Hispanic Heritage Month: Roberto Clemente tops list of baseball's legendary Latino faces

ByCompiled by Mauro Diaz ESPN logo
Friday, September 25, 2020

The Latino presence in professional baseball has grown to become an integral part of the game ever since Lou Castro donned a Philadelphia Athletics cap at the outset of the 20th century. Still, its history is usually broken down into two parts: before Roberto Clemente and after.

For players who came before or have come since, the criteria for being considered the Latino standard-bearer for any particular era is not as simple as it was for Clemente, a proud and vigorous guardian of his roots. Some weren't so quick to embrace their heritage. Others still weren't allowed into the highest levels of baseball simply because their skin tone was of a darker hue.

In putting together a list of historic Latino faces of baseball to commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month, a panel of ESPN editors first pared down a list of dozens of candidates, considered legacies and arrived at 15 icons. They include the incomparable Clemente, four exceptional stars who transcend eras and 10 others broken down by decade. Tough calls were made regarding legends who didn't make the cut. Minnie Minoso, for example, braved a lot of the blows before the Latino boom and paved the way for others to thrive but couldn't break through against stars who shined brighter. Some who made the cut without a Hall of Fame résumé were nevertheless included because of what they meant to their home countries.

Not included are the game's current young faces expected to light up the new decade -- a group of four to be revealed next week that will be whittled to one winner. To determine those candidates, ESPN Deportes and FiveThirtyEight consulted with ESPN talent, considered factors such as stats and social media presence, and asked fans to weigh in.

Without further ado, we present 15 legendary faces synonymous withbéisbol:

The heart and soul

Also considered: None

Roberto Clemente

Played: 1955-72

Country of origin: Puerto Rico

Notable: MVP of the 1971 World Series, in which he hit .414 with two home runs

On the map: The Latino boom in baseball would have happened without Pittsburgh Pirates legend Clemente -- a five-tool player -- but today's game would have looked much different, because Clemente wore Latin America's heart on his sleeve, playing with an unbridled pride on his way to expedited entry into the Hall of Fame. Off the field, he displayed a passion to help the less fortunate -- MLB's Roberto Clemente Award is a testament to his competitive and humanitarian spirits. Almost 50 years after his death, Clemente continues to have an impact on Latin and Puerto Rican players such as St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. "It is an extraordinary honor and a source of great pride for all of us to have the opportunity to wear No. 21 to honor Roberto Clemente on this great day," Molina told ESPN on the 19th edition of Roberto Clemente Day earlier this month. "For all us Latinos who have played Major League Baseball, and have had to deal with so many obstacles, difficulties and challenges, Clemente is the source of inspiration we need to move forward and pursue our dreams and be an example to others on and off the field."

A league of their own

Also considered: Minnie Minoso

Four Latino ballplayers who made an impact culturally and on the diamond:

Fernando Valenzuela

Played: 1980-97

Country of origin: Mexico

Notable: 1981 Cy Young and Rookie of the Year winner in NL

On the map: The left-handed teenager with the quirky windup arrived in Hollywood and took the baseball world by storm as a rookie with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981, beginning with his Opening Day shutout against the Astros and ending with a World Series championship. The cultural phenomenon known as "Fernandomania" that followed gripped the country and especially Latinos in Los Angeles -- a group that was displaced from their homes with the arrival of the Dodgers in 1958. Valenzuela's 173 career wins are tops among pitchers from Mexico, where his significance cannot be overstated.

Pedro Martinez

Played: 1992-2009

Country of origin: Dominican Republic

Notable: Three-time Cy Young winner, 1999 NL pitching triple crown

On the map:Hall of Famer Martinez dominated on the mound as few have, and he did so at the height of the steroid era. The right-hander was theace of any all-time Latino staff, his starts must-see affairs. He slung his arrows at the strike zone as well as at batters who dared intrude on his territory. Along the way, he helped end the Boston Red Sox's 86-year championship drought and served as a beacon for pitchers from Latin America.

