From Robinson to Roberts: Dodgers Have Led the Way

Throughout their history, the Dodgers Organization has changed culture through their choice of players, managers, and front office personnel. Starting with former General Manager Branch Rickey and Owner Walter O’Malley, more than any other professional sports franchise, the Dodgers have the led the way in cultural diversity and player development. The Dodgers realized early on that accepting cultures and individual people and players was the best way to success in terms of community progress, on-the-field performance, and financial growth of the franchise.

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O’Malley and Rickey were smart businessmen as well as culturally aware of the times when Jackie Robinson made his way through the farm system and eventually onto the roster. They knew Robinson could perform and effect change. They also knew he would fill the stands with new fans.

With the recent celebration of Jackie Robinson Day on Friday, April 15, 2016, at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and in Major League ballparks across America, we thought it was timely to discuss what the Dodgers have done to change culture through their signing of various players and personnel throughout their history. Let us start with Jackie Robinson.

Jackie Robinson – 1947

We wrote previously about the greatness of Jackie Robinson. He also made our “Best Players in Dodgers History at Each Position” list. He was the first African-American to play in the major leagues in the modern era. Robinson broke the baseball color line when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him at first base on April 15, 1947. The Dodgers, by playing Robinson, ended the racial segregation that had relegated black players to the Negro leagues since the 1880s. Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

The Dodgers were smart enough to draft him, play him, and honor him. Many players of color followed Robinson on the Dodgers and on other teams.

Sandy Koufax – 1955-1966

We wrote about Dodger great Sandy Koufax previously as a cultural icon. He pitched great, lived great, and he brought his Jewish culture and religion to the forefront. He drove the game and its leaders to think more about the value of a player and their health after their careers well before it was acceptable and popular. Koufax is a major part of the Dodgers history and current culture. His character and performance on-the-field would lead former Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley to sign the next big thing thirteen years later (1979) in Mexico.

Fernando “El Toro” Valenzuela – 1980

One word: “Fernandomania!” He debuted on September 15, 1980, after being signed out of the State of Sonora, Mexico. Los Angeles Dodgers scout Mike Brito (the gentleman with the hat behind home plate at Dodger Stadium) had gone to a game in Mexico to evaluate a shortstop named Ali Uscanga. Brito said that he “forgot all about the shortstop.” The Dodgers finally gambled on the young lefty, buying out his Mexican League contract on July 6, 1979, for $120,000 USD.

A six time All-Star and is the only pitcher in Major League Baseball history to win the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards in the same year, 1981. He won his first eight decisions and led the Dodgers to a World Series Championship in 1981. He also made our “Best Players in Dodgers History at Each Position” list.

What you may not know is the cultural phenomenon that Valenzuela created when he made the Dodgers starting rotation in 1981. The Dodgers had a checkered past with the Hispanic and Latino communities in Los Angeles because of the land taken from families that was used to build Dodger Stadium at Chavez Ravine. Valenzuela, some argue, single-handedly changed all of that. Folks seemingly forgave the Dodgers and rooted for Valenzuela and their home team. Many Dodger fans, thankfully, are now of Hispanic and Latino decent. Valenzuela also opened the door to scouting and baseball camps in the Caribbean, specifically the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Venezuela.

In 2003, Valenzuela united with Dodger great, Spanish announcer Jaime Jarrin (who joined the Dodgers in 1959, only nine years after Vin Scully), and has worked as a Spanish-language color commentator since that time.

It started with former Owner Walter O’Malley’s vision to open up the Spanish-speaking market. His son Peter and former General Manager Al Campanis saw it actualized through the work of Dodgers scout Mike Brito. The name Julio Urias now comes to mind. Urias, like Valenzuela, was also signed while the Dodgers were looking at another prospect in Mexico.

The Al Campanis Situation – 1987

If you are unfamiliar with the situation, you can watch the video here. If interested, here is an interesting 2008 Los Angeles Times article about the controversy and its aftermath. In an interview in 1988, Campanis attempted to clarify that he was referring to the lack of African-Americans with experience in these areas, rather than their innate abilities.

Campanis was said to be a close friend of Jackie Robinson’s when they played and he tried to clear the record for years, even attempting to write a book. Campanis resigned and the Dodgers replaced him with Fred Claire. He also helped Major League Baseball study the situation and they noted he was sincere in his efforts to diversify the game. In a valiant effort, “the Dodgers hired an assistant for minority affairs, and soon after, Campanis was hired back in order to know how those with prejudices were thinking.” (Baseball, Ken Burns documentary, 9th Inning.)

