When you think of baseball, you might think of Cooperstown, N.Y. But it's San Pedro de Macoris, in the Dominican Republic, that's known as "the town where shortstops come from."
As of 2008, 79 boys and men from San Pedro had gone to the play in the major leagues — including the likes of Sammy Sosa, Robinson Cano and Julio Franco.
Writer Mark Kurlansky examines the phenomenon in his new book, The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris. He says it was often a difficult transition for Dominican players, who started coming to the United States to play ball in 1958.
"They didn't recognize any of the food. It wasn't the kind of food they were used to. Julio Franco was sent to Montana and he didn't know to get a coat. He had never worn a coat. He's in the Rocky Mountains in the snow with no coat," Kurlansky tells NPR's Liane Hansen. "Jose Cano, Robinson Cano's father, who was a pitcher, told me about how he learned to really like Whoppers. He couldn't speak much English, so he'd just go in and order Whoppers. And he could never remember if Whoppers were Burger King or McDonald's. He'd always go into the wrong one and get dirty looks."
And then, there was the racism.
"It was very difficult for them to understand because, first of all, a lot of them were ... light-skinned and didn't consider themselves to be black," Kurlansky says. "So they'd go to minor league teams in the South, even in the early '60s, and they didn't think Jim Crow applied to them and got into a lot of difficulties — not only with racists, but with the African-American players, who kind of resented this stand of 'I'm not really black.' You know, they thought they should have shown more solidarity with the black players, rather than insisting they were distinct from it."
But Kurlansky says the current notion that Dominican players are replacing African-American players "really is not true."
"If anything, it's the other way around. They're hiring Dominicans because they can't get enough blacks," he says. "I've talked to a number of ex-major leaguers who've worked on recruiting programs in inner cities — you know, these programs are dying; they can't get people interested. People want to play football and basketball, where you can get to the big game and the big money a lot quicker than you can in baseball."
Although it may take longer to get to, there is definitely big money in baseball. The average salary for a major league player is $3 million a year, Kurlansky says. And the signing bonuses just keep getting bigger.
"It used to be a few thousand dollars, and now they're a few hundred thousand dollars. In 2008, Oakland signed a pitcher for $4.25 million — 16-year-old pitcher; wasn't even a left-hander," Kurlansky says. "His family is OK now, no matter what happens. Obviously, Oakland has high hopes for his career, but even if he just is a complete bust, he's OK and his family's OK.
"But even, you know, these guys who sign for $200,000 — you know, if you get $200,000, you've changed the life of everyone in your family. I mean, these people are living on hundreds of dollars a year. When you start talking about hundreds of thousands, that's huge."