Mariano Rivera

Played: 1995-2013

Country of origin: Panama

Notable: Career leader in saves with 652

On the map: The only ballplayer -- Latino or otherwise -- to be voted unanimously into the Hall of Fame. When the Sandman came into a save situation for the New York Yankees armed with his trademark cutter, it was lights out -- about as close to automatic as there was in baseball. One of the key components of baseball's last Yankees dynasty also overcame many of the language barriers that immigrants face in their quest to thrive in the United States. And thrive he did, with 13 All-Star appearances, a World Series MVP award and a reputation as the greatest closer of all time.

Alex Rodriguez

Played: 1996-2014

Country of origin: United States

Notable: Three-time MVP, 2009 World Series champion, 696 home runs

On the map:Rodriguez, who was born in New York to Dominican parents, turned the sports world on its ear by signing a 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers in the winter of 2000. The team was a cellar dweller during A-Rod's three seasons in Arlington and never made much noise at the turnstiles, but he more than held up his end of the bargain with an average of 52 home runs per season and the 2003 MVP award, before he was shipped to the Yankees. Rodriguez, the highest-paid baseball player of all time to date, is also the highest-ranking Latino on the all-time home run list at 696. However, his 2009 admission of PED use while with the Rangers and subsequent 211-game suspension has burdened his legacy.

Through the decades

1920s: Martin Dihigo

Played: 1923-47

Country of origin: Cuba

Notable: Both a pitcher and an everyday player, Dihigo led leagues outside the majors in the categoriesofbatting average, homers, doubles, wins, ERA, strikeouts and winning percentage

Also considered: Adolfo "Dolf" Luque

On the map:Dihigo's Hall of Fame plaque lists his nickname as "El Maestro," but his influence goes beyond his mastery of several positions, with a versatility and power that improved with each passing year. His command of English and knowledge of the game inevitably led to a path as a manager. Though never in the majors, he left his mark in the Negro Leagues, Mexico and Cuba, and is immortalized in halls of fame in the latter two as well.

1930s: Lefty Gomez

Played: 1930-43

Country of origin: United States

Notable: Five World Series rings, one for each of the fingers on his dominant left hand

Also considered: None

On the map: Gomez, who was born in California with Spanish and Portuguese roots, is the winning pitcher of record for the first All-Star Game in 1933. With the color line firmly in place during this period of baseball history, it is difficult to highlight notable Latinos. However, Gomez -- a four-time 20-game winner and three-time strikeout king who shined on the biggest stages while with the Yankees -- stands out as the dominant left-hander of the era regardless of heritage.

1940s: Hiram Bithorn

Played: 1942-43, 1946-47

Country of origin: Puerto Rico

Notable: 18-12 record with a 2.60 ERA and seven shutouts in 1943

Also considered: None

On the map: Puerto Ricans consider Bithorn's major league debut as a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs in April 1942 a deep source of pride, responsible for opening doors to generations of the island's ballplayers. It is Bithorn's name, rather than Roberto Clemente's, that graces the name of Puerto Rico's largest ballpark. Bithorn would peak in his sophomore season with 18 wins and a 2.60 ERA, then sat out the next two seasons because of military service. He returned to play in parts of the 1946 and '47 major league seasons. Late in 1951, a police officer in Mexico shot Bithorn under mysterious circumstances. Bithorn subsequently died from injuries suffered in the shooting, with his legacy already cemented.

1950s: Alfonso "Chico" Carrasquel

Played: 1950-59

Country of origin: Venezuela

Notable: Three straight All-Star Game appearances beginning in 1956

Also considered: Vic Power, Bobby Avila

On the map: Carrasquel's third-place finish in the 1950 Rookie of the Year voting sparked a new focus on defensive talent from down south and a new appreciation of the Latin ballplayer. Considered the first in what would become a Venezuelan pipeline of shortstops, the Chicago White Sox's Carrasquel approached the position with a joy and showmanship that only added to his appeal.

