Luis Castro, first Latin American in MLB

Luis Castro was not only the first Colombian-born baseball player, but also the first Latin American player to appear in a recognized Major League Baseball game. A second baseman who played for the 1902 Philadelphia Athletics, Castro long kept his birthplace a secret – allegedly out of fear of deportation – and died bankrupt. It wasn’t until decades after his death and after he was buried in an unnamed grave at Mount St. Mary Cemetery in Flushing, New York, that historians of the game discovered his importance in baseball history.

Which automatically leads us to wonder, why did the first Latin American player in the Major Leagues end up in an unnamed grave in Queens? History, like much of Castro’s life, is complicated.

That cheerful and fun personality accompanied Castro throughout his career as a player in the minors and later as a coach and manager in the minors as well (becoming, in all probability, the first Latin American-born manager in organized baseball).

Although perhaps he was too talkative. Investigations by the American Association for Baseball History Research (SABR) found that, at least a couple of times, Castro’s South Atlantic League team, Augusta, was ruled the loser of the game. for Castro’s claims to the arbitrators. He was also accused (though he vehemently denied it) of poisoning the water thermos of a rival team whose players had succumbed to severe stomach pains.

In those days, not much attention was paid to Castro’s birthplace. And none to its historical significance.

Many years before Castro’s arrival with the Athletics, there was a Cuban-born third baseman named Esteban Bellán, who played for the Troy Haymakers and the New York Mutuals of the National Association between 1871 and 1873 before returning to Cuba to help out. popularize the game on the island. So in the first half of the 20th century, even if someone had been busy looking for the first major league player born in Latin America, they would have assigned that honor to Bellán.

When Castro died on September 24, 1941, everything indicated that his most substantial contribution to the Major Leagues had been to replace Lajoie for a few weeks.

But many years later, his career took on a much deeper meaning.

In 1969, MLB’s Special Record Book Committee issued an opinion on a number of disputed points in the record book, including the “Major League” status of a number of rival circuits from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was then determined that the National Association – the Bellán league – should not be considered a “Major League” due to its erratic schedule and procedures. With that, Castro’s status could be elevated. He was an important predecessor to thousands of Latin American players who have shaped the sport and enhanced its quality, style and culture.

Except, for decades after his death and after the committee’s decision, it was still unclear where Castro was born.

And we can thank Castro himself for the confusion.

For example, in an interview offered in 1902 he said that he was the nephew of Cipriano Castro, the Venezuelan dictator and president between 1899 and 1909. Was the player Castro really the family of the dictator Castro? Who knows. No investigation has confirmed or disproved the link, but, again, Castro was known as a joke caster. What we do know is that, in 1909, the player gave an interview to the Atlanta Constitution in which he denied the relationship. (Of course, by this time, Cipriano Castro had been displaced from power by his compadre Juan Vicente Gómez and had had to go into exile, so there were reasons to do so).

But more significant are Castro’s biographical records.

In a passport application made in 1922, Castro wrote that he was born in New York City. He put the same thing on his US Census form in 1930 (in which, at age 53, he kept putting “baseball player” as his profession). Those Census records were published by the National Archive in 2002, and some investigated took Castro’s posting as proof that he was not the first major league player born in Latin America.

But the more that has been sought, the clearer it has become that Castro was indeed born in Colombia.

A key piece of evidence is a naturalization form that Castro filled out in July 1917, when he was 30 years old. There it says that Castro was born on November 25, 1876 in Medellín, Colombia. Obviously, if Castro had been born in New York as he himself had sometimes said, there would have been no reason to apply for US citizenship. What is not so clear is why he would place New York as his hometown in other documents, although we could assume that he was denied citizenship and did not want to draw more attention so that the truth would not be discovered.

“He was trying to avoid being deported,” said Ralph Carhart, a SABR member who, until recently, was the chairman of the “19th Century Baseball Grave Marker Project,” a committee dedicated to building proper new headstones, highlighting the contributions to the game, in the graves of outstanding figures of nineteenth-century baseball.

“I don’t live in his head,” Carhart continued, “and I don’t really know what his motives were, so I’m assuming. But I think he was trying to do everything he could to stay in the United States. “

Another important piece of evidence about Castro’s origin story came to light when historian Nick Martínez found an original passenger listing for the ship SS Colón, which arrived in New York City from Colombia on October 16, 1885. The list includes Castro’s father, Néstor, and 8-year-old “Master Luis Castro”.

With Castro’s birthplace confirmed, we can now learn more about his fascinating past. From a 1902 article published in the Baltimore Sun and quoted in the biography of Castro written by Brian McKenna for SABR, we learned that Néstor Castro was a wealthy banker in Colombia. According to the article, the Colombian government required people in their position to lend money to cover military expenses, or risk having their properties burned.

“This time,” Castro told the reporter, “my father steadfastly refused to hand over his fortune. Persistent in that, all of us in the family were imprisoned in the house, which was surrounded by government soldiers. But in the end my father won ”.

Under those conditions, one could assume that Nestor Castro took his son to the United States to escape instability and live a better life. But while the young Castro did indeed live the rest of his life in the United States, the money his father left him did not last forever.

In the 1920s, Castro promoted and judged boxing matches, umpireed baseball games, ran a skating rink and motorcycle race track, opened a bar, and ran two hotels. But what the few records that exist of the last years of Castro’s life indicate is that his fortune eventually turned bad. In 1926, he pleaded guilty to failing to file his taxes in 1922 and 1923. And in 1937, he applied for financial aid from the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America.

“That wasn’t entirely his fault,” explained John Thorn, an official MLB historian and member of the 19th Century Baseball Grave Marker Project Committee. “The Great Depression claimed many victims.”

Castro died in 1941, aged 64, at Manhattan State Hospital, a psychiatric facility on Wards Island.

And as the “19th Century Baseball Grave Marker Project Committee” discovered, which officially took charge of Castro’s case in 2019 based on a request from NY State Senator Jessica Ramos, of Colombian descent, Castro was not only buried in an unmarked grave. Nor had he paid for it. His remains rested in Division 10, Row 9, Tomb 18 at Mount St. Mary’s, a burial site with no mention of his past and where his name was not even read.

And for 79 years, the bill for his burial, which was never paid, was adding interest and interest, a figure that seemed destined to escalate eternally.

Imagine then the shock – and excitement – of those in charge of Mount St. Mary’s when, in 2020, a group showed up willing to pay that debt.

The bill was over US $ 5,000. A negotiation ended up lowering the price.

“They cut the bill in half, at least,” Carhart said. “They negotiated with us.”

With the help of MLB, payment for Castro’s burial – at least half – was made. A new tombstone was created to both honor its meaning and respect the regulations of the Catholic cemetery in which it rests. A space was opened for the MLB logo, the SABR logo and a crucifix. And below Castro’s name, his date of birth and date of death, the following inscription:

“The first of the forefront of Latin Americans who switched to Major League Baseball always passes.”

And so, on July 20 – not coincidentally, Colombia’s Independence Day – a small group gathered at Mount St. Mary’s to offer Castro the tribute he had long deserved. Both Thorn and Ramos were present and gave speeches on the impact and life of Castro. It was a heartfelt tribute to a man who went to his grave without knowing its significance in baseball history.