Chan Ho Park – 1994

Although he broke into the Dodgers rotation in 1997 full-time, Park is the first South Korean-born player in Major League Baseball history. It is of note that Park has the most career wins, 124, of any Asian-born pitcher in history. He passed another Dodger, Hideo Nomo, for the most ever by an Asian-born pitcher in 2010.

He was known as a power pitcher in the early years with a mid-90s fastball that topped out at 100 MPH. Park may also be the first to play for professional baseball teams in Korea, Japan, and the United States. Under Dodgers leadership and the scouting department, he broke open opportunities for many Korean baseball players to follow him. Park also made our Honorable Mentions section of the “Best Players in Dodgers History at Each Position” list.

Hideo Nomo – 1995

The man who made our Honorable Mentions section of the “Best Players in Dodgers History at Each Position” list, he is known for his devastating forkball and corkscrew pitching wind-up. After being called up due to the player’s strike, he won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1995 and was part of consecutive wins of the Award by several Dodgers players. He twice led the league in strikeouts and also threw two no-hitters. Nomo is not the first Japanese person to play professional baseball in the United States, but he opened the door for Japanese players in Major League Baseball. He was, however, the first Japanese-born Major Leaguer to appear in a major league game since Masanori Murakami in 1965.

He was also the first Japanese-born player to relocate permanently to the Major Leagues. After two brief years with the San Francisco Giants, Murakami returned to Japanese professional baseball for the remainder of his career. The Japanese media came in droves to see Nomo pitch. Back in Japan, many times in the early morning because of the time difference, millions watched Nomo on live television broadcasts as they got ready for their work day.

“Nomomania” could easily be described for the Nomo phenomenon in terms of growing the popularity of the sport in the Japanese community. Former General Manager Fred Claire led this charge under former Owner Peter O’Malley. The result: opening up the Japanese market. Many Japanese players would follow.  Ichiro Suzuki or Kenta Maeda anyone?

Yasiel Puig and Cuban Development – 2013

Yasiel is not the first Cuban to play for a Major League team, but his arrival was the most celebrated and discussed in the history of the sport. Filled with talent, he has turned a corner in 2016 after some trying times with his performance, teammates, and management. He recently posted this terrific picture of him arriving on the team plane early.

His story of arrival is a movie waiting to happen and a call for change. If you do not know, Puig was only successful on the fifth try in defecting from the baseball loving, but communist country of Cuba. He arrived via a Buscone with a boxer, a pinup girl, and a Santería priest. His development has raised eyebrows in how Latin American players are treated versus their Japanese and Korean counterparts with regard to the availability of interpreters and the like.  However, as of 2016, all Major League Baseball teams with Spanish-speaking players are now required to have an interpreter on staff.

Even before diplomatic relations were eased under the current Presidential Administration, the Dodgers have been on a mission to sign more Cuban baseball players than any other team. Credit former Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti, an Italian-American, current President of Baseball Operations Andrew Freidman, a Jewish-American, and the Dodgers ownership for seeing talent and opening up the door and continuing the development of many Cuban, Dominican, and Venezuelan players. It is of note that the Dodgers were the first professional baseball team to open a developmental baseball camp in the Dominican (1987). Sadly, however, many Venezuelan camps are now closing.

Dave Roberts – 2015

With a Japanese mother and an African-American father, Roberts is the first Asian-American Manager in the Major Leagues. He is also only one of two African-American managers in the game today (the other is Dusty Baker, a former Dodger outfielder, now Manager of the Washington Nationals). He is the first non-Caucasian hire in Dodgers history for the Manager position. He followed Ervin “Magic” Johnson with the Dodgers ownership group and many other African-Americans who have served in various advisory roles. He is just beginning what will hopefully be an illustrious and historical managerial career.

It is of note that Frank Robinson (1972, 1975) and Pedro Guerrero (1978) played for the Dodgers and had great impacts as well. Robinson was the first African-American hired to serve as manager in Major League history. Guerrero seemingly began a wonderful influx of Dominican talent that followed his debut. The Dodgers have not forgotten home grown American talent, however. Their current farm system is considered number one in talent, and likely number one in diversity. Why? It makes sense to have talent from where ever you can get it.

From Robinson to Roberts, what the Dodgers have done is accept everyone and welcome them into their family. They have viewed all players as part of the team. They have also been savvy in business to see the opportunities. The organization has also embraced culture, while infusing culture into their values and vision. We can all be proud that the Dodgers have led the way in bringing people together as American’s, through America’s past time, baseball.

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Jeremy Evans

Jeremy M. Evans is the Founder & Managing Attorney at California Sports Lawyer®, representing entertainment, media, and sports clientele. Evans is an award-winning attorney and industry leader based in Los Angeles.
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