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In 1937, a dictator assembled a baseball team for the ages

A number of men from the Pittsburgh Crawfords of 1932, including Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson (back row, second and third from left), would play for the Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo.
Photo: Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo

What it’s about: In the 1930s, as fascism was rising in Europe, it was also thriving in the Caribbean, with Cuba, Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela all under dictatorial regimes. But none was more brutal than that of Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic for 31 years, obliterating civil liberties and killing his own people by the thousands. However, even the worst rulers have defenders, and Trujillo’s point out that he built a great deal of the country’s infrastructure, and the country was largely prosperous under his reign (although much of those gains wound up in the hands of the Trujillo family). Like many dictators, Trujillo still went through the pretense of a fair election, and to drum up popular support for the 1937 race, he fielded his own baseball team. The result was a group of ringers that would make Monty Burns blush, with some of the best players from four countries.


Biggest controversy: Trujillo’s team was so good it destroyed Dominican baseball. To build his team, he took over both of Santo Domingo’s ball clubs and merged them into one, taking the best players from each. Then he hired Negro Leagues star pitcher Satchel Paige to both lead the team and recruit some of his colleagues. Then Trujillo brought in some Cuban and Puerto Rican players, just to be on the safe side. The team won the championship, but at a cost. Trujillo had spent so much money on his team that after the foreign players left, the league was bankrupt, and didn’t resume play for another 14 years.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Playing for a dictator had its perks. For starters, Los Dragones was the first chance Paige and his fellow Negro League stars had to play for a racially integrated team. Segregation was still in full force in Major League Baseball. What’s more, Trujillo opened his wallet, paying Paige $6,000 for a 31-game season—Paige only made $600 a month as the Negro League’s best-paid player. Paige also had a budget of $30,000 to recruit more players. He called in teammates Cool Papa Bell, Leroy Matlock, Sam Bankhead, Harry Williams, and Herman Andrews, as well as the Negro Leagues’ best hitter, Josh Gibson. Gibson was called the “black Babe Ruth,” and was considered by some to be the better hitter, though segregation prevented the two from ever going head-to-head.


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The Negro League players paid the price for their overseas sojourn. Team owners weren’t happy that the Dominican Republic was raiding their players, and they promised to ban any player who went to play for Trujillo, but the money was too good and the players went anyway. On their return to the States, they found the owners were serious about the ban, so they formed a barnstorming team, first named Trujillo’s All-Stars, then the Satchel Paige All-Stars. (In the early days of baseball, barnstorming teams were still popular—teams that played outside of an organized league, often without a home field, and challenged pro and amateur teams alike. The Harlem Globetrotters are the only major modern-day example.)

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Paige’s barnstorming team played against the House Of David, a religious utopian commune that fielded one of the best baseball teams of its era. The commune’s founder, Benjamin Purnell, believed the sport would “build physical and spiritual discipline.” The group formed a barnstorming team that played constantly across rural America