On paper, Juan Marichal coasted through the Minor Leagues. In reality, beginning with his first professional assignment to the Michigan City (Indiana) White Caps in 1958, he was navigating uncharted waters.
“When he signs with the Giants, there is no star Latino pitcher and no Dominican pitcher for sure," said Dr. Adrian Burgos, a University of Illinois history professor and the author of "Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line."
"Ruben Gomez made some waves with the Giants when they were still in New York, but the success Juan will have will way outpace what Ruben did. But even there, Ruben is Puerto Rican and Juan is Dominican. The idea of envisioning that kind of success … Juan was going to be the trailblazer."
By 1983, when he became the first Dominican Republic player (and first Midwest League alum) inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, he had solidified a place among a whole generation of Latin American superstars in the United States. But with integration still struggling to fully take hold a decade after it began in the big leagues, a 20-year-old Marichal arriving in America had no footsteps to follow.
“I was just teaching the Felipe Alou’s autobiography in my Sport and Society course, and the thing I was really trying to impress upon [students] is that there was no role model for him," Burgos said. "There were no Dominicans in the Major Leagues. It was the same for Juan Marichal, only a couple years younger than Felipe.”
Still, in his first pro season, the right-hander set a Midwest League record with 24 complete games (topped by Joel McDaniel's 26 the next year) and led the loop with 21 wins, a 1.87 ERA and 245 innings pitched. He struck out 246 while walking 50, and he put three shutouts in the books. From a youngster playing in a foreign culture far away from home for the first time, it was a performance foreshadowing his eventual stature as one of the all-time greats.
The Giants, having moved to San Francisco for the '58 campaign, brought Marichal to spring camp in Sanford, Florida, and had him and other Latin American prospects meet with Alex Pompez, who'd owned the Negro Leagues' Cuban Stars of the East and the New York Cubans before becoming a scout for San Francisco. Speaking in Spanish, Pompez tried to prepare the players for the transition. But there were some things about America that had to be experienced firsthand before they could be believed.
Assigned to the Class D White Caps, Marichal boarded a bus with his new teammates and manager Buddy Kerr, whom he credited with protecting players of color on the journey from Florida to Indiana and throughout the season. Like Pompez's speech, though, Kerr's good intentions only went so far.
"When we finally got to Michigan City after the long bus ride, the team had arranged for three guys to live with a Black family. The white guys were in a hotel," the hurler wrote with Lew Freedman in "Juan Marichal: My Journey from the Dominican Republic to Cooperstown."
"I had to stay with a Black family because my skin color is light brown. ... The family was very nice and it was wonderful being with them. We became good friends. They loved us. We had a great, great friendship with that family. They were very good to us and we had fun with them, but what was wrong is that we didn't have a choice where to stay."
Those were frustrating and sometimes confusing circumstances, even for people who grew up in the United States. To a young man coming from an island nation ruled by a dictatorship, the nuances of attitudes, written and unwritten rules and provincialisms regarding race in this country were all but indecipherable.
“I saw a photo of when Juan had just signed," Burgos said. "He was such a youthful, young Dominican man that you could see he was heading out into this world and he had no real idea what was in front of him.
"Dominicans, particularly darker-skinned Dominicans, led a cloistered life, because [Rafael] Trujillo was not letting them out. So much of that society was structured around what Trujillo wanted life to look like, and you come here and have seemingly every opportunity open to you, and yet there’s Jim Crow, and there are cities in the North that have their own particular ways of limiting your opportunities."
The entrenched racism of the States aside, the language barrier was obstacle enough.
"It can be real tough on a young kid," Marichal told the Wisconsin State Journal when he was visiting Madison on a scouting trip for the Giants in 1985. "I almost went back to the Dominican my first [Spring Training]. I got homesick, but then I said to myself, 'Juan, what are you going to do if you go back to the Dominican?' I didn't have an answer, so I decided to stay and give it a shot."
Homesickness, though, weighed heavily on him throughout the year. A story retold during his career held that Marichal and other teammates from Caribbean cultures liked to dance to records Marichal had brought from home until a bittersweet feeling drove him to smash the 78s. In "My Journey from the Dominican Republic to Cooperstown," he contends he gave them away and asked that they not be played in his presence. Whatever happened to the records, the anecdote makes it clear the adjustment to life in the States was a hard, alienating one. And the prohibitive costs of international telephone calls prevented him from even hearing familiar voices.
“I asked Juan a couple years back, ‘...You left your mom in February. When was the next time you were able to talk to her?’" Burgos recalled. "He said, ‘September. Basically, I got to call her to let her know I was coming home, that the season’s over.’ Fifty-plus years later, I could sense the way that hung on his shoulders.
