Front page from the newspaper El Liberal in February 1, 1898

Front page from the newspaper El Liberal in February 1, 1898

Establishing the site, date and the participants of the first baseball game in Puerto Rico is no easy task. Historians agree – to the contrary of the general belief that the origins of baseball in Puerto Rico began with the invasion by the United States in 1898 – that the war of independence in Cuba brought a group of refugees to the island who had a basic understanding of the rules and techniques of the American sport. Although it is impossible to say for sure, sports journalists believe that games between Cubans and Puerto Ricans took place at a site called the “round bases” (today, the Carnegie Library) in early 1895. In 1897, San Juan had three teams: Borinquen, Habana and Almendares.

The Cuban influence on the Puerto Rican teams was clear, as a rivalry between the Habana and Almendares teams was a tradition on the island. La Democracia commented on the tradition of the “healthy” and interesting sport in the capital and urged Ponce to form a baseball club. In most cases, a meeting was called to elect the directors of a new baseball team being formed. Games were played mainly at the Santurce Velodrome on Sundays and holidays.

Because of the sudden rise of boisterous baseball games played in the public streets, complaints by the urban population soon followed. The Spanish government, in response, published in 1898 an edict prohibiting baseball games in the streets, plazas and walkways of the capital. It was a meaningless law, however, because the civil guard could not keep up with the task of chasing off the youths who gathered to play. In any case, the change of sovereignty that same year meant the laws of the previous government were invalid. Puerto Rican baseball entered a new era.

Baseball at the beginning of American rule

The newcomers from the United States quickly learned that the Puerto Ricans knew how to play baseball. According to Jaime Varas, the military regiments refused to play against the island teams because they “alleged they were not disciplined, started fights … the Puerto Ricans argued that the fights happened because of the incorrect procedures by the soldiers … who thought they were superior to the local talent, talked arrogantly and did not accept defeat.” When a game was announced, it was difficult to find an umpire brave enough to assume the responsibility.

The rivalry and bets between the teams made the situation even more difficult. Sometimes, the conflict extended to the public, with the game ending in violence. The United States teams annually organized tournaments among the various offices and departments of the government to avoid controversy. Each team elected an organizing board and set a schedule of games and activities. Even the Post Office was not free of the complaints. La Democracia complained: “the window for selling money orders is closed every time there is a game.”

El País sadly complained that the U.S. government’s economic restrictions caused a decline in baseball games in San Juan. In 1902, the “Porto Rico Base Ball Association” met at the House of Delegates to discuss the crisis in baseball. Those present, mostly from the United States, said there was a lack of teams, and one person even suggested the formation of two women’s teams. The Association’s secretary, G.A. Elliot, told the San Juan News “that baseball’s effect on the Americanization of the people was surprising.”

The reality was that over time the disputes between the American and Puerto Rican teams became greater. It reached such an extreme that the colonial governor only attended games by the United States teams. However, attendance at the American League games dropped markedly when the Puerto Rican teams were also playing that day. In retaliation, the United States teams tried to limit the Puerto Rican teams by taking control of the fields on Saturdays and Sundays.

A sportswriter for La Correspondencia, under the pseudonym “Juan Bate,” criticized the secretary-treasurer of the American League, a Mr. Thompson, for objecting to practices and games by the local teams. “Bate” complained: “What a brave method of showing the new way! … (and he added) those of us who know how to defend our rights will continue to do so until it is recognized that we are not things, and that we deserve the same respect as others.” The writer urged the Puerto Rican players not to lose hope and to stick together during the time of crisis. La Correspondencia announced, three months later, that the dispute between the two leagues had been “amicably” resolved.

But the situation remained tense. Sportswriters and players objected to the austerity policy of the League secretary, Mr. Smith, alleging that the Association collected the earnings from ticket sales and did not provide the equipment needed for the games. The United States officials also placed obstacles in the way of any attempt to expand the Puerto Rican League. “Juan Bate” wrote: “It is ridiculous to form a club. You have to resort to the Colonial Bank window or give up.” These actions led to decreased interest among players.

The days of the “good teams” (Almendares, Habana and Borinquen) were over and the crisis led to the formation of poor quality teams that only earned mockery and ridicule. In light of the situation, the sports analyst for the Porto Rico Progress, Jerry Woodward, insisted on the need to bring “reinforcements” from Cuba and the United States to improve the level of competition among the players in Puerto Rico. Woodward said the arrival of famous baseball players on the island would be a good advertisement.
However, the problem was not based on advertising or the arrival of prominent athletes from abroad.
The real solution was for the United States officials to allow interaction and to give local players access to any league.

Author: Walter Bonilla
Published: August 29, 2014.

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