Friday, June 17, 2011

#35: The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris by Mark Kurlansky

Riverhead Books, 2010. 272 pages

Mark Kurlansky wrote one of my favorite books (Salt) and one book I used for summer reading for my European History class (Cod). Kurlansky specializes in bringing together the most varied strings of information to produce an overall history of a single item. I was very excited for this book, as:

1. I am a baseball nut.
2. I love the other three books of his that I have read.

Alas, it was not to be.Kurlansky breaks down the book into two sections, Sugar and Dollars.

"For those who don't make it, there is sugarcane." (1) So begins the second paragraph of the book, and section one will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the hard labor that is the zafra, the cane harvest, in the Dominican. The first half is by far the more compelling section of the book, as Kurlansky uses his experience as a correspondent in the Caribbean for the Chicago Tribune to excellent effect. The great number of Spanish sources helps in this area. I was astounded by the racial attitudes surrounding the Domincan Republic, down to a 1912 law "that imposed restrictions on bringing in workers who were not white." (41) I would have liked Kurlansky to spend more time comparing the institutional racism of the U.S. with the "pan-Caribbean obsession of calculating racial differences." (71) I found his discussion of race in a decidedly mixed race society quite interesting and wished there was more than the 15 or so pages allotted. I did not know that San Pedro de Macoris was famous for its poets long before it was called "The Cradle of Shortstops" and will look for works by Pedro Mir, whose poems are quoted throughout.

The second section is where the book falls apart. In his short discussion of baseball and race, Kurlansky trots out the old chestnut that Cap Anson was nearly single-handedly responsible for the banning of blacks in organized baseball. Well, he wasn't. As Bill James pointed out in The Historical Baseball Abstract, it is downright foolish to think one person could do that, much less enforce his will on club owners. Sure, Anson was a racist, but I would guess 99.5% of whites in the United States in 1890 were racist on one level or another. In another bit, he writes that in 1978 Alfredo Griffin posted a .500 batting average. HOLY SHIT! I thought. Then I thought wait a minute, how many times did he hit? Four times in five games. That's just silly and sort of lazy, but it typifies the attitude of the book towards the research on the sport.

In discussing "San Pedro's Black Eye" Kurlansky opines "in America the idea that there is something less than proper about all these foreign and wild "Latins" getting into baseball has considerable resonance." (206). I call bull shit on that. He bases this on more than 100 letters he received after his article for Parade magazine about San Pedro de Macoris in 2007, many from African Americans. I think this is bull shit for several reasons, but the most reasonable is historical development. After the integration of baseball in 1947, black players were dominant throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, baseball featured a good mix of ethnicites, with the exception of Asian players. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, Latin players began to dominate: David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Pedro Martinez. As baseball becomes the way out, it stands to reason that there will be more "Latin" players. Sure, Gary Sheffield may complain about the academy system, but to insist that the idea that most fans do not want to see "wild Latins" on the field is bull shit.Kurlansky is correct in writing that baseball is playing second fiddle to football (has been since the late 1960s) and this is one reason why teams are scouring the Caribbean, South America, Australia, Japan and South Korea for players. This is not news; using the views of one player (Gary Sheffield) to support a wrong headed assessment is incorrect.

The most famous son of San Pedro is probably Sammy Sosa. In the chapter entitled "Fickle Judgment from the Peanut Gallery", Kurlansky writes the following: "In 1999, Sosa, the former shoe shine boy too two hundred shoe shine boys in Santo Domingo to lunch, to which Macorisanos responded that he had failed to do anything for their shoe shine boys." (215) I think Kurlansky is on the side of the Macorisanos, especially after his treatment of the baseball "academies" (read: factories) that MLB runs throughout the Caribbean. The tone is ambiguous. I just am confused by the "fickle Judgment from the peanut gallery" chapter title. Kurlansky writes "Heroics is a lot to expect for someone snatched away without education at 16 and handed fame and wealth" (219); while I agree, I do not think that it is incorrect to expect it. Sosa got in trouble for pointing out all he does for the town while really not doing very much. America loves to catch people acting like big mouthed hypocrites, regardless of whether or not they are athletes. Is this wrong? Not at all; it becomes wrong when it is unwarranted. Some ballplayers do a lot for their hometown, some don't. Sosa's big sin was lying about his contributions to charity and hurricane relief.

Ah hell. The first half of the book is great. I'll probably check out a few books on Caribbean history because of it.

No comments:

Post a Comment