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An All-Star History of Baseball in a Caribbean Nation

Bestselling author Mark Kurlansky covers Dominican Republic's inside baseball.

En español | Most people would be hard-pressed to name a baseball book as revealing and, at the same time, as random as The Eastern Stars, How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Marcorís. The book offers a concise history of the Dominican Republic, a thorough analysis of the effect Major League Baseball has had on this island nation, an exhaustive look at the role of sugar trade in the Caribbean—and recipes for boiled crabs. 

After an extended windup focused mainly on the sugar industry and its role in addressing the country's abject poverty, writer Mark Kurlansky delves into the central idea that will attract most readers to his new book: "By 2008, seventy-nine men from San Pedro had already made it into the Major Leagues, where the average [annual] salary was $3 million."

Here we begin to learn the backstory of how, since 1956, the Dominican Republic has placed 471 players in Major League Baseball, one in six of these men coming from a small town at the eastern end of the island (hence the name of the local team and the book), and how working in the sugar cane fields is one of the few means to eke out a living. Baseball offers an escape from these otherwise depressed living conditions, but baseball fever had started much earlier in San Pedro, dating back to 1886, when baseball first found its way into the sugar mills and the community became "one of the greatest wellsprings of ball-playing talent ever known."

Kurlansky, a journalist and author of nine nonfiction books, among them Salt: A World History, presents a vast, though often discursive, amount of research throughout his work. At its best, The Eastern Stars provides a timeline of the Dominican Republic, starting with Columbus's 1492 arrival through the nightmare of the Trujillo regime and the various invasions the country has endured over 500 years (two from Spain, three from Haiti, two from France, and two from the United States), as well as critical details on the ongoing presence of Major League Baseball. And since the U.S. pastime is so closely interwoven with its history as a nation, the larger story becomes  one also of the United States. 

According to Kurlansky, Dominicans historically have not viewed their society as divided between white and black like in the United States, but instead more nuanced with morenos, indios, chabins, and others. But because in the United States "anyone with any touch of African blood" was considered black, the entry of Dominicans into professional baseball was delayed just as it was for players from the Negro League. Then in 1956, more than a decade after the ban had been lifted, Major-League baseball finally hired its first Dominican player. That man, Osvaldo Virgil, left his small village near the Haitian border a Dominican and "ended up in the Major Leagues, a black man named Ozzie Virgil." While other Dominican players would trickle in over the years, the league still favored Cuban players since white Cubans had been playing in the majors since 1871. It wasn't until the United States declared a trade embargo against Cuba in 1962 that, as Kurlansky points out, "Major League Baseball would have to look elsewhere for Latino talent." It turned more aggressively to the Dominican Republic.

The final incident that led to so many Dominicans playing professional ball occurred in 1975, when Major League Baseball was forced to allow its drafted players to become free agents. But because the league's draft regulations were limited to U.S. citizens and residents, there was no limit to how many foreign-born players could be hired. The Dominican Republic, with its long tradition of baseball and one of the worst economies of the Americas, was on deck and ready. This is when things really started to change. "Once baseball players started going to the U.S. and coming back with the money to buy mansions and SUVs, baseball was no longer about fun: it was about salvation," Kurlansky writes. This salvation eventually extended to the larger community with Major League Baseball now claiming to generate $76 million in business annually through projects like baseball academies that provide thousands of jobs, which is comparable to the amount of revenue brought in by tourism. This doesn't include the millions of dollars in remittances from the players and their contributions to orphanages and other youth programs.

Kurlansky relates how baseball's predominance on the Caribbean nation has led to corruption involving player contracts, a sex scandal with younger players, and the abuse of steroids. We also get the dirt on some of the more celebrated players like Sammy Sosa and George Bell, which, like many of the book's details, may be common knowledge to longtime fans. Recent followers, however, will enjoy the measured way that Kurlanksy presents many of the basics. Other details will seem oddly placed and rather base: "Dominican men are infamous for sexism"; "Dominicans love to dance."

Though Kurlansky occasionally wanders into left field with some of his material, The Eastern Stars ultimately delivers a compelling story of how the game we enjoy as our national pastime has been a source of hope and salvation to many families of this island nation. It's a book for readers curious about the game, curious about the Dominican Republic, and maybe a little curious about cooking crabs with coconut milk. And all just in time for the new baseball season.