- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 7, 2002

It was a war fought with bats, balls and gloves, not firearms. It was a baseball season in which the key players were a Latin American dictator, gangsters, armed militiamen and some of the most colorful characters ever to put on a uniform in the Negro Leagues.
Whatever it was, it was one of the most remarkable chapters in baseball history.
Baseball is the National Pastime in America, but it is and was the national obsession in the Dominican Republic. And in 1937, Rafael Trujillo decided baseball would be the best way to win the hearts and minds of his countrymen.
Trujillo already had tried to do that at gunpoint in 1930, when he overthrew the government. He was elected president but ruled as an iron-fisted dictator, commanding the army, putting family members into political office through terrorist activities. But he didn't control baseball, the game his countrymen loved, and in 1937 he decided to change that. In order to field a team that would win the Dominican Baseball League, he raided some of the biggest stars in the Negro League.
Trujillo's political opponents owned a stake in the two other teams in the Dominican League. They also raided the Negro Leagues that season, setting up a war that was on its surface baseball but deeply political underneath. After all, it would be a loss of face for the dictator not to have the best baseball team in the country.
This was a war that Trujillo was determined to win. He took over the operation of not one, but two of the existing and rival teams in Santo Domingo, Escondido and Licey. For this season only, the teams merged to form one squad, the "Ciudad Trujillo Dragons" (Trujillo had already renamed Santo Domingo, the capital city, Ciudad Trujillo).
Trujillo's opponents countered the merger by importing some out-of-town talent, so to speak. The Santiago team brought in Negro Leaguers George Scales and Spoon Carter. San Pedro recruited pitching great Chet Brewer, Showboat Thomas and several other Negro League players.
Not to be outdone, Trujillo set his sights on the biggest star in the Negro National League Pittsburgh Crawfords pitcher Satchel Paige.
Gathering the talent
As the Crawfords began their spring training in New Orleans in 1937, Paige was met by agents of Trujillo. They paid Paige between $6,000 and $15,000 (reports vary) to come to the Dominican that year to play for Trujillo's team. He also was given money to convince his teammates to come south as well. He convinced outfielder Cool Papa Bell and four other Crawfords to join him. Soon after, the great catcher Josh Gibson followed.
"Trujillo, that man took Gus Greenlee's ball club and put it in Santo Domingo. He just took them right off Gus. But he got himself a ball club. Nobody could touch us," Bell recalled to author Rob Ruck in "The Tropic of Baseball."
The defections made Greenlee, the Crawfords' owner, seethe. Greenlee was a flamboyant nightclub owner and racketeer who built an empire on illegal numbers games and bootlegging. He became one of the city's most prominent figures, the black community's connection to the white politicians. He owned one of the town's best-known nightclubs, the Crawford Grille, where jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie played. He liked living large.
To some, the loss of Greenlee's stars was poetic justice.
In 1930 Greenlee raided the other established black team in town, the Homestead Grays, of Gibson, Judy Johnson and Jud Wilson. He got Bell and Jimmy Crutchfield from other black teams. The Crawfords, who won the Negro National League championship in 1935 and 1936, may have been the greatest Negro League baseball team ever assembled.
The big ticket, though, was Paige, the biggest draw in black baseball history. Paige is believed to have pitched in more than 2,000 games over his Negro League career from 1924 to 1955 and thrown more than 100 no-hitters. He left the Birmingham Black Barons for the Crawfords in 1931 and put the team on the map with his pitching skill and his colorful, crowd-pleasing style. "Before I started cutting loose around Pittsburgh in 1931, there was no big money for anybody in the Negro Leagues," Paige told the Saturday Evening Post. "Then they started getting nice, fat checks. I got the fans out."
Greenlee and Paige had already clashed, when Paige left the Crawfords in 1934 to play for a barnstorming team in Bismarck, N.D. Greenlee banned Paige from returning to the Negro National League but relented and allowed him to come back to Pittsburgh in 1936. He didn't stay long.
In Pittsburgh, Greenlee was not a man to be trifled with. He tried to use his political muscle to stop Trujillo's raid. He reportedly tried to get court orders barring the players from playing for Trujillo. But it had no effect on what was taking shape in the Dominican Republic a baseball war featuring the best players in black and Cuban baseball. Luis Tiant Sr. was among those joining the battle in the Dominican.
When Gibson left a few weeks after Paige, it was a lost cause. If Paige was No.1 in drawing power in black baseball, Gibson was 1-A.
Gibson, a catcher, was known as the Babe Ruth of Negro Leagues. He once hit a ball that struck the rooftop facade at Yankee Stadium, about 580 feet from home plate, and is believed to have been the first player to hit a home run over the center field fence at the 450-foot mark in Pittsburgh's Forbes Field.
There are various reports about how many home runs Gibson hit over his career. Some Negro League historians believe he hit about 209 home runs against Negro League competition. But Gibson's teams played many more games against a variety of opponents, and the Hall of Fame credits him with hitting nearly 800 homers.
You're not in Pittsburgh anymore
There were no bigger stars in black baseball than Paige and Gibson, and like most ballplayers in the major leagues today, they were most loyal to their wallets. When they became the biggest stars in Dominican baseball, there was a price to pay, one that some players feared would cost them their lives.
In his autobiography, "Maybe I'll Pitch Forever," Paige said the players were treated like heroes when they arrived in the Dominican. During a party at one of Trujillo's plantations, the pitcher was pulled aside by a reporter and told to be careful because "Trujillo won't like it if his club goes around losing"
"That reporter scared me good," Paige wrote. "And I could see Trujillo with those soldiers around him all the time, sure was a powerful man."
Trujillo wasn't the only one surrounded by soldiers. The black players were constantly under guard. That could have been interpreted several ways and it was. Some said Trujillo was protecting the players. The players didn't believe that. Paige said their presence made him fearful. "I started wishing I was home when all those soldiers started following us around everywhere we went and even stood out in front of our rooms at night," he wrote.
This tension culminated when Trujillo's Dragons played the seventh and deciding game of the championship series against Estrellas de Oriente. Trujillo's team rallied from three games down to force a seventh game. The night before, Chet Brewer, who had been pitching for the Santiago team, went looking for Paige and the other players on Trujillo's team. "We were looking for Satchel and them and we couldn't find them," Brewer told Mark Ribowsky in his history on Negro League baseball. "So a little kid on the street, he said, 'Esta en la carcel' that they were in jail. Trujillo put them in jail so they wouldn't rouse around."
When Paige and the players reached the field the next day, they found Trujillo's troops lined up with rifles and bayonets near the first base stands. The rival owner's troops lined the stands on the third base side. "You'd have thought war was declared," Paige wrote. "We were guarded like we had the secret combination to Fort Knox."
Paige wrote in his autobiography that the team got an interesting pep talk from its manager.
"'You'd better win,' he said. 'Whaddya mean, we better win?' I asked. 'I mean just that. Take my advice and win.'"
In a 1953 article in Collier's magazine, Paige said that he believed if they lost the game, "there was nothing to do but consider myself and my boys passed over Jordan."
Trujillo's team was down a run going into the seventh inning. "You could see Trujillo lining up his army," Paige wrote. "They began to look like a firing squad. In the last of the seventh we scored two runs and went ahead 6-5. You never saw Ol' Satch throw harder after that. I shut them down the last two innings and we won. I hustled back to our hotel and the next morning we blowed out of there in a hurry. We never did see Trujillo again."
There may have been no bloodshed, but there were casualties. Paige again was banned from Negro League competition, though it was short lived. Upon returning from the Dominican, Paige and other black ballplayers toured the country on a team sometimes called the Trujillo All-Stars and the Satchel Paige All-Stars. Paige and some other players played in Mexico the following year, but eventually the players found their way back into Negro League baseball. The Crawfords, one of the all-time great teams, were finished. Greenlee sold the team in 1939.
And back in the Dominican Republic?
The 1937 season nearly destroyed the game. In his book "Sugarball," Alan Klein was told by a Dominican writer, "We wound up killing professional baseball here. Although we continued to play amateur ball, we spent many years without professional ball after 1937 the 1937 season stopped baseball. All our money was gone. We were exhausted financially and in enthusiasm also."

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