This list could begin and end with Roberto Clemente. Born in Puerto Rico, he burst into the baseball world with a vengeance in 1955 and never looked back. He played his entire career with the Pittsburgh Pirates and finished with 3,000 hits, 240 home runs, and a .317 batting average. He was the first celebrity Latino player of the Major Leagues and is generally considered among baseball’s greatest players. In 1973, his life was cut short at the age of 38 when he was killed in a plane crash delivering aid to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua.
Juan Marichal may be remembered most for his high leg kick pitching delivery and taking a baseball bat to an opposing player in a bench-clearing brawl. But this Dominican native amassed more wins than any other pitcher in the 1960s and is still only one of two pitchers in the modern era to have more than one 25-win season (he and Sandy Koufax each had three). Marichal had exceptional control despite his intimidating presence, striking out 2,303 batters while only walking 709.
In addition to membership in one of baseball’s most celebrated families, Matty Alou is also remembered as a great hitter in a time of great pitching. A native of the Dominican Republic, he was an expert at getting on base. Never known for his power, Alou only had 31 home runs in his career, but he batted .307, making him a threat to getting on base whenever he stepped up to the plate. Alou’s brothers Felipe and Jesus also played in the majors, including a stint with the San Francisco Giants where the trio became the first three siblings to play together in a game and bat in the same inning.
If you’ve ever seen an infielder intentionally bounce a long throw to first base, you can thank Dave Concepcion. This Venezuelan native was a key component of the famed Big Red Machine of the 1970s Cincinnati Reds where he helped the team win back-to-back World Series titles. He was an exceptional fielder and hitter, playing winter ball in Venezuela to improve his game. Always a smart player, Concepcion realized he could use the new artificial surface to his benefit on long throws by bouncing the ball to first, and spent countless hours perfecting the practice.
Almost single-handedly, Fernando Valenzuela washed away the bad blood that existed between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Latinx community over the construction of Dodger stadium, using eminent domain. “Fernandomania” swept the southland in the 1980s when 20-year-old Valenzuela took the mound and won his first eight starts, including five by shutout. He was the only player to win both the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards simultaneously. During his career, he pitched a no-hitter and had 10 career home runs. His humble origins in the small village of Navojoa in northern Mexico endeared him to his fans. While his popularity was especially important to the Latinx community, Valenzuela was key to building a bridge between the Latinx and white communities, much like Roberto Clemente before him.