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Satchel Paige Plays for Dictator Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic

In part 2 of this series, Jason Turbow discusses Satchel Paige’s harrowing 1937 season playing for the team of military dictator Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Trujillo’s representatives warned that winning the championship might be a matter of life and death.

By Jason Turbow, June 19, 2017

This photo of the Ciudad Trujillo team comes from the personal scrapbook of Dr. Jose Enrigue Aybar.
L to R standing: Josh Gibson (C), Harry Williams (2B), Tony Castaño (OF), Rodolfo Fernández (P), Robert Griffin (P), Perucho Cepeda (IF), and Cy Perkins (C & OF); Kneeling: Lázaro Salazar (1B, P, & Manager), Dr. José E. Aybar (Club president), and Satchel Paige (P); Sitting: Enrigque Lantigua (C), Lerory Matlock (P), Huesito Vargas (OF), Cool Papa Bell (OF), Sammy Bankhead (SS), Silvio García (3B & P), and Cuco Correa (IF).

In 1937, Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic’s iron-fisted dictator from 1930 through 1961, turned his attention from despotism to baseball. More accurately, he saw baseball as a means to further his despotism. His political rivals, seizing upon the national obsession with the sport, had begun to field formidable teams within the Dominican professional league. Trujillo knew that to fully maintain his grip on public opinion, he would have to do the same.

The president already controlled his hometown club, formerly known as the Santo Domingo Dragones, which had since seen its base of operations renamed Ciudad Trujillo. Los Dragones de Trujillo were loaded with local talent, including Puerto Rican import Perucho Cepeda—whose nickname, “The Bull,” lent his ballplaying son Orlando the moniker “Baby Bull”—but the dictator was dissatisfied. He wanted American ringers.

To find them, he tabbed the dean of the University of Santo Domingo, Dr. Jose Enrique Aybar, whose seat on the National Congress was of far less interest to Trujillo than his position as director of Los Dragones.

Aybar knew just where to look. Knowing that the shaky financial straits of even the most successful Negro League teams made their players ripe for pirating, Aybar made a beeline for the best player among their ranks: Satchel Paige. As bait, he brought with him $30,000—six of it for the pitcher, the rest to recruit others to surround him on the diamond. Offering $3,000 for eight weeks’ work, it didn’t take long for Paige to convince the likes of Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell to breach their existing contracts and join him for a winter in the Dominican Republic.

It wasn’t until they arrived that Paige discovered the reason for the salary largess. The club of Trujillo’s primary political rival, Las Estrellas Orientales, had already tapped Negro League rosters, and el presidente was unwilling to lose face should his club fail to measure up. With the money, of course, came expectations.

Upon arrival, the Americans were feted at press conferences and events. Paige’s eyes were opened to the truth of his new situation when a local reporter pulled him aside at a party hosted at one of the president’s plantations. “Trujillo won’t like it if his club goes around losing,” the reporter warned, making it clear that triumph was mandatory.[1]

The development put considerable pressure on Paige to perform. It did not help that members of Trujillo’s military—mostly barefoot, wrapped in bandoleros, and bearing long, bayonetted rifles—accompanied the Negro Leaguers everywhere they went, going so far as to stand sentry outside their rooms at night. The soldiers similarly showed up for games, where they encircled the playing field and occasionally fired shots into the air to augment cries of support for the team. The Americans, who understood little of what was happening, were terrified.

 

This 1937 Dominican League scorecard features Satchel Paige in the line-up, along with Ciudad Trujillo teammates Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell in a game against Santiago.

It did not help that Los Dragones failed to run away with the league. Trujillo’s rivals moved quickly to match his importation of foreign talent, bringing their own array of Negro Leaguers and Caribbean stars into the country. One of those players, Chet Brewer—who had teamed with Paige on the Kansas City Monarchs in 1935—joined Aguilas Cibaeñas, the team in Santiago, and, in a head-to-head showdown with Satchel, no-hit Los Dragones.

Still, Paige won eight of his 10 starts, and Gibson led the league with a .453 batting average. Their club finished a league-best 18–13, setting up a seven-game series against Las Estrellas Orientales for a best-of-seven championship series. Any pressure the Negro Leaguers may have felt before quickly escalated to almost intolerable levels.

When the games began, the grandstand at Estadio Quisqueya was like nothing Paige had ever seen. Trujillo’s supporters flooded one side of the stadium, opposition supporters the other. Both sides were heavily armed. “I knew then,” reasoned Paige later, “that whichever way the series went, I lost.”[2]

The pitcher’s famously nervous stomach did him no favors in such a climate, and he lost the opener. His teammate, fellow Negro Leaguer Leroy Matlock, was defeated in the second game. A Dominican pitcher took the hill for  Los Dragones in Game 3, and also lost. Inexplicably, the league’s most stacked roster was in a 3–0 hole, needing to sweep the remaining games to pull out a series victory.

“Them soldiers were always around us, reminding us that we’d better win, or else,” Paige said later. “So we lost a couple of games because our players had difficulty keeping their eyes on the ball, and those guns the soldiers pointed at us every time a ball was hit. It is also very difficult to avoid striking out when a soldier is standing in the third base coach’s box, aiming at you with his gun cocked.”[3]

Paige grew so nervous that he sought out Aybar for assurances of safe passage back to the United States—and only grew antsier when the director was noncommittal about what might happen following another loss. With their backs against the wall—amid fears that the metaphor would soon become literal, in the presence of a firing squad— Los Dragones rallied for three straight victories, setting up a decisive Game 7.

As if the burden was not heavy enough, a Trujillo representative called a pregame meeting with Paige and his teammates. “You’d better win,” he said, sternly.

“What do you mean, we better win?” the pitcher barked.

“I mean just that,” he was told. “Take my advice and win.”[4]

Buffeted with anxiety, Los Dragones struggled out of the gate, committing six errors over the first seven innings, and found themselves trailing, 5–4, with only two frames to go. Trujillo’s guards began lining up in formation—as if to open fire, Paige thought—in preparation for an unfavorable outcome. “If we lose,” the pitcher recalled thinking, “there is nothing to do but consider myself and my boys as passed over Jordan.”[5]

Somehow, Los Dragones scraped together two runs in the bottom seventh to take a 6–5 lead. Imbued with new life, Paige bore down like never before, dominating the final innings to seal the win, en route to 15 strikeouts on the day. “You never saw Ol’ Satch throw harder,” he said later.[6]

When the time came to leave the country, the players were given heroes’ departures at the Santo Domingo dock, with fans lining the avenues and showering them with bouquets of flowers—a tribute, figured Paige, that easily could have gone in the other direction.

“I often thought afterward,” he said, “that those flowers could have been on my grave if we hadn’t won that game.”[7]

“1937 Ciudad Trujillo Team” original artwork by Noah Stokes.


[1] Satchel Paige, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.
[2] Collier’s, June 13, 1953.
[3] New Pittsburgh Courier, July 24, 1965.
[4] Paige, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever.
[5] Collier’s, June 13, 1953.
[6] Paige, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever.
[7] New Pittsburgh Courier, July 24, 1965.

 

 

 

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