Ciudad Trujillo – The best baseball team you’ve never heard of.
Winter baseball leagues from Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic have started with major league veterans and up and coming stars. The winter leagues have always been the place to play against the best competition in the off season. It was also a haven for Negro leagues players.
The winter leagues were a place where players were not known for the color of their skin or where they were from. For decades, Negro League players and their brothers from Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela were all equal – playing along side such greats as Roberto Clemente for Santurce in Puerto Rico.
There was one team however that had unparalleled star power.
In 1937, the Ciudad de Trujillo squad was one of the best in baseball history. Negro League greats Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell joined forces with Cuban greats Silvio Garcia and manager Lazaro Salazar to form and unbelievable roster.
Los Dragones called Trujillo, Dominican Republic home.
Dominican Republic dictator at the time – Rafael Trujillo, who thought that a great baseball team would strengthen his popularity, changed the name of the city to Trujillo from Santo Domingo and wanted the best baseball team that he could assemble. Dr. Jose Enrique Aybar, who held a position in Trujillo’s government was also in charge of Los Dragones and paid Paige $30,000 to recruit as many Negro leagues players as he could to play for Trujillo. Paige was supposed to take $6,000 for himself and use the balance to bring other players, Some stories have Paige being held at gunpoint until he agreed. Paige brought five Pittsburgh Crawford teammates which included Sam Bankhead and Bell plus Gibson to the Dominican. The club also starred the father of Hall of Famer and Puerto Rican great Orlando Cepeda – Petrucho Cepeda.
The problem was that the Crawfords and Grays – who Gibson was just traded to were in spring training. Unlike today, Liga Dominicana was not a winter league in 1937. Negro League owners banned the players since they left their teams but it did not stop them from heading to the Caribbean. Just like a lot of Negro leagues history – there is another story about why the players went to the Dominican to play. This one involved Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee defaulting on players salaries. Which story is true – who knows. But the one thing that is certain – this 1937 ensemble would give any team in history a run for it’s money.
It was an interesting experience for the Americans as armed guards followed them everywhere and lined the field during games. In many cases it was like being kidnapped and only allowed to play baseball on the weekends.
The Dragones won the title with Paige winning two-games. Paige led the league with an 8-2 record. Josh Gibson hit .453 for the season and Cool Papa Bell did what Cool Papa Bell did – play a variety of positions as well as anyone ever had.
Despite winning the championship, Dictator Trujillo was not impressed or happy with the return on his $30,000 investment as the Dragones didn’t dominate like he had anticipated. The following season the team and league was disbanded. There would not be organized baseball in the Dominican Republic for the next 12-years.
Dave Barr (@daveabarr)