While Alex Pompez spent his days operating an illegal numbers bank in Harlem, he was a stand-up guy. When his scheme left him $68,000 short, he ensured that none of his customers lost any money, and ultimately ended up sacrificing his independent business in order to pull himself out of debt. Pompez also made tremendous strides for Negro League Baseball, and can be credited for much of the diversity that exists in Major League Baseball today. In his book Cuban Star author Adrian Burgos, Jr. highlights the complex and fascinating life of Alex Pompez.
Bill’s thoughts on Cuban Star:
Like several of the men who owned Negro League teams, Alejandro “Alex” Pompez was a criminal. He ran a numbers bank in Harlem, which meant that he provided citizens who wished to try turning their nickels into dollars with an opportunity to do so. The odds against success in this endeavor were roughly the same as the odds against winning the lottery in any of the various states where bureaucrats and patronage hacks are now doing what Alex Pompez did eighty years ago.
But being a numbers banker also meant that Alex Pompez lent money to businessmen, entrepreneurs, people trying to buy homes and various others who were black and who did not attempt to borrow money from conventional banks because they had no time to waste in feckless dreaming. It also meant that Mr. Pompez could put together a bankroll large enough to finance a baseball team, in his case the Cuban Stars.
When Dutch Shultz, a gangster who was adept at making people offers they could not refuse if they wished to remain upright and mobile, suggested to Mr. Pompez that they should become partners, Mr. Pompez understood immediately that Mr. Shultz had no interest in the baseball industry, or even in the sale of hotdogs and crackerjack at Cubans’ games. Mr. Pompez was thus encouraged to enter the baseball business on a more full-time basis himself, which no doubt pleased Mr. Shultz no little and quite some, and in fact inspired him to promise Mr. Pompez $250 a week, which, according to Mr. Pompez, Mr. Shultz did not actually ever give to him, although Mr. Pompez did not wish to make an issue of it, since he very much preferred to remain above the ground.
When the integration of Major League Baseball did to the Negro Leagues the same thing that Mr. Shultz had done to various citizens who chose not to accept his partnership offers, Mr. Pompez went to work for the New York Giants. He provided that ballclub’s owner, Horace Stoneham, with a great many very good baseball players who hailed from places like Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. Mr. Pompez also secured some excellent players from the Negro League teams on terms much more satisfactory to the owners of those teams than the terms suggested by Mr. Branch Rickey when he acquired Mr. Jackie Robinson. This is because Mr. Rickey, who was a religious man, suggested no terms at all and stole Robinson outright, reasoning that since the Negro League teams were owned by men who’d run numbers banks, God would approve if Mr. Rickey robbed them.
If you do not recognize in this series of colorful events the opportunity for a good biography, then you have less foresight that Adrian Burgos, Jr., who wrote Cuban Star, which is a terrific book about Alex Pompez, an unusually energetic fellow whose good works were finally acknowledged when he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
An Excerpt From Cuban Star:
Cuban baseball magnate Abel Linares took great pride in his All-Cubans team having been the first Cuban professional team to tour the United States, in 1899. Renamed the Cuban Stars in 1905, the team developed over the next decade into the most formidable and respected Cuban club in U.S. professional baseball. In fact, the success of Linares’s Stars had done much to reclaim the Cuban name in baseball stateside, where the first documented “Cuban” team was the 1885 Cuban Giants, a team composed almost entirely of U.S.-born blacks. So the news that Alex Pompez had launched another team that would operate under the “Cuban Stars” name justifiably sent Linares into a rage.
Feeling his brand name pirated and his market encroached upon, Linares moved into action. He sent an irate cable to Puerto Rican baseball promoter José Ezequiel Rosario, who had organized the slate of exhibitions for the upstart team. In it Linares claimed that his team was the “authentic” Cuban Stars and that history was on his side: his team had toured the United States first, and his squad was “the same that played in the Cuban championship and who traveled to the United States every year.” Rosario was quick to extend an invitation to Linares in the form of a challenge: the Puerto Ricans would host a game between the two Cuban Stars teams where they could battle for the rightful claim to the name. Ever con dent, the Cuban entrepreneur accepted the challenge.
