May 11, 2006

The hispanicization of American baseball, the status of Puerto Rico, and the achievements of Roberto Clemente

George F. Will (yes, THAT George F. Will) reports, in a review of Clemente by David Maraniss, New York Times Book Review, 5/7/06, p. 13:

Baseball has come a long way since the San Francisco Giants' manager Alvin Dark, in 1964, banned Spanish in the clubhouse.  In 1989 and 1990, five of the 26 major-league teams had a starting shortstop from the same Dominican town, San Pedro de Macorís.  In 2005, 29 percent of the players on the 30 teams' opening day rosters were born outside the United States -- 70 percent of them from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela or Puerto Rico.  Among the nearly 1,200 players on the 40-man rosters this spring, 10 of the 16 most common surnames were Hernández, Gonzalez, Perez, Ramirez, Rodriguez, Cabrera, Guzman, Lopez, Peña and Sanchez.

Four things of note here: the main point, which is the hispanicization of American baseball; the identification of Puerto Rico as being outside the U.S.; picking out the 20.3 percent of players who are from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, or Puerto Rico by taking 70 percent of 29 percent; and the shift from origin in the Spanish-speaking Americas to possession of a Hispanic surname.

Here at Language Log Plaza, we've been remarking on American attitudes (often negative) towards the Spanish language, towards its speakers, and towards Latino/Hispanic Americans in general -- most recently, here, here, and here -- so it's nice to see a little report on how our national pastime has come to rely so significantly on Latino players.

Now, the list: the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico.  All characterized as "outside the United States".  Puerto Rico is the oddity here.  (It's also relevant to Roberto Clemente, who was Puerto Rican.  And black.)  It has a status that puts it firmly both inside and outside the U.S.  Mostly inside in several respects, some of them described on the website of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration:

Puerto Rico's relationship with the U.S. Federal Government, as defined by the Constitution of 1952, is in many respects, similar to that of any other state. Matters of currency, defense, external relations and interstate commerce are within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Federal Government. The U.S. Constitution as well as most laws passed by Congress are applicable in Puerto Rico. Residents of the island however, do not pay federal income taxes and do not vote for President.  [On the other hand, since defense is within the jurisdiction of the U.S. government, Puerto Ricans are subject to the draft.]

And Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but then so are residents of Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands, both of which are U.S. territories.  (This is all so convoluted: residents of American Samoa are U.S. nationals but not U.S. citizens.)

According to that 1952 constitution, Puerto Rico is a semi-autonomous entity, officially named a Commonwealth.  (Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia are commonwealths, but of course not semi-autonomous entities.)  The Commonwealth also is a possession of the United States, though not called a territory.  In any case, if Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands are "outside the United States", which I think would be common usage, then Puerto Rico is even more so.

Still, many of us who live in the 50 states and the District of Columbia tend to think of Puerto Rico as more a part of the U.S. than Guam or the U.S. Virgin Islands -- as not really being "foreign" -- so having it on a list with the Dominican Republic and Venezuela seems a bit odd.

On yet another hand, Puerto Rico shares with the Dominican Republic and Venezuela (as against the United States) the property of having Spanish as an official language.  And that's directly relevant to Will's little history of the Spanish language in the U.S. major leagues.

Could Will have avoided "outside the United States"?  Well, there's a problem here, which we can see more clearly when we ask why he chose to refer to 20.3 of the players so indirectly, as 70 percent of 29 percent of them.  Why didn't he just say, "In 2005, of the players on the 30 teams' opening day rosters, just over 20 percent of them came from only three ____ where Spanish is an official language"?  But what plural noun fills in the blank?  Oh dear.  "Countries" or "nations" won't do, because Puerto Rico isn't actually a country or nation; as currently configured, it's not entitled to a seat in the United Nations, any more than Guam is.  "Places" and "lands" are too vague.  "Governmental entities" or the like would be too technical AND too vague.

There are work-arounds, for instance: "In 2005, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela -- in all of which Spanish is an official language -- together supplied just over 20 percent of the players on the 30 teams' opening day rosters."  (Or maybe "1 in 5" rather than "20 percent".)  This avoids the "outside the United States" problem and also the 70-percent-of-29-percent problem, and makes the Spanish language point explicit.  It doesn't note explicitly that only three places account for so much of the rosters, but then Will's original didn't either.

Finally, the shift to Hispanic surnames, which rather muddies things, since the surnames point neither to place of origin nor to the real matter under discussion, the use of the Spanish language.  [Clarification added 5/13/06: The spellings of these surnames above -- with their inconsistency in the use of the acute accent -- are exactly as they appeared in the NYT review.]  For a moment, I entertained the idea that Will was slyly trying to insert the idea that if your ancestors were Spanish-speaking foreigners (from Latin America, at any rate), then you're (still) a foreigner too -- in which case that last sentence would be not merely only indirectly relevant to the topic, but also slimy.  Then I decided he was only noting that that Latinos, for some value of "Latino", are all over baseball these days, something that certainly wasn't the case in Roberto Clemente's time, and that Clemente himself, laudably, had a lot to do with that.

The review is mostly about Clemente, and it's sympathetic to and admiring of the man.  It even notes that he was "arrestingly handsome" as well as, in several ways, heroic.  Catch the sympathetic resentment in this report:

Clemente, playing in a city with a minuscule Latino population [Pittsburgh], said he felt like a "double nigger." As late as 1971 -- in one game that year, the Pirates became the first team ever to have nine black players in its starting lineup -- some sportswriters still quoted him in phonetic English: "Eef I have my good arm thee ball gets there a leetle quicker."

This about a man who died tragically, while trying to get aid from Puerto Rico to Nicaragua after a severe earthquake there in 1972. 

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 11, 2006 07:37 PM