By David Marasco
One of the stranger episodes in the history of the Negro Leagues took place in the Summer of 1937 when some of the best talent was drawn to the Dominican Republic. The gospel has always been that the ruling power, a man named Rafael Trujillo, needed to sway an election and used good baseball to do this. After reflecting on this for a while, I felt that this was a poor explanation. If Trujillo had so much money to spend on recruiting baseball players, then probably an election would not be too hard to throw. And for that matter, how valid was this election? Most elections in this hemisphere at that time were not very clean. In my writing and in other's, Trujillo has been almost a cartoon character - the crazy Latin American dictator that bought himself a pennant. I began to wonder about the real story. When I started my readings on Trujillo I found that he was one of the true evil men of his times. It is my wish that the following biography be remembered every time that the Summer of 1937 surfaces in baseball history.
Baseball has deep roots in the Dominican Republic. Oleksak and Oleksak tell how baseball came to the Dominican Republic in their "Beisbol - Latin Americans and the Grand Old Game." Cubans, fleeing war in their own country, settled in the Dominican Republic and brought baseball with them. The history of politics in the Dominican Republic is also that of foreign influences. The Dominican Republic and Haiti share the island of Hispaniola, where Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Western Hemisphere. A territory of Spain for many years, the Dominican Republic eventually gained its independence. No fear, it didn't last for long. In 1905 the United States sent in the military to settle some debt payments. When things got ugly again, Woodrow Wilson sent in the US Marines in 1916, with an occupation that lasted until 1924. It was during this period that Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molinas began his rise to power.
Rafael Trujillo was born on October 24, 1891. Not much is known of his early years, however, one story tells much of his later rule. As a child he liked to collect bottlecaps, and as a result, acquired the nickname chapita, which in slang means bottlecap. Trujillo never liked this nickname, and as an adult solved this problem by banishing the word from the language. In early 1919 he joined the Dominican army and soon proven to be an effective soldier. In 1921 he was sent to officer's school and soon after graduation he reached the rank of Captain. His rise through the ranks was impressive. Captain in 1922, Captain and Inspector of the First District in 1923, Major Commander 1924, Lieutenant Colonel and chief of staff, national police 1924 and finally Colonel and commander of police in 1925. In 1927 the police were transformed into the national army, and Trujillo was awarded the rank of Brigadier General.
In February of 1930, a revolt against Dominican President Horacio Vasquez broke out in Santiago. On the surface it was being led by Rafael Estrella Urena, but was in fact being masterminded by Trujillo. The revolt caused the downfall of Vasquez, and the promise of free elections. One of the few restrictions on said election was that Trujillo was not to run. Five months later, Trujillo was elected President of the Dominican Republic. He had placed himself on the ballot and then used goon squads to terrorize the voting public. He played the same game that European leaders of the 1930's would play several years later. The 42nd was a group of thugs who would beat, burn and kill anything in their path. When the election was held in May of 1930, only 55% of the registered voters exercised their right. Of these, 99% voted for Trujillo. The thugs had done their job well. Late in 1930 Santo Domingo was levelled by a hurricane. This allowed among other things a suspension of the Constitution, something that in later years Trujillo would do at his whim. Also, many unidentified bodies were simply cremated at the time. This coincides with the vanishing of several political prisoners. When Santo Domingo was rebuilt, it was also renamed. The capital of the Dominican Republic was henceforth to be called Ciudad Trujillo.
In the next few years Trujillo would take control over every aspect of Dominican society. The judiciary was subverted by 1931. Slowly but surely Trujillo took over many industries. Jesus de Galindez listed Trujillo's monopolies one by one: salt, insurance, milk, beef, tobacco, the lottery, newspapers, and a large concern in the mighty sugar industry. Trujillo was not only the most powerful man in the Dominican Republic from a political point of view, but also from an economic standpoint. German E. Ornes estimated Trujillo's wealth to be $500,000,000 in 1958 dollars.
In 1937 came a great shock. Trujillo was running in the election that was to be held in 1938. Of course, this election was to be rigged, and as far as I can tell, the baseball was only a manifestation of Trujillo's megalomania. However, in late 1937 rumblings of a great scandal surfaced. 18,000 Haitians living in the Dominican Republic had been systematically executed. As a result, the Dominican Republic had to pay Haiti $750,000, and Trujillo withdrew from the election. A puppet named Peynado took his place, but the real power was still Trujillo.
Throughout Trujillo's regime freedom was squashed. In 1955 it became so extreme that disagreement with the writings of the Academy of History was a criminal offense. The chapita story has already been told. As in any dictatorship, people did not feel free to talk honestly to their friends, in fear of betrayal. There were no independent branches of the government to provide checks and balances. The press was controlled by Trujillo, as were the unions. The church posed no real opposition. For 31 years Trujillo ruled with an iron fist.
In 1961 Trujillo finally met his end. He was gunned down by assassins while out driving. The aftermath of Trujillo's assassination was a power vacuum. As Russell Fitzgibbon pointed out, a person who had just reached voting age when Trujillo came to power was now in his or her mid-fifties. Given the life span of a Dominican at that time, democracy had almost no hold on the nation. A socialist leader was elected, but quickly overthrown by the military. By 1965 the situation was deemed unstable by the US Ambassador and once again the US Marines paid a visit to the Dominican Republic. When the Americans left, elections took place once again. While the Dominican Republic has yet to become an economic powerhouse, politically it has been fairly stable. It has produced many great baseball players ranging from "The Dominican Dandy" Juan Marichal to the Chicago Cubs' own Sammy Sosa.
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