Baseball in December: Leopoldo Martinez and the 1947 Amateur World Series
Over seventy years ago, in 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American athlete to play in the World Series, having famously broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball earlier in the year. In another breakthrough, Leopoldo “Polín” Martinez, a Mexican American ballplayer, played in a world series that year as well—just not the one that Jackie Robinson played in.
Instead of playing in the Major League World Series, Martinez played in the IX Serie Mundial de Beisbol Amateur—the Ninth Amateur World Series, an event dominated by Latin American ballplayers. Martinez’s life and achievements show the long tradition of Latinos and baseball.
Leopoldo Martinez was born in Mexico in 1920 and was an avid baseball lover throughout his life. As any fan might, he idolized the Major League greats of his day, such as Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Years later, he told his children of how he saw Gehrig and Ruth hold batting practice during an off-season travel-team game in Mexico.
Martinez included Gehrig and a few other Major League stars in his homemade scrapbooks. Alongside these stars, Martinez included another important, though not as well-known, baseball player: himself. He was playing amateur baseball by the age of 17, playing in the Mexican state of Chihuahua just across the border from Texas. Martinez was known for his fielding, dedication, and trademark smile. In his scrapbook, he carefully recorded his career, from his 1939 season, where he batted a mere .176—recording the season stats by hand—to his two consecutive appearances in the Amateur World Series.
The IX Serie Mundial de Beisbol Amateur took place in Cartagena, Colombia, from November 29 through December 20, 1947. The Amateur World Series was the equivalent of today’s World Baseball Classic, in which different countries fielded national baseball teams to compete. It began in 1938 and first took place in Great Britain. In its first year, only Great Britain and the United States participated. While the Amateur World Series never gained a substantial audience in Europe, it became an instant hit amongst fans and players throughout Latin America. Latin American countries eagerly embraced the series. In its second year the series moved to Cuba, where it remained for four more years.
By 1947 nine national teams played, every single one of which was from Latin America. While 1947 marked a new era for baseball in the United States, Latino inclusion in the majors on a broader scale was slow. According to Mark L. Armour and Daniel R. Levitt’s article, “Baseball Demographics, 1947–2016” for the Society for American Baseball Research, it was not until 1967 that Latinos started to make up more than 10% of Major League Baseball players. By 1991 that number was 15%—greater than the percentage of Latina/os in the United States, which in 1990 was only 9%. Before greater inclusion, Latina/os found alternative ways to play the sport they loved, usually at the local and semiprofessional levels. The Amateur World Series was just one of the grander stages for Latina/o baseball at this time.
By 1947 Martinez had gone a long way since the 1939 season—always having been a great fielder, he eventually became one of Mexico’s great hitters as well. Though he never played professionally, he played the game he loved throughout the Americas. One can easily imagine the excitement in the air at the Amateur World Series, from the many photographs of parading teams and the autographs he collected from players of his own and different teams in his 1948 program. He cherished these experiences, kept clippings of the games, archived photographs of his time in personal scrapbooks, and treasured the Amateur World Series programs—all of which are currently preserved in the national collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Luke Perez is from Los Angeles, California. A former intern on the museum’s Latinos and Baseball Project, he is now a museum specialist in the Division of Political History. He has blogged about Leopoldo Martinez’s scrapbooks and his family’s dedication to playing baseball.