A few weeks ago, I was sitting at Dodger Stadium doing research for another book, when Dodger coach Manny Mota came over to say hello to my interview subject. I told Mota I had just finished reading a new book about Alex Pompez. Mota's jutted his chest forward, he pointed his thumb at himself and proudly said, "Alex Pompez signed me."
A generation of Latin ballplayers could say the same thing about the man whose fingerprints remain on the major leagues today, his life story told for the first time in flourishing detail in Adrian Burgos Jr.'s "Cuban Star: How One Negro League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball."
Pompez is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, but his name isn't as famous as his contributions. Burgos details Pompez's fascinating life, one influenced by social, economic, race and class factors -– the awareness of which helped him win over many young players like Mota when, in the last third of his life, he fed the San Francisco Giants a stream of Latin American talent. His efforts influenced every other team to scout aggressively in Latin America. The result is the game we see today.
Pompez lived an unusual American dream -– the son of a Cuban revolutionary, he rose to prominence as a Harlem numbers king and survived a lengthy entanglement with gangster Dutch Schultz, all while procuring talent for his Negro League team, the New York Cubans. When the Negro Leagues began to fold, Pompez built relationships with the New York Giants (he rented the Polo Grounds for his ballclub) by helping them identify and sign Negro Leaguers Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson. In 1950 came his masterpiece, when he helped the Giants find a way to sign Willie Mays out of Birmingham.