This interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated. Read it here.
In November of 1963, after what would end up being his sixth and final season with the San Francisco Giants, Felipe Alou joined forces with journalist and biographer Arnold Hano to write an article in Sport Magazine titled "Latin-American Ballplayers Need a Bill of Rights."
In the piece, Alou outlines the plight of Latin players in the early 1960s. While several of the issues mentioned, such as Alou and Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda not being allowed to sit down to eat at a restaurant due to the color of their skin, are no longer prevalent in our society, many others strongly resonate with Latin players in Major League Baseball today.
At the end of the 1963 season, only 18 players born in the Dominican Republic had played at least one game in the major leagues. At the end of last season, close to 700 players born in the Dominican Republic had played in MLB. A total of 93 players on 2017 Opening Day rosters were born in the D.R.
One of those 93 players, Rangers outfielder Carlos Gómez, offered his point of view on some the most poignant issues presented by Alou and addressed how Latin players continue to struggle with the challenges of adjusting to playing baseball and living in the U.S., including the treatment by the media due to their poor English-speaking skills.
Felipe Alou, 1963: The Latin players need a spokesman to stand up for them. We need somebody to represent us who knows what goes on in the Latin American countries. He does not have to be Latin. He does not have to speak Spanish. He does have to see the conditions of these countries, face to face. He has to understand the economic conditions, the poverty.
Carlos Gómez, 2017: Latin players need not just one [spokesperson], but our entire community must do that. We come here so that our teammates, and the sport, through this window that has opened for us, that they can look at us with more respect. It has been happening, but there will always be a sort of emptiness if we don't unite and don't speak up. I don't think it's a matter of racism so to speak, but it happens because of the way they started the game. American players come from college, they come from universities, and we get here at times without any education. So we are marginalized because many of us make mistakes when we don't have the academic education that we need.
Alou: Latins are different in many ways from Americans. We speak Spanish; you speak English. Some Latin players find it difficult to learn any English. I had a terrible time, and I still speak poorly. Some Latins find it so difficult, they just give up, and speak only Spanish. This creates a barrier.
Perhaps there are a few San Francisco Giants who don't like it when we get together and speak Spanish. They don't know what's going on and they think we are talking about them. Well, when American players come to my country, or to Venezuela or Puerto Rico, most of them don't bother to learn any Spanish and many Latins wonder what they're talking about. It works both ways, and I am pleased that many of my teammates on the San Francisco Giants have picked up a little Spanish, just as I have picked up a little English, it helps all around.
Gómez: A lot of people try to speak your language so you can feel more comfortable. You appreciate it and you take it back with you, and then you put more work in so you can learn that language and communicate better. They can teach you and you can teach them. I think that most of the American players that go to Latin American countries to play winter ball, they see what we're living. When they come back here to the States, they appreciate it and they treat you better.
To learn English sometimes is difficult for us, especially when you come here at 16, 17 years old. You only know how to throw, how to run and how to hit. It's frustrating when they make fun of [your language skills], but it makes you strong. I appreciate it when the American media comes and tries to speak Spanish. I have a lot more respect for people that do that. But when some guy comes to judge you, [I say], 'Hey, how are you pointing at me when I don't have a choice?'
What happened last year was something that scarred me. When that journalist wrote what he wrote, it was something like a mockery. He thought about it, analyzed it and did it. I only went to school for nine years. And I am proud to say that because I have had the education necessary [to get ahead], not academically, but I learned from life, I learned from my parents. [Studying] was not something I wanted to stop doing, but I had to stop. And without having the academic achievements that many of the players now have, I have done pretty well in this career for so long.
Alou: In the Dominican Republic, if you lose a game, it is still a game, and afterward there is laughing, singing, whistling in the clubhouse. I think a man must not be judged in the clubhouse, but on the playing field.
