Last week, Long Island Weekly saluted the numerous Italian-American greats in American sports. This week, we do the same for Hispanic-American athletes.
The Hispanic tradition in baseball predates World War II. Lefty Gomez was a Hall of Fame pitcher for the New York Yankee powerhouses of the 1930s and a close friend of fellow San Francisco area native Joe DiMaggio.
Mike Gonzalez played and coached for the legendary St. Louis Cardinals Gas House Gang teams of the 1930s and briefly managed that squad in 1938. Aldofo Luque spent 20 years as a pitcher in the big leagues, capping his career with the New York Giants as the winning pitcher in the decisive fifth-game win over the Washington Senators in the 1933 World Series.
A man whose legendary career spanned both eras is Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox immortal and the last man to hit .400 in the regular season. Raised in the San Diego area, Williams’ mother was of Mexican ancestry. In Williams’ day, Mexican-Americans were not necessarily considered an ethnic group. Williams often noted that his mother’s side was Mexican, while his father’s side was both Irish and French. That volatile mixture, Williams liked to joke, was responsible for his temperamental nature, which often made as many headlines as his hitting exploits.
After World War II, Hispanic ballplayers came into their own as teams were more willing to scout for talent in Latin America. The pennant-winning 1962 San Francisco Giants boasted the Alou brothers (Felipe, Matty and Jesus), plus such stalwarts as Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda. During the pitching-strong 1960s, Marichal won more games (191) than any other hurler in the game.
Pittsburgh Pirate Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente occupies the same plateau among Hispanic ballplayers as DiMaggio does among Italian-Americans. For Dodger fans, Clemente is the one that got away.
In 1954, the Dodgers signed Clemente to a minor league contract. Only imagine future Dodger outfields with Duke Snider and later Willie Davis in center, Frank Howard in left field and Clemente in right. Clemente, however, was an unprotected bonus baby and he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the winter 1954 draft, the team he played with for the rest of his career.
New York baseball fans have enjoyed their share of Latino greats. Luis Arroyo was the star closer for the legendary 1961 New York Yankee World Championship squad, maybe the greatest team in baseball history. Hector Lopez starred in left field for those same Yankee powerhouses of the early 1960s.
When the Bronx Bombers finally made it back to the championship circle in the 1970s, Ed Figueroa, in 1978, became the first Puerto Rican-born pitcher to win 20 games. The Joe Torre Era saw the Yankees being paced by Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Orlando Hernandez and Mariano Rivera.
On the National League side, the 1973 pennant-winning New York Mets featured Felix Milan at second base. The 1986 championship squad was led by team captain Keith Hernandez, plus pitchers Bobby Ojeda and Rick Aguilera and shortstop Rafael Santana. Edgardo Alfonzo was the stalwart on the 2000 National League championship team, while Yoenis Cespedes paced the 2016 pennant-winning team.
In the ring, longtime New Yorker Jose Torres became light heavyweight champion in 1965. The former Marine became an author, penning a biography of Muhammad Ali and writing a column for El Diario. Torres later became commissioner of the New York State Athletic Commission before retiring to his native Puerto Rico.
Up from East Harlem was Hector Camacho, who during his long career held no less than five titles, including both the lightweight and middleweight crowns. Here on Long Island, Brentwood native Jake “the Snake” Rodriguez was IBF welterweight champ from 1994 to 1995.
Either on the diamond or in the ring, Hispanic athletes look to provide many winning moments for New York fans to enjoy in the years and decades ahead.