By Nick Diunte
Opening Day 2017 came with the news that Rubén Amaro Sr. had passed away on March 31, at the age of 81, after a long battle with cancer. A veteran of 11 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees and California Angels, Amaro was revered in baseball circles as a gentleman with grace and elegance echoing that of Negro Leaguer Buck O’Neil.
He was more than that, however — Amaro was one of the unheralded pioneers of baseball’s integration in the decade following Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut.
A Latino Family Story
The Amaro family stands as an enduring example of one of the truisms we acknowledge at La Vida Baseball: For Latinos, baseball is not just a game, it is family. Over the generations, players from across Latin America have come to play in the United States and not only formed a brotherhood but also an extended family, as wives, children, and parents welcomed new players and assisted in their cultural adjustment.
Notably, the Amaro family reveals a long, rich story of Latino migration within professional baseball, where each generation accomplished what was seemingly out of reach to those who came before. For Rubén Jr., who was born in Philadelphia, it was becoming general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. For Rubén Sr., who was born in Mexico, it was a Major League Baseball career that was closed to his own father, Santos, a pro baseball star in his native Cuba and in Mexico.
Lost in the regal baseball bloodline that Rubén Amaro Sr. helped nurture and extend are the challenges he faced as a man of color playing in the South in the 1950s. While Robinson’s struggles are well documented, those in the emerging Latino talent pool of the 1950s also faced entrenched social segregation. The pigment of their skin, an unfamiliar language and culture of a different country were for many three strikes in their journey to major-league stardom.
the Amaro baseball pedigree
Born on January 6, 1936 in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Amaro benefited from the established baseball pedigree of his family, despite the wishes of his father. Santos’ first desire was for his son to receive a virtuous education ahead of mastering the game that made him famous in multiple countries. He did not want his son to deal with the rampant discrimination that existed in professional baseball in the United States, a primary reason why he had turned down multiple offers to play in the Negro Leagues.
“My father played almost everywhere in the Caribbean where there were professional leagues”, Amaro said. “Of course, back in the ’30s, they didn’t have organized leagues. I heard him more saying, ‘We were more like a circus. We’d come in to town for a few days with the greatest spectacle of baseball. Sometimes, because we were from Cuba, we had to learn to play the bongos or an instrument.’”
Despite his best efforts to shield young Rubén and his brother David from getting attached to the sport, in the Amaro household, baseball was omnipresent.
“It was really difficult not to be involved with baseball because all of his friends were baseball players,” Amaro said during interviews conducted at his Florida home in 2011. “But school was a mandate in my house. No gloves, no bats — we used to hide all of them. We used to practice baseball more with my mom (Josefina) than my father. My father wanted us to finish school first. I convinced him when my brother was in medical school and [the Cardinals] were offering me $3,000 to sign… I promised I would come back and finish my masters. He let me sign with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1954.”
The ugly realities of Jim Crow
Shortly thereafter, Amaro began his professional career upon receiving his father’s reluctant blessing. His debut came that spring with the Mexicali club in the Arizona-Texas League. Amaro was quickly exposed to the ugly realities of Jim Crow segregation that his father wished to protect him from.
“We were not exposed to restrictions except in El Paso,” he recalled. “I remember we used to go to the Greyhound [bus station]. We had an old pitcher my first year that had played in the Negro Leagues, as well as in the Mexican League on the same team as my father, Nate Moreland… He was black, very fair, and very light-skinned. They wouldn’t let him sit… I remember sitting at the counter…Nate came to sit with us and they wouldn’t let him. He was three shades lighter than I am. The fact I was from Mexico changed things a bit, as it was a border town.”
After a tremendous season in 1955 with Mexicali, where he smashed 18 home runs and hit .309, Amaro jumped all the way from Class C to the Cardinals’ Double-A team in Houston. Further complications awaited Amaro that had less to do with advanced pitching and more to do with the social norms of the Texas League.
“It was different because I couldn’t live with my teammates,” he said. “I was totally isolated from my team. I couldn’t have a morsel of food with them. My first year, the only black player was Bill Greason. He gave me a lot of foundation on places that I could go, places to eat, and all those things. Bill was a great guy; a veteran player. He had played Triple-A and they sent him down to say, ‘Hey, we don’t want Rubén to be the only guy there.’ The second year I played in Houston, Benny Valenzuela (a fellow Mexican) was there. We could room in one place together, Oklahoma City; otherwise, no other place. Of course, I used to tell Benny, ‘Why should you live with me, you should be with the other guys in better places.’”
A father’s blunt reminder
Even though Amaro was quickly emerging as a top prospect in the Cardinals system, the uneasy racial climate persuaded Amaro to reconsider his baseball aspirations. An offseason conversation with his father about a career change was met with a blunt reminder of a promise he made a few years earlier. The brevity of the elder Amaro’s advice ultimately stopped him from reversing course.
“The only reason I continued in baseball was because of a remark that my father made,” he said. “After the first year [in the Texas League], I came home and told my dad, ‘It’s not worth it.’ They sent me the contracts from January 1st; I didn’t even answer it. I had a job with the bank. I studied accounting and I was totally sure that I was going to get a job in a bank and continue with my school; I wasn’t going to go back. About two weeks [later], my father got another contract. The only thing he said to me was, ‘You remember you asked me permission to sign and you told me you were going to play in the big leagues like Bobby Ávila? This is only AA.’ He didn’t say anything else. He gave me the contract. That’s the only reason why I went back.”
Despite the pervasive atmosphere of discrimination and isolation, Amaro cited white teammates who were bold enough to buck the status quo and not only accept him as an equal, but protect him from the opposition. Their efforts of solidarity continued to resonate with him over a half-century later.
“I had a second baseman [Howie Phillips] the first year [in Houston] who was my mentor, who was my protector,” he recalled. “He was a little guy and he used to say, ‘If there is a fight, you go that way and I’ll take them.’
“We traveled by train. Every getaway day, that last night, instead of them going back to the hotel or me going back on the other side of the tracks to a private one, we used to sleep in the train, in the sleeper. They used to hook it up at five or six in the morning, but at least the ball club was there. [It was] lunch boxes after the game, but then I saw my ball club. Fred McAlister… Russell Rac, those guys really protected me when I was young.”
Amaro’s early struggles facing racism and discrimination in the 1950s only served to fortify his character. The strength he developed by performing under conditions that would have stifled the careers of many are a testimony to his tremendous spirit. These experiences as a Latino baseball player, while helping to integrate the sport, allowed him to pass an even stronger bond for the game to his children. They continue to carry the family legacy with the same pride, grace and determination that was the hallmark of his trade.
Featured Image: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox / Getty Images Sport