I think it is foolish and dangerous to label any people or any nation or any race as having more or less courage, more or less desire to excel than any other group. I hope this labeling is not discrimination. I think it is only misunderstanding. But even if it is misunderstanding, it is about time somebody explained the Latin temperament in a way it is not insulting to the Latin.
Gómez: It's America, and here they learn the game a different way than we do. We learn how to play a game. We don't learn how it's a job. No, no, I think that I am going to enjoy my time and do what I love, and that's the way we play in the Dominican, the way we play in Venezuela, anywhere in Latin America. When we come here, we need to adjust to the way they play baseball. I don't think that's always fair, because baseball has to be the same for everybody. And the way we play in the Dominican is not meant for disrespecting anybody. Just the way I play, a lot of people don't like [it], but at the end of the day, when I go home I say [to myself] 'Why did they get mad? I don't mean to. I want everybody to be successful, I want everybody to play hard, to do good so we can put a good show for the fans. It's the passion, the love we have for the game.
Every American who has the opportunity to go play in our country realizes how we play ball and values it. We are warriors. If you beat me, you struck me out -- celebrate, you won! I do think the batter is being disrespectful to a pitcher if the batter hits a home run and stares at the pitcher. But why should a pitcher feel offended if I hit a home run and look at the ball? I'm looking at that ball, the one it took me so much preparation and work before and after the game for me to have that result. Why are you going to feel bad about that? When they strike me out, I don't stare at the pitcher, I don't shout at the pitcher. I hang my head and I head straight to my dugout. They can celebrate, they won. He tried hard that day to accomplish that. But sometimes, with the batters we have to hit the ball and don't even look at it and run for first. Do you know how difficult it is to get a hit?
Alou: Most Latin players feel they are outsiders. We play ball in this country, our names are in the American papers, and we become well-known to many Americans, but though we are in this country, we are not a part of this country.
Gómez: At times, yes. Sometimes you feel [like an outsider] because you find people who treat you as if you just came out of the jungle or just came out from some mountain and finally opened your eyes, because you arrived in another country. During those moments you can feel depressed at times, but at that moment you can choose one of two things, you can let what that person said sink in, or you can let it make you stronger and lead you on the path that you know is the right one.
Alou: People who read this will say I have resentment. It is not true. I love baseball, as a game. I took up baseball because it was fun. I have learned much, not only about baseball but about life, since I have come to this country. It has been an adventure, an education. I have many wonderful friends in this country. I have met lots of prejudice, but I have also met lots of nice people, great people. It is a beautiful and wonderful country.
Gómez: Playing baseball in the United States is a challenge and a dream. It is a dream, but when you arrive here, if you are not strong-minded, it can become a nightmare. You come to a different country where you don't speak the language, where everything is different for you -- education, discipline, communication, laws. You have to make adjustments and start from scratch. If you don't have your mind focused, you can be easily diverted and give up everything. My dad is a messenger, and my mom worked in a factory; they brought home $100 a month between the two of them. So I said to myself, if I sacrifice myself for this, I have these skills I can benefit from, I can change the future of the next generations of Gómez and Peña families. But many times I felt depressed. I was angry. Sometimes I felt it affected me psychologically, because even if you have great courage, when I was home, if my head hurt or my back hurt or anything hurt [my mom would say], 'Here son, have some soup, take this.' I had to do it all myself. It was one of the things that I often went back to the hotel and looked at myself [in the mirror] and cried, and then wiped my tears and said, 'No, you have a goal. So it's no longer the time to be sad, it's time for you to become stronger.'
The fact that I feel in a particular way because people have marginalized me or singled me out without reason, that doesn't mean that I don't have an appreciation for this country. This country has made me a person that I never imagined I could ever become; the same for my family. [This country] has given me an opportunity that I may not have had, and I will always in my heart be grateful to the United States. But in my line of work these things happen, and if you don't speak up, they will keep happening. We are the ones here right now, and we are the mirrors for a new generation, so when they come they can continue to grow and see that baseball is changing.