Why you should care
Because this is a case of the soft power of sports prevailing.
Thousands gathered outside Mexico City’s train station on March 18, 1907, to catch a glimpse of their sporting heroes. The new arrivals were none other than the World Series champs, the Chicago White Sox. “Mexico is all stirred up over the visit of the Sox,” Sporting Life reported, “the hidalgos throng the streets, gazing open-eyed … and proclaiming their intention of crowding to the games.” Arriving a day later than planned, owing to what reporters called “bush league locomotives,” the team reached the Mexican capital, ready for its eight-day spring training that included exhibition games against Mexican teams.
Counting on good weather and with hopes of raising enough money to pay for the training and trip expenses, White Sox owner and president Charles Comiskey was also looking for the “right” type of player to join his team. “If the Latino player … [had] the right combination of talent and racial ambiguity, they would try to sign the guy,” explains Adrian Burgos Jr., history professor at University of Illinois and author of Playing America’s Game. Such prospects led Comiskey to Mexico City, where he hoped to tap into baseball’s growing influence in Latin America, since, as Sporting Life wrote, the game had caught “the fancy of the high Latin American races.” Comiskey was so hopeful that he had already planned a return trip for the following year.
Uninspired hotel rooms, lack of hot water and no telegraph connection to the U.S. marred the experience for Chicago’s star players.
In 1907, Mexico was in the last years of Porfirio Díaz’s regime. A dictator in everything but name, Díaz modernized Mexican industry and the economy through foreign investment, often at the expense of his countrymen. Besides money and business acumen, foreigners also brought sports like cricket and baseball. So it was not coincidental that as cricket’s popularity declined and baseball’s soared, U.S. investments and presence in Mexico surpassed those of the English.
Historically, baseball has projected certain American ideals — namely, democracy, fair play and intelligence — and been introduced to countries as a “civilized” alternative to other forms of entertainment. “Baseball … had attributes of modernization that made it attractive to the elites in nations attempting to become part of the cosmopolitan world,” says William Beezley, history professor at the University of Arizona and author of Judas at the Jockey Club and Other Episodes of Porfirian Mexico. At the turn of the 20th century, to play American baseball was to be modern, and Mexico eagerly stepped up to the plate.
“Even in the Land of Montezuma,” Sporting Life wrote, “base[ball] has become established along the usual well-defined American line.” This line was based on class, with the game proving particularly attractive to Mexican aristocrats, “especially young [Mexican] men who had gone to the U.S. for education and for travel,” Beezley explains. Conversely, the lower Mexican classes continued attending bullfights and playing pelota — a cross between handball and basketball.
With Mexican baseball in its infancy, the White Sox — aka “Comiskey’s invaders” — dominated the competition. Still, the Chicago Tribune described two Mexican players as the “greatest twirler[s] in Mexico.” The duo had pitched well despite the lack of defensive support that in one game resulted in 11 errors, leading to a 15-4 White Sox victory.
As with most countries, modernization in Mexico came unevenly. Uninspired hotel rooms, lack of hot water and no telegraph connection to the U.S. marred the experience for Chicago’s star players. High ticket prices for the exhibition games also limited the audience to the country’s elite, ruining Comiskey’s financial plans. “The Mexicans did not show the interest expected in the White Sox and the air was too rarefied for perfect training,” Sporting Life reported.
Just two weeks after receiving such a warm welcome, J.L. Comiskey, Charles’ son, said the team’s future trips to Mexico had been canceled. “Members of the team were thoroughly disgusted at the climate, their surroundings and everything connected with the trip,” he reportedly said.
With Díaz ousted in 1911 by the Mexican Revolution, baseball slumped in the land of the ancient Aztecs until peace returned. The sport’s rebirth was influenced by the revolutionary government’s attitudes toward politics, society and even sport — all of which were used to symbolize the revolution’s accomplishments. Baseball’s class dimension and geographic reach changed so that it was longer enjoyed by only the country’s elite in the capital. “A lot of baseball was spread through the migration lines and the railroads,” Burgos says, explaining how the game expanded beyond Mexico City. “In a lot of railroad towns throughout northern Mexico, you [saw] baseball.”
It’s unsurprising, then, that so many of the country’s greatest baseball players hail from northern Mexico. Latinos now make up nearly 30 percent of Major League Baseball rosters. So while the White Sox’s 1907 spring training and exhibition games in Mexico City failed to hit it out of the park, they were part of the early effort to extend baseball’s international reach.