The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macorís – by Mark Kurlansky
Other than the United States, no country has produced more Major League Baseball players than the Dominican Republic — 495 according to Baseball-Almanac.com, over twice as many as Venezuela’s 247 who is next on the list. Certainly, one must wonder what it is about this small country in the Caribbean that produces so much talent?
While this would be an easy approach to take, in The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris, author Mark Kurlansky turns the question around and looks at what baseball has done to one town in particular, San Pedro de Macoris, a fishing town on the southeastern coast of the Dominican Republic that has produced 79 of those 495 big leaguers, in hopes of showing how just how baseball has affected a town that in turn has produced some of the game’s best players.
To say that this is simply a baseball book would be selling it short — and would likely disappoint certain readers who go into it expecting nothing but baseball stories. Baseball is certainly a part of it – and a substantial part at that when you consider how much money baseball players from the town have earned and brought back to infuse into their city, as well as the baseball academies and related jobs that have come about because of a mix of situations. Add in that while the specific origins of baseball in the Dominican Republic are uncertain, there have been links to games played in the late 1800s, and you have a decent history from which to draw.
Of course, baseball is readily present, and the names of players who have made it to the Major Leagues from San Pedro de Macoris are plentiful – Alfonso Soriano, Robinson Canó, Sammy Sosa, Tony Fernandez, Rico Carty, Luis Castillo, George Bell, Joaquin Andujar…the list goes on and on. Each has different stories and struggles – some were heralded as stars early on, while others had to fight for attention and take a longer path to the Major Leagues.
What unifies all of them as Kurlansky points out in his introductory chapter is their shared desire of “making it,” and thus escaping the laborious work of the sugar cane fields or the fishing boats. These players all start out as young boys with improvised equipment such as milk cartons for gloves, balls of socks for baseballs and sugar cane reeds or broom handles for bats, who somehow through a mix of hard work, good fortune and talent make it off the island and into the ranks of professional baseball, with the most elite among them donning one of 30 Major League uniforms.
These dreams are not without their risks however – a bad break in the form of an injury or a bad day at a tryout can cost them potentially millions of dollars, and return them to a life of poverty, often dragging their families along with them.
But what makes the book shine is the context in which Kurlansky introduces you to these players. He is quick to point out the differences between the Dominican Republic and its Caribbean neighbors – even down to the name of the country, that when compared to Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba and others, leaves much to be desired. The Dominican Republic is a nation that has been invaded time and time again over the last 500 years, twice by Spain, three times by Haiti, twice by France, and twice by the United States, as well as by corporations and as Kurlansky so eloquently shows us – by Major League Baseball and its teams in hopes of finding a future talent at a very affordable price.
The Dominican Republic has also been the receiving land of immigrants from throughout the Caribbean who have come seeking work in the sugar cane fields or in a factory – and the resulting multiculturalism has not been without its share of discrimination, prejudice and forced acceptance and change.
It was also a major beneficiary of the United States’ embargo against Cuba, as teams had to look elsewhere to find talent that they could bring stateside without the headache and heartbreak that came along with trying to get a Cuban out of the now-closed country. That benefit is still seen some fifty years later, as more and more kids from the Dominican Republic enter the ranks of Major League Baseball each year.
Which takes the reader back to the players — the early ones who suffered discrimination just like the Negro Leaguers and African-Americans throughout the middle part of the 1900s because of the color of their skin, let alone a language barrier that often separated them from their new world. The cultural differences about how the game was played and life was lived that branded them as hot-headed brawlers who had little use for manners or decorum, only to be proven wrong by players like Alfredo Griffin who made a name for himself as a peacemaker and leader who had the ability to hold teams together.
The Eastern Stars surprised me by how wide-ranging the topics covered were — while I expected to learn about the players who came from San Pedro de Macoris, I also learned more about the sugar industry, fishing and cultural struggles than I expected. It is that wider lens that Kurlansky uses to capture his subject that makes this book a winner and the reader and baseball fan who can watch his or her favorite Dominican-born players with a new appreciation that much better.