Updated: April 9, 2013 4:24PM
Fourteen years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in modern baseball with his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Baldomero Almada became the first Mexican-born baseball player to play in a major-league game.
Born in the state of Sonora, Almada grew up in Los Angeles with an abbreviated first name: Melo, then Mel. Like Robinson, he was an outstanding all-around athlete, excelling in football, track and field and baseball.
Almada played seven major-league seasons as an outfielder, batting .284. He was a respected leadoff hitter and speedy base stealer.
Among his career highlights chronicled by the Society for American Baseball Research, Almada, then with the Boston Red Sox, drew three hits off Babe Ruth in the last game Ruth ever pitched for the Yankees in 1933. True to his legacy, Ruth left the bigger impression by hitting a home run in a 6-5 Yankees victory.
Throughout his baseball career, Almada faced prejudices and stereotypes, the worst coming in the South as a minor league player, said son Eduardo, a baseball broadcaster in Mexico who is writing a book about his father’s life.
His son recounted that Almada couldn’t enter many restaurants in the South, where crude signs made clear that “no Negroes, no Mexicans and no dogs” were allowed.
Like Robinson years later, Almada faced racist teammates and fans, and such nasty encounters sometimes led to fights in stadiums under bleachers.
Nevertheless, Almada had gratitude for his opportunity. “He fell in love with the U.S.,” his son said.
Almada later declined U.S. citizenship because he didn’t want to diminish his mark in baseball as the first Mexican to play in the majors. Like other players of Latino descent, “they showed the major leagues that there was talent internationally,” Eduardo Almada said.
When asked later in life about discrimination he had faced, Almada demurred. Instead, he said he suffered humiliations.
“He didn’t want to accept that he was discriminated upon,” the younger Almada told me.
Perhaps in his own way, Almada drew a line between his fate and a worse one: exclusion.
Almada had a fair complexion, which made his inclusion more acceptable to fans and teammates, if at times only slightly.
“Prejudice in the United States was most virulent along the question of skin color, not national origin,” MLB historian John Thorn said in an email. “If you were black it didn’t matter much to a bigot whether you were African American or Latin American.
“In the years before Jackie Robinson, however, if you were brown-skinned, you had a better chance at acceptance in the United States if you were of Hispanic origin.”
In a recent blog post, Thorn recalled a passage from Bud Fowler, an African-American baseball pioneer who began playing in the late 1800s: “If I had not been quite so black, I might have caught on as a Spaniard or something of that kind. . . . My skin is against me.”
Cubans and Mexicans could pass as exotics, a term that rings odd to me.
Mexican Leonardo Alanis, known as Leo Najo, almost beat Almada to the major leagues years earlier. Crediting newspaper accounts, author Noe Torres wrote in 2006 that Alanis was acquired by the White Sox in 1925 but cut the following year in spring training. Alanis had a successful minor-league career.
More than two decades would pass before an American-born black player got a chance.