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Once upon a time, Negro League stars came out to play in Mexico

Mexico welcomed many Negro League players in the 1930's and 40's. Cuban Avelino Cañizares from Unión Laguna makes a tag against a Puebla baserunner in Mexican Baseball League action in 1945. Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

MEXICO CITY -- Prior to this year’s World Baseball Classic, Mexico’s national team hit the field with African-American outfielder Chris Roberson. Having spent more than a decade in Mexico, Roberson, a citizen by marriage, won over baseball fans throughout the country.

“I’ll keep playing here as long as they’ll have me,” Roberson said in March. “My plan is to be here at least four, maybe five more years.”

Roberson's popularity is backed by his impressive numbers on the diamond. In 53 games this season with the Sultanes de Monterrey in Mexico's summer league, Roberson is batting .390. His average has never dipped below .300 in seven seasons playing in Mexico. This extended excellence makes Roberson a prime candidate for Mexico’s Salón de la Fama, an institution whose physical iteration -- a museum in Monterrey -- closed in 2013.

Slated to reopen this year, the hall houses memorabilia for some of the best to ever play the game, including a group of African-American stars who thrilled Mexican crowds before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier north of the border.

The likes of Josh Gibson, Roy Campanella, Ray Dandridge and Monte Irvin have been enshrined in Mexico's hall of fame. It is Irvin, the late New York Giants star, who perhaps encapsulated his experience in Mexico best.

“You could go anywhere, go to any theater, do anything, eat in any restaurant, just like anybody else, and it was wonderful,” Irvin said at the time.

Monte Irvin’s career in Mexico boils down to just 63 games played in the 1942 season, but his feats on the diamond were laudable enough to earn him the Triple Crown and an MVP award.

“Irvin spoke so glowingly of Mexico. He said he never felt as free in his life as he did playing there,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum based in Kansas City, Missouri.

Nearly all of the stars who came to Mexico were signed by a single business mogul, Jorge Pasquel, described by Irvin as “the Mexican George Steinbrenner”.

“Pasquel ran the league with gusto,” said Enrique Kerlegand, one of Mexico's most prominent baseball historians and a member of the Mexican hall of fame.

Initially buying into the Mexican League with the Azules de Veracruz, Pasquel named the team after his hometown. The new owner stuck to the name despite the fact the squad was actually based in Mexico City, 250 miles west of Veracruz.

“He owned all the teams, really,” Kerlegand continued. “But his Azules would get most of the stars.”

Campanella, Gibson, Dandridge, Satchel Paige, Leon Day, Martin Dihigo, Willie Wells, Wild Bill Wright and James “Cool Papa” Bell all suited up for the Azules at one point during Pasquel’s reign.

Irvin described his relationship with Pasquel in order to showcase the businessman's eccentricity. Down 1-0 in the 1942 season’s final game with a runner on, the tycoon pulled Irvin away from the batter’s box and ordered him to hit a walk-off.

“That was the first time -- and only time -- that I was ever commanded to hit a home run,” Irvin wrote in the foreword for John Virtue’s book, "South of the Color Barrier."

Irvin obliged, and Pasquel ran onto the field. “When I got to home plate, Jorge was there to greet me and he had 500 bucks in his hand.”

Though Irvin eventually returned to America and later played in Major League Baseball, some of his African-American teammates found the glamour and social equality that Mexico offered too alluring to give up.

“Wild Bill Wright liked it so much, he never came back,” Kendrick said about the former outfielder and Mexican Triple Crown winner who died in Aguascalientes, a city where he even became a local business owner.

Pasquel eventually cast his net wider than the Negro Leagues, and began courting players of all races to play ball in Mexico. By 1944, Veracruz was being managed by Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. Shortly after, Pasquel signed Cubs catcher Mickey Owen and Cardinals pitcher Max Lanier to big contracts.

Fantastic stories accompanied those dealings. Pasquel reportedly made offers to Ted Williams and Stan Musial. It is the St. Louis outfielder who famously found “$50,000 in hard cash” on his hotel bed in Florida before rejecting the offer.

Pasquel’s antics did not go unnoticed by Major League Baseball. Commissioner Happy Chandler threatened players making the jump across the border with a five-year ban.

Undaunted, Pasquel also brought Babe Ruth to Mexico in 1946. Rumor has it that the trip was meant to entice the former Yankees great into a managerial job, or even persuade him to become the league’s commissioner.

“I think the Pasquels are doing a fine thing for baseball and for their country,” Ruth remarked at the time. “How far they will be able to go is hard to say, but they have a good start and in another year or two they may really have something big.”

The Bambino’s words did not turn out to be prophetic. In the postwar era, Pasquel’s influence dried up. Most Negro League stars became homesick and returned to the United States.

“At the end of the day, with all [their] problems, it was still home,” Kendrick said.

Pasquel abandoned the Mexican League in 1951, having spent a sizeable chunk of his fortune on the enterprise. By that time, MLB had already begun to integrate, draining Pasquel’s former talent pool of African-American ballplayers.

Historians, however, cite Pasquel’s practice of pirating black talent from the United States as a critical step leading up to MLB's integration.

“What he did in bringing those stars to Mexico and paying the kind of money they were paying, [allowing them to make] a good living certainly sped up that process,” Kendrick said. “He’s instrumental.”

When the new Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame reopens, fans will observe Pasquel’s name inscribed among the many legends he signed and brought to the country. Soon enough, Roberson might join them -- albeit in a far different social context than the Negro League stars of yore. Regardless, Roberson's potential induction into the Hall would place him among a hallowed crowd, and make him the latest African-American star to conquer baseball south of the border.