An Interview with Rob Ruck, author, The Tropic of Baseball: Baseball in the Dominican Republic, and co-writer/producer of the film Republic of Baseball
Puerto Rican Sun
September 26, 2009
- How did you or what got you interested in doing the book?
- I had written a book about the role of sport in the black community (Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh) that focused on the Negro League teams that made Pittsburgh the center of black baseball in the 1930s and 40s. One of those clubs, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, was torn apart by the Dominican Republic’s volatile politics in 1937 when Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and some of their teammates played for Cuidad Trujillo. That, and growing up a fan of the Giants (before I moved to Pittsburgh,) when Felipe Alou, Juan Marichal, Manny Mota and other Dominicans played for the team, got me interested in better understanding the story of baseball on the island.
- Did you have to speak Spanish to anyone?
- Yes, but so many Dominicans speak English, especially in the common ground that baseball provides between the US and the DR.
- Can you tell a little bit about yourself?
- I’m a child of the 1960s, now teaching history at the University of Pittsburgh. I teach courses about the history of sport and U. S. history. My wife, Maggie Patterson, and I have just finished a biography of Art Rooney, the founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers and a renaissance sportsman. I’m 59 and love to run and bike.
- Going back to the book… a lot of players, people you talked to, anybody tell you their good experiences?
- Much, if not most, of this book, is based on people talking to me about their lives and experiences—from working in the canefields and on the banana plantations to efforts to unionize and resist Trujillo. Their stories were about tough times and victories, on the ballfield and in their communities.
- Anyone tell you their bad experiences? MLB teams have camps there true: if so do they help the players in anyway possible. Like learning to speak English, What happens if one does not make the MLB?
- Most of the young Dominicans who sign with a major league organization will never make the major leagues. The odds are against them. Some of the teams are working with these young men to equip them with some language skills and give them more of an education. I suspect that some teams are better at this than others. It can be devastating to see one’s aspirations crushed at an early age, especially if they do not have much to fall back on.
- There’s talk that several players from the Dominican Republic who are playing professionally have no high school diploma, can’t read or write?
- True. Many major leaguers from the Caribbean left school before finishing. Some have been quite successful despite that. I do not know if there are any player who are illiterate.
- In the movie “The Republic of Baseball” you profile the Alou brothers, Manny Mota, Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, yet no mention of Julian Javier, Rico Carty, Ceasar Cedeño, Ozzie Virgil. Why was it?
- We realized that to finish this documentary, which we began working on in 2000, we needed to focus the story on just a small group of players. We shot interviews with Julian Javier, Rico Carty, and many other men, but were unable to use them in a documentary that runs under an hour. There are many others stories to tell about the Dominican Republic and I hope we’ll get the chance to tell some more of them, especially the saga of the ‘Cocolos’ from San Pedro de Macoris.
- With the success of many Dominican players today will we see another documentary again by you and Daniel Manatt.
- Find us funding and distribution and we’ll be there.
- Vladimir Guerrero and Manny Ramírez when one looks at their performance does one see the great player Tetelo Vargas? By the way does Vargas belong in the “Baseball Hall of Fame”?
- I think that both Tetelo Vargas and Horacio Martínez merit consideration for the Hall of Fame. Now that the Hall has opened its “Viva Baseball” exhibit about Latinos in baseball, I hope that they might establish a special committee to consider such candidacies, as they did once before, in 2006.
- A lot of the players have created charitable organizations true?
- I think it has been a hallmark for Dominican ballplayers to give something back to the country. Manuel Mota and his wife have run a program in a Santo Domingo neighborhood for years, Pedro Martínez built a church for his home town, and Tony Peña, Vladimir Guerrero, and others have done many things to help people and the nation. They take their responsibility seriously and celebrate Three Kings Day by bringing their hard-won gifts back home.
- Were they inspired by Marichal and Puerto Rican Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente? By the way there’s a movement to retire Clemente’s number; agree?
- Juan Marichal, Roberto Clemente, and Felipe Alou mean much to me, not only for their feats on the field, but the sort of principled lives they have led.
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Eric Bynum is Managing Editor here at BaseballdeWorld. He spent three years as an ESL teacher in South Korea, and is now working on his master's degree in history with a focus on baseball and WWII. He has played and/or written about baseball for the past 30 years and is an avid Atlanta Braves fan.