Not everyone in the world has the privilege to go to Harvard,” he said. This is true, whether as an enrolled student or as an honoree, as González and his teammates were that April day.

Honoring the Past and Present

Boston area broadcaster José Massó organized the 1992 event, working with Harvard officials to host a talk and honor the Latino players on the Rangers. And, if you are wondering why did Harvard host an event recognizing another team’s Latino players? Because this was 1992, well before the days of Manny, Pedro, and Big Papi, the guys who transformed the Red Sox into a team with a Latino beat.

Rodríguez Mayoral accepted Massó’s invitation to speak and bring the Latino Rangers in his front office capacity with two purposes in mind. One, as Rodríguez Mayoral recalled in an interview with La Vida: “We wanted to educate those in the United States and at Harvard about our history and our culture.”

Equally important, the Harvard visit would expand the horizons of the young Rangers, allowing them to experience what an Ivy League institution was like. After all, Rodríguez Mayoral noted, some of the Latinos who accompanied him, specifically Igor and Pudge, were 16-year-old high school teenagers when they signed as amateur free agents with the Rangers.

Following Rodríguez Mayoral’s talk, the classroom shifted from educating the audience about baseball’s history in Latin America to honoring the Rangers players. Each received a certificate with the Harvard name emblazoned on it, in recognition of their accomplishment in becoming major leaguers and acknowledging them as role models for Latinos everywhere.

The day’s event left a lasting impression on González.

“Being a young major leaguer,” he said as he reflected on the day’s occurrences, “and to be recognized by an institution like Harvard, that was something, not only for me, but for all us. The day was incredibly satisfying and gave us tremendous pride.”

The lesson that day: just as there are many ways to make it to the major leagues, so are there to make it to the Ivy League.

Featured Image: Luis Rodríguez Mayoral