Linares arrived in Puerto Rico with his team, which was literally full of Cuban stars. The aggregation included future Hall of Fame pitcher José Méndez and slugging outfielder Cristóbal Torriente. It also included pitcher Adolfo Luque, who would go on to win nearly two hundred games in a twenty- year major- league career. Local promoters billed the match- up as one to determine the “authentic” Cuban Stars and “the imposters.” The billing no doubt built up the excitement of
the challenging team’s owner, the brash young Cuban- American Alex Pompez. This was an unexpected moment to make an early impression with his newly formed lineup. Unlike Linares, few of his players had yet to establish themselves as stars in the Cuban League. Nor did they have extensive experience barnstorming in the States. For José María Fernández, Julio Rojo, Bernardo Baró, and Bartolo Portuando, among other talented finds of Pompez’s, the subsequent tour of the States was their first year of many participating in the U.S. black baseball circuit.
The contest in San Juan was close. Despite the fact that Pompez’s squad was still in the process of coalescing as a unit, his team delivered the victory over Linares’s veteran club. Puerto Rican sportswriter Luisin Rosario described the game’s significance: “After a great advertising campaign in the press came the clash between the ‘authentics’ and the ‘imposters’ with the disgrace for the ‘authentics’ who were defeated by the ‘imposters’ by a score of 3 to 2. With that defeat, the fear of the authentics increased considerably.” Pompez’s upstart team had gained a rightful claim to the Cuban Stars name and its twenty- six- year- old owner began to exhibit his flair for drama. An indignant Linares demanded a rematch. “Not enough time,” Pompez coyly responded. His triumphant Cuban Stars had to set sail to start its inaugural campaign in the States; this year there would be two Cuban Stars teams touringthe circuit.
The son of a Cuban- born lawyer, Alex Pompez would travel a different path than his father when it came to their professions and social activities. His father, José González Pompez, participated in social and political circles that connected him directly to the father of the Cuban nation, José Martí, and other titans of the Cuban independence movement in the late nineteenth century; José Pompez also served in the Florida state house as an elected representative. His son would make his mark on history through participation as a Harlem numbers king and in operating a Negro- league professional baseball team for over thirty years. Much changed in the world from the time the father immigrated to the United States, was naturalized in 1879, and died in 1896 and the time his son would rise atop Harlem’s sporting world. Jim Crow segregation emerged to characterize race relations in Florida, precluding the possibility that the son could follow in the footsteps of the father and serve in the state house. Cuba gained its independence from its Spanish colonial ruler, giving Cuban exiles and their progeny a choice of whether to return and rebuild the land of their ancestors or to make their futures in stateside communities. For those who chose to remain in Florida, the deterioration of race relations, along with worsening of economic conditions in the early twentieth century, would again raise the question of whether to migrate or remain. By 1910, Alex Pompez decided to leave Tampa behind and to cast his lot with those venturing not south to Cuba but north to Harlem.
Baseball would be there through it all for Pompez. The game was never too far away, reigning as the sport of choice among Cubans in Key West, where he was born, and in Tampa, where he lived through most of his adolescence. Time spent in Havana as a teenager “infected” him with the passion for the game. But rather than become a major player on the field, he was destined to succeed off the baseball diamond, first as a Negro- league team owner in New York and then as a scout for a major- league team. That he spent his first thirty- four years in professional baseball as an owner in the Negro leagues was telling of the opportunity available for Cubans of his background: someone who was
more than Cuban, more than black.
The communities Pompez grew up in featured a mixture of anticolonial politics, cigar- making, baseball, literature, and music that exposed them to the evolving sensibilities about what it meant to be Cuban, a Negro, and a first- generation U.S.- born Latino. The son of Cuban émigré parents came to count himself among “people of the darker races.” In his day he was a Cuban Negro; today we might call him an Afro- Cuban- American. This meant often not fitting comfortably in either camp: too Cuban to garner the full acceptance of U.S.- born blacks; too much a “Negro” for lighter- skinned Cubans to unequivocally embrace him as one of their own. From entries in the U.S. Census to port- of- entry papers, official documents alternately described him as Negro, Cuban, African, and black. He was a regular traveler between the United States and the Caribbean, and his citizenship status also caused confusion. Official papers would occasionally list him as a Cuban citizen; a few of these documents contained marginal notations that he was indeed a U.S. citizen. What was certain in his travels was that he was not confused with a white Cuban. Indeed, the possibility of achieving acceptance as white in Florida or elsewhere in the States remained closed off to the son of an educated, lighter- skinned Cuban father and a “mulatto” mother. He would have to make his own way, however he could.
CUBAN STAR: HOW ONE NEGRO-LEAGUE OWNER CHANGED THE FACE OF BASEBALL by Adrian Burgos, Jr., published in May 2011 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2011 by Adrian Burgos, Jr. All rights reserved.