March 10th, 2014
If you love palindromes—words or sentences that read the same forwards or backwards—then you know the granddaddy of them all: a man, a plan, a canal, Panama! This week the man of the palindrome will be Mariano Rivera, the New York Yankees relief pitcher recently retired as the all-time leader in saves. The plan will be to honor him as his former club and the Miami Marlins play a two-game set at Panama City’s Rod Carew Stadium on March 15 and 16. The canal will of course be the Panama Canal, marking its centennial year of operation. And Panama—well, that’s a baseball story that goes back farther than one might imagine, to even before Panama was a nation.
In tandem with Panama’s independence from Colombia in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt crafted a treaty that gave America the right to build the canal and create a Canal Zone, about five miles wide on either side of the cross-isthmus waterway. (The Canal Zone was, until 1979, American territory; in this century it has been wholly Panamanian.) Construction of the waterway began a year later. Among the American imports was baseball—or at least that is the way the story has long been told. Colonel George Goethals, when not directing the canal’s construction, served as president of the Isthmian Baseball League. Thomas Graham Grier wrote in 1908:
There is a baseball league on the Canal Zone, consisting of seven teams, and good baseball is played, and people get just as excited and interested as we do over baseball in the States. A baseball park is at the rear of the Tivoli Hotel. If you are a guest, and have a room on the third floor, it is easy to obtain a very good view.
As it turns out, baseball had been played in Panama as far back as 1883, when the future nation was still a province of Colombia. Panama’s Daily Star and Herald of January 9, 1883 described a baseball game played in Chiriqui Plaza two days before, between a team from Chiriqui Province and members of the Panama Cricket and Baseball Club. The contest was won by the latter, largely West Indian workers brought in for that period’s French-managed canal construction.
However, baseball’s history in Panama may go back to so distant a time that its rules were not yet standardized in its home country. Panamanian historian Ramon G. Pérez Medina, in his book Historia del Béisbol Panameño, writes that the game was first played here in the mid-1850s by American traders and men affiliated with the Panama Railroad Company.
Major League Baseball clubs had investigated the Canal Zone as a possible spring training site as early as 1916. The Giants and Yankees rejected a specific offer made to them, deeming the park facilities inadequate. But baseball continued to be played in Panama by its nationals and in the Canal Zone by the Americans. During World War II major leaguers on Armed Services teams played ball in the Zone (Mickey Harris of the Boston Red Sox threw a no-hitter there in 1942). Prior to spring training in February 1946, some Yankees who were returned servicemen had gone to the team’s spring camp in St. Petersburg, Florida directly from Panama.
The Yankees scheduled 11 games in Panama in 1946 and played against a team of Panamanian all-stars in the Canal Zone city of Balboa before an estimated crowd of 10,000. The Yanks returned for more in 1947, playing exhibition games against the Brooklyn Dodgers, who featured a rookie named Jackie Robinson, still nominally on the roster of their top club, the Montreal Royals. Panamanian Héctor López, who would go onto play with the Kansas City A’s and then the Yanks, said, “The Yankees and Dodgers came down to Panama for spring training [in March 1947]. After watching them, that’s when I really started thinking about playing professionally.”
The color line had been a barrier for Panamanian players, but some had joined clubs in the American Negro Leagues. Among these were Léon Kellman, Frank “Pee-Wee” Austin, Archie Braithwaite, Clyde Parris, and Pat Scantlebury. Of those mentioned, only Scantlebury reached the big leagues, at the age of 38 as a pitcher with the Cincinnati Reds.
By 1945 the Professional Baseball League of Panama had been organized, growing strong enough to become one of the four key national groups that formed the Caribbean Series, first played in Havana, Cuba in 1949. That year Panama was represented by Spur Cola’s Refresqueros.
In the following year Panama sent its league champions to the Caribbean Series—this time held in San Juan, Puerto Rico— the same players as in ’49 but renamed for a new sponsor. The team was called Los Licoreros de Carta Vieja, after a brand of rum produced in Panama. The Carta Vieja club won the Series, the only time Panama did so.
The first Panamanian in MLB has sometimes been identified as Héctor López, other times as Pat Scantlebury. But the first, truly, was pitcher Humberto Robinson, who debuted with the Milwaukee Braves on April 20, 1955 (López came next, on May 12). Including the four major leaguers who were born in the Canal Zone, Panama has sent a total of 53 players to the U.S. majors. These include four who are currently on MLB 40-man rosters: Ruben Tejada, Christian Betancourt, Randall Delgado, and Carlos Ruiz.
Panama’s lone Hall of Famer to date has been Rod Carew. But this weekend’s honoree—Mariano Rivera—is, to use a canal term, a lock.