1960s: Juan Marichal

Played: 1960-75

Country of origin: Dominican Republic

Notable: Winningest pitcher of the 1960s with 191 victories

Also considered: Luis Aparicio, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Oliva

On the map: The San Francisco Giants' intimidating Dominican right-hander, then 25, outlasted 42-year-old Warren Spahn in a 16-inning duel in 1963 widely considered the greatest game ever pitched -- or "Juan Beats Spahn," as the San Francisco Chronicle remembered in its headline. Marichal's endurance that day announced the coming Latino presence on the mound with authority. The first native of the Dominican Republic to earn a spot in Cooperstown, Marichal was the face of the '60s on the field as much as any Latino, even as he came of age alongside Roberto Clemente.

1970s: Rod Carew

Played: 1967-85

Country of origin: Panama

Notable: 1977 MVP named to 18 consecutive All-Star Games

Also considered: Dave Concepcion, Tony Perez, Luis Tiant

On the map: With a discipline learned in the U.S. Marine Corp reserves, Carew hit .388 in 1977, at that point the highest average in a season since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941, and the best all-time for a hitter of Latino heritage. Carew won the American League batting crown that now bears his name six times in the decade and seven times overall. He joined Roberto Clemente as a member of the 3,000-hit club in 1985.

1980s: Jose Canseco

Played: 1985-2001

Country of origin: Cuba

Notable: 1986 AL Rookie of the Year award followed by AL MVP two years later

Also considered: Pedro Guerrero, George Bell

On the map: With Valenzuela off the board and in his own category, the Havana-born Canseco put his stamp on the latter part of the decade with an unprecedented blend of power and speed that in 1988 led to baseball's first 40-40 season with the Oakland A's. Most consider the Bash Brother's legacy tainted because of claims in his autobiography, "Juiced," that he introduced PEDs to baseball, but there is no denying that his star was among the brightest among Latinos -- or any players -- in the '80s.

1990s: Sammy Sosa

Played: 1989-2007

Country of origin: Dominican Republic

Notable:66 home runs in MVP 1998 season, followed by 63 the next year

Also considered: Juan Gonzalez, Edgar Martinez, Ivan Rodriguez, Bernie Williams

On the map: Though it occurred at the turn of the century, Sosa secured his status when he waved an American flag during a home run trot in the aftermath of 9/11. Despite the cloud of suspicion PEDs cast over baseball, there is no denying that the 1998 home run race brought fans back to the game four years after a strike pulled the plug on the sport. In the center of it all was Sosa, the Dominican power hitter whose 66 home runs in 1998 with the Cubs bested his previous career high by 30.

2000s: David Ortiz

Played: 1997-2016

Country of origin: Dominican Republic

Notable: MVP of 2004 ALCS and 2013 World Series

Also considered: Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez

On the map: The hit that "put me on the map" gave birth to "Señor Octubre" on the way to breaking baseball's most famous curse. Big Papi's two-run, walk-off home run off the Yankees' Paul Quantrill in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS was the spark that allowed the Red Sox to overcome a 0-3 series deficit and eventually crown them World Series champions for the first time in 86 years. What's more, his postseason prowess has helped him strengthen the bond with his native Dominican Republic, where he remains bigger than life.

2010s: Miguel Cabrera

Played: 2003-present

Country of origin: Venezuela

Notable: 2003 World Series champion, AL MVP in 2012 and 2013, four-time batting champion

Also considered: Jose Altuve, Adrian Beltre,Nelson Cruz

On the map: Cabrera became the first triple crown winner in 45 years in 2012, hitting .330 with 44 home runs and 139 RBIs with the Detroit Tigers. Since making his professional debut at 16 in his native Venezuela, Cabrera had emerged to become his generation's most complete offensive player. He has also been involved in giving back to communities in Detroit and Miami, while ensuring that the Latin brotherhood in clubhouses remains intact.