When thinking about the purpose of La Vida Baseball, the words of Lorenzo “Chiquitin” Cabrera echo in my mind.
Born in the Cuban city of Cienfuegos in 1920, Cabrera had mostly played in the Negro Leagues with the New York Cubans in the late 1940s before enjoying a handful of seasons in the minor leagues during the early years of racial integration.
My first research trip to Cuba yielded no contact with Cabrera and little more than rumors of his death. On my second trip in 1999, I had a good lead on his whereabouts. I found him convalescing from surgery at his daughter’s home on the edge of Havana. The once-stocky first baseman was in bad shape; he had lost part of his right leg due to complications from diabetes.
Sensitive to his failing health, I hurried through my interview about his Negro League days and his experience as a black Cuban playing in the Jim Crow South during the mid-1950s. As I thanked him for agreeing to the interview despite his condition, Cabrera interrupted me.
“Don’t go. I have more stories to tell.”
I stayed and listened to his stories for the rest of the afternoon.
Cabrera passed away a year later.
Why La Vida Baseball and why now?
The opportunity to share stories about playing in the States — in the language they feel most comfortable — is often elusive to players born in Latin America. Cabrera’s sharp mind was still full of stories, regardless of his ailments. To have a stateside bilingual Latino journalist or historian willing to tell those stories from a Latino perspective was exceedingly rare in his era and remains an infrequent presence today.
This is the publishing voice and space we aim to fill with La Vida Baseball.
The history of Latinos and baseball dates back to the mid-1860s, when a wave of Cuban students arrived in the United States and later returned to their island with bats, balls and gloves in tow. In 1866, Cuban native Esteban Enrique “Steve” Bellán was a pioneering player, appearing first on the varsity team of St. John’s College (now Fordham University) and then making history as the first Latin American big-leaguer with the Troy Haymakers in 1871.
With Cubans as the “apostles of baseball” spreading the game throughout the Caribbean in the 1870s and 1880s, Latinos developed a unique story in U.S. baseball history. Unlike European immigrants, who came to embrace baseball as America’s game as part of their assimilation, when Latinos — especially those from the Caribbean Basin — migrated, they came with baseball already in their blood. For them, our shared pastime was the Americas’ game.
Today, the Latino presence in baseball is significant. Over a quarter of MLB players come from Latin America; another significant number with Latino ancestry are born in the U.S. At La Vida Baseball, we will do much more than cite historical facts and numbers. We will tell stories about the culture of Latinos and baseball with passion, style and spirit. We will talk about how we see Yoenis Céspedes, Yasiel Puig, Francisco Lindor and Javier Báez as connected not only to the recently retired Latino stars Pedro Martínez, David “Big Papi” Ortiz, Mariano Rivera and Álex Rodríguez, but also to legends like Luque, Miñoso, Clemente, Cepeda, Marichal and Felipe Alou, among so many others.
Nuestro equipo, our team
We have built an excellent team, starting with our partnership with the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Cooperstown is baseball’s Valhalla, the place where the immortals reside, full of historical artifacts and stories that kindle our memories about the game’s greats and its moments of dazzling brilliance, a reminder of how powerfully baseball has reflected the times and, in certain moments, served as a catalyst for societal change.
For those who don’t know me, I’m a professor of history at the University of Illinois specializing in U.S. Latino history, sports history and African-American history. I have written two baseball books that, in different ways, examine the intersection of Latinos and the Negro Leagues. I’ve also contributed to Sporting News, as well as served as an academic advisor to the Hall of Fame on its Latino baseball exhibits. From my youth playing high school and college ball through today, baseball has always been about family, history and fun.
Clemson Smith-Muñiz has extensive experience covering baseball at the keyboard and behind the mic. His first sports beat was covering the New York Yankees for The Hartford Courant, and he later wrote sidebars about the Mets and Yankees for the New York Daily News. Currently the Spanish-language play-by-play announcer for MLB Network, the Puerto Rican native has called games on TV for ESPN International, los Yankees, los Mets and los Tigers en español.
Filling out our leadership team will be Henry Pacheco as our Digital/Social Media Editor. With more than six years of Latino media industry experience creating content for first-, second- and third-generation Latinos in the United States, the California native knows how to handle the pace, strategy and angles that come with building La Vida’s social media presence in a manner that will engage and excite.
We won’t swing for the fences or blow heat past our readers every time. Rather, in the tradition of El Tiante or Johnny Cueto, we’ll come at you from all angles in audio, video and articles that pair history with current culture. We’ll be experimental more than encyclopedic.
The four pillars on the banner across the home page sum up what you can expect from us: Who’s Now, Who’s Next, Legends and Our Life. Throughout, we’ll talk about the players’ heroes, their journeys, their favorite food, music and entertainment and, always, about their history.
Their stories. Our stories.
Welcome to La Vida Baseball.
Adrián Burgos, Jr.
*Feature photo by Maddie Meyer / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images
Listen below to hear Adrian discuss La Vida Baseball on WILL’s The 21st Show: