by Mark Kurlansky
288 pages | Buy this book
Baseball is now béisbol: more than one in four major leaguers are Latin-born (up from zero a half century ago), and no country has contributed a greater share of the talent than the Dominican Republic, the much-invaded, largely impoverished Caribbean Island with a blood-soaked history and “a name that seems a temporary offering until a better idea comes along” (page 15). To tell the story of how America’s game gained Dominican flavor, Kurlansky focuses on a single town: San Pedro de Macorís—the birthplace of All-Stars like Robinson Cano, Sammy Sosa, and Alfonso Soriano, and the home of more major leaguers per capita than anywhere in the world.
What's The Big Deal?
Most baseball fans probably already know about the Dominican Republic’s knack for exporting ballplayers. During the last three decades, Major League Baseball has invested tens of millions of dollars in the country, building vast academies that house, feed, clothe, and train the most promising youngsters. And the American media have noticed: hundreds of newspaper and magazine reports, a 2008 feature film, and a handful of books (dating to at least 1993) have spotlighted the D.R.’s baseball factories, most of which are in San Pedro. So what’s new? Not too much, it seems, except Kurlansky, who brings his bestselling formula (tight focus, broad story) to a new subject.
Buzz Rating: Hum
A starred review from Publisher’s Weekly; an early NPR interview (plus an excerpt); a long essay adapted for The Wall Street Journal; an interview on The New York Times’s baseball blog, Bats; and regional newspaper reviews are probably just the beginning for this familiar face in the publishing world.
One-Breath Author Bio
Kurlansky is the author of several sticky (if gimmicky) bestsellers, including Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and Salt: A World History.
The Book, In His Words
“This is a story about making it; about the slight twists and turns that determine success and failure, and how each changes lives—about a world where the right or wrong nod from a coach on a farm team, so called for their obscure American locations, can make the difference between earning a few million dollars a year or going back home and earning a few hundred dollars a year” (page 10).
Judging By The Cover
The cover image (a red-clad Dominican pitcher, set against a sky that’s the blue of oceans on maps) is crisp, stirring—and nothing like the book itself. Kurlansky’s prose is lifeless (the only Dominican Hall of Famer is “one of the greats”), muddy (a restaurant has a “white tableclothed terrace,” which makes one wonder what’s on the actual tables on the terrace), and confusing (“Mixed in with ailing buses coughing black smoke, trucks, and cars were carts pulled by those lean and fearless Dominican horses”) (pages 79, 118, 131). Kurlansky betrays the clear, direct power of the cover on a cumulative chapter-by-chapter basis, too. His book is ultimately about nothing. It’s an accretion of detail from the same series of Dewey decimal codes, and all the interesting stuff is inherent in the subject, not the telling.
Don't Miss These Bits
1. Baseball and sugar have long been entwined in the Dominican Republic. The first games were played in the late 1800s on American sugar plantations, where “Anglo” workers kept the Latin game in line with its U.S. counterpart, which was still evolving a hard set of rules. The special employee barracks, called bateys, hosted some of the country’s first organized baseball games, pitting sugar-mill teams against one another in San Pedro and across the island. For a poor sugar-cane community, baseball was part social event, part salvation for those who might play professionally. (Initially the Dominican League was the only option—and the book’s title, The Eastern Stars, refers to the name of the nearly 100-year-old San Pedro squad—but the major leagues opened up by the 1950s.) So when people ask how San Pedro has managed to produce 79 major leaguers, writes Kurlansky, “the answer is not the water but the sugar” (page 54).
2. Three big-picture events turned American baseball into a Dominican-dominated sport. First, the American game desegregated in the 1940s, opening the door for the earliest Dominican major leaguer, in 1956. Latinos were considered “Negro” by management and the American public, but, in the twisted logic of racism, their foreign pedigree made them less controversial. The second shift was the U.S. embargo of Cuba in 1962, which more than any other single event shifted the balance of Pan-Caribbean baseball to the Dominican Republic. With Cuban players hesitant to emigrate, at least initially, Dominicans became the go-to alternative. Finally, the introduction of the baseball draft in 1965 drove interest in the Dominican Republic. The new selection process forced teams to sign American and Puerto Rican players according to a set order: the worst teams had first pick, the best teams had last pick. The idea was to even out talent. But since teams could still sign foreigners as “free agents,” they recruited from the Dominican Republic to gain an edge.
3. America was a confusing place for the first Dominican ballplayers. The racism was literally black and white when compared with the degrees of difference back home, where “black” was divided and subdivided into a half-dozen different labels according to hair type, eye color, and skin tone. The food was also mystifying, since few Dominicans had ever tasted chilled milk or deciphered an English restaurant menu. (At a loss, most were taught to ask for chicken, one of the few dishes they knew from back home.) Today, many San Pedro programs use a locally produced book that “explains phonetically such critically important instructions as ‘Du nat drap de bol’ as well as terms like the verb ejaculate—something all boys everywhere are told to avoid before a game” (page 157).
4. As Dominican talent has become more important to U.S. baseball, steps have been taken to nurture and protect it. In the 1970s, a local scout decided to house and feed 15 poor, undernourished prospects in rooms constructed in his backyard, a practice that by the 21st century had become a big, sophisticated business. Every major-league team now has a “baseball academy,” a sprawling multifield complex in the D.R. where the life of a street kid or cane cutter can be carefully regulated and controlled for as many as four years, until the player is either past his prime or ready for prime time in the U.S. If this setup sounds exploitative, it often may be: scouts have been accused of taking kids too young, skimming money from their signing bonuses, and demanding sex in exchange for preferential treatment. These ballplayers may be All-Stars someday, but at first they are legally and practically “temporary seasonal laborers, like farm workers” (page 152).
5. So how has “baseball changed the town of San Pedro de Macorís”? Actually, not very much—at least as revealed by Kurlansky. The sport has given San Pedro a reputation as “the city of baseball” or “the town where shortstops come from,” and the example of big-league success has given the poor something to dream about, a long shot to a better life. Baseball money has built athletic fields, public plazas, and, for relatives of the 79 players in the big leagues, mansions and local businesses. Most of the book isn’t really about how baseball shaped San Pedro, but why San Pedro has so many great ballplayers. Kurlansky never goes beyond the obvious explanation: Dominican players were “determined to make it” (page 111). The book’s final line is a quote from the father of a ballplayer, who explains San Pedro’s role as the world’s biggest exporter of baseball stars this way: “We don’t have anything else here and we aren’t tall enough for basketball.” Cute. But after 220 pages, it would be nice to feel a bit more informed.
Swipe This Critique
Kurlansky’s writing gets in the way of his subject. His sentences are rhyme-prone (“the Atlanta press expressed,” on page 90), they’re repetitious (on page 76 we learn that pitcher Juan Marichal “had mastered a wide variety of different pitches” and on 78 we’re reminded of his “unusual variety of pitches”), and they’re unreliable (“In 1886, Dominican baseball began to be played in the sugar mills of San Pedro,” we read on page 47; three pages later we discover that “many historians and people in Santo Domingo refute this”). But one Kurlansky sin offends above all others: he doesn’t know his baseball. He thinks it’s “predictable” that a right-handed hitter would hit the ball to right field (anyone who has swung a bat knows that the opposite is true), he confuses the meaning of the words “delivery” and “movement” (one refers to a pitcher’s windup; the other to the tail on a good fastball), and he describes shortstop Tony Fernandez as a player who would “leap to catch the ball and while still in midair, toss it underhand to first base” (page 103). Even putting aside the question of when a shortstop would do this move (there’s no mention of a double play being turned, but that’s the only thing that comes to mind, and even then it doesn’t quite track), there a major gripe: it’s untrue. Tony Fernandez was indeed famous for underhand flips, but he always had at least one foot planted.
Kurlansky compares the U.S. takeover of the Dominican Republic during World War I to our current adventures in Iraq. There were few clear goals, widespread surprise that the Dominicans resented our presence, an insurgency, and a failed U.S. attempt to train a Dominican national police force.
Prose: See “Judging by the Cover” and “Swipe This Critique.”
Construction: After a nice violin to set the tone of the book, it breaks down into lumpy, ill-defined chapters that read like information dumps for a future project.
Miscellaneous: All 79 big leaguers from San Pedro get bios in an appendix, which offers baseball wonks a handy trivia guide.