“There ain’t no way a Minor Leaguer was going to be able to call home during this period. Today, players have the advantage of technology. They can call over WhatsApp and say, ‘How do I make this kind of meal? How do I make rice, Mami?’ There might be a couple Mexican restaurants in Michigan City, but for doggone sure, there were no Dominican restaurants. He’s not going to get mangú. He’s not going to get plantains and rice the way we would make it in the Caribbean. So he was also adjusting to a whole new diet, a whole new cuisine.”
But on the mound, Marichal wasted no time proving he belonged and could make himself understood by all -- Black, white, brown, Spanish- or English-speaking. Pitching against the visiting Dubuque Packers on May 10, he punched out 11 while scattering seven hits and four walks in a 3-0 victory for his professional win and first shutout. Results notwithstanding, the Marichal of 1958 would have been unrecognizable for fans who came to know him for his trademark high leg kick and his screwball. He didn't begin to develop either until the next season.
"I knew I had a lot to learn, and I wanted to learn," he wrote in his autobiography. "I was still throwing nothing but sidearm in Michigan City. I had a sidearm fastball and a sidearm curve from the right to the left. That's all. ... I was very confident when I had two strikes on a batter. I was better throwing sidearm against right-handed hitters because they didn't like to see the ball coming at them that way, from behind them and across the plate.
"One man who was a butcher was such a big fan of mine that every time I won a game he gave me a chicken. It was a good thing I loved to eat chicken."
He also noted in "My Journey from the Dominican Republic to Cooperstown" that he pitched through occasional slur-shouting that season.
"We never had any problems with the fans in Michigan City," Marichal wrote. "I never heard names being called or anything bad there. When we went on the road, there was some name-calling. Maybe it was because we were the opposite team. But it wasn't too bad."
Marichal's pitching should have shut the bigots up fast. In August, word of his dominance reached Bay Area fans via Emmons Byrne's column "The Bull Pen," in the Oakland Tribune.
"Check out the name of Juan Marichal for future reference with the Giants. This 19-year-old [sic] right-hander from the Dominican Republic has a 20-4 won and lost record with Michigan City in the class D Midwest League," Byrnes wrote before Marichal's season was over.
His reputation was cemented in Midwest League cities by that time. When Kerr used the youngster in relief after Michigan City had secured a playoff berth but was out of contention for the second-half crown, the Dubuque Telegraph Herald referred to him as "the great Marichal." Premature? Maybe. Accurate? Definitely.
He continued his brilliance in the Finals against Waterloo. The Red Sox-affiliated Hawks, winning their first of three straight titles, topped the Michigan City club, 3-2, in the best-of-5 series, but Marichal delivered both of the White Caps' victories.
Before his 21st birthday, he was named an end-of-season Midwest League All-Star (the only Michigan City player thus honored) and the circuit's Rookie of the Year. A few months later, he'd earn another Rookie of the Year acclaim, taking the honor in the Dominican Winter League while going 8-3 for Escogido.
In 1959, Marichal was assigned to Double-A Springfield in the Eastern League, where he continued to post attention-grabbing numbers (18-3, 2.39 ERA, 208 strikeouts -- 11 shy of the circuit record at the time -- and eight shutouts) while working with manager Andy Gilbert to add offerings to his repertoire and begin throwing overhand. The trademark leg kick occurred naturally when Marichal converted to the overhand delivery, but whether he was coming over the top or from the side, hitters couldn't sort him out. In May, the North Adams Transcript described him as a "pitching sensation of the early days of the Eastern League campaign." On July 29, he scattered 11 hits over 17 innings in a 1-0 loss to Reading in which he didn't blink until nearly the four-and-a-half-hour mark as his club stranded 22 runners. At the end of the season, The Sporting News called him "the ace, not only of the Springfield staff, but of the entire league."
He started 1960 with Triple-A Tacoma in the Pacific Coast League (11-5, 3.11 ERA over 18 starts) but wound up the season in San Francisco. As speedy as his rise through the Minor Leagues was, Marichal was still getting the hang of the States.
"My English was still not very good when I came to San Francisco," he wrote in his autobiography.
"When I left the Dominican the first time, I knew nothing. I could say 'hello' and I knew a few phrases that I could use in a restaurant. At first, in Michigan City or Springfield, I would go into a restaurant with my teammates and I could not order my food. One of them would order something and I would say, 'Same.' I just repeated that."
Josh Jackson is an editor for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @JoshJacksonMiLB.