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Ozzie Virgil – first Dominican big leaguer – 51 years ago today – 9/23/56

Fifty-one years ago today, New York Giants third baseman Ozzie Virgil became the first man born in the Dominican Republic to play Major League Baseball.  In celebration of the golden anniversary of his rookie season, let’s look back at this baseball pioneer.

Virgil’s debut in 1956 took place in part because his family made a home in the Bronx after emigrating from the D.R. a decade before.  He was just a few short stops from the Polo Grounds when his minor league season concluded, so the Giants invited him to put on a uniform for the last few weeks of their schedule.  He went hitless on September 23 in his only action at home, but banged out his first five hits on the last day of the season during a double-header in Philadelphia.

That winter, Virgil hit .312 to lead the Dominican League, also pacing the circuit in runs batted in to help the Leones del Escogido win their second straight championship.  Despite a so-so showing the following spring, he broke camp with the Giants in 1957 to become the first Dominican on an opening day roster.

Virgil batted only once in the initial week, but earned starting duties at the hot corner for most of the first half.  His two-run homer off Hall of Fame right-hander Robin Roberts on April 27 was the first big league round-tripper by a Dominican.  Hustle, versatility and a strong arm were Virgil’s strongest suits, but the fact that he wasn’t really a power hitter cost him his job in the second half.  He suffered through an 0-30 slump lasting eight weeks, and started only four games after the All-Star break.  Overall, he batted .235 with four home runs in 96 games. 

The disappointed Giants traded him to Detroit a month before spring training in 1958, discouraging Virgil because the Tigers had never even invited an African-American or Latino player to camp.  He responded by pounding triple-A pitching and forcing Detroit to promote him.  When Virgil finally integrated the Tigers on June 6 -eleven years after Jackie Robinson- it left only the Boston Red Sox remaining with an all-white roster.  (Pumpsie Green broke that barrier down thirteen months later)

The greatest moment of Virgil’s career took place in his first game in front of the Detroit fans on June 17.  The Tuesday night crowd at Briggs Stadium was about twice its’ normal size, and Virgil gave them a performance to remember.  He pulled a double off Senators right-hander Pedro Ramos in the bottom of the first, then stroked four straight singles to finish 5-5 in the Tigers 9-2 victory.

Virgil bounced around for the next decade, never logging more than 89 major league at bats after 1960.  Nevertheless, he did everything but play centerfield and pitch in a career that lasted until 1969.  He coached for a number of teams after his playing days, and managed with distinction all over Latin America.  Ozzie Virgil has been a member of the Dominican Hall of Fame since 1984.

by MALCOLM ALLEN

onetoughdominican47@hotmail.com

(NOTE:  The original version of this article appeared in La Prensa del Beisbol Latino, a publication of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), Vol. 3, No. 3, Winter 2007.  It is re-printed with the permission of the editor)

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DID YOU KNOW?  The Minnesota Twins became the last major league franchise to sign, develop and debut their own Dominican player when pitcher Julio DePaula made his first relief appearance on May 16, 2007.

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The DOMINICAN-O’s (top 25 Baltimore Orioles born in the DR)

Ozzie Virgil was the first Dominican Orioles, for all of one at bat.  The second Dominican player in a Baltimore uniform was Jose Mesa a quarter-century later.

C: Alberto Castillo, Cesar Devarez
1B: Geronimo Berroa
2B: Manny Alexander, Juan Bell
3B: Tony Batista, Fernando Tatis
SS: Miguel Tejada, Deivi Cruz
LF: Luis Polonia, Luis Mercedes
CF: Luis Terrero, Jesus Tavarez
RF: Sammy Sosa

SP: Jose Mesa, Jose Bautista, Juan Guzman, Daniel Cabrera, Jose Mercedes
RP: Armando Benitez, Hector Carrasco, Al Reyes, Nerio Rodriguez, Willis Roberts, Sendy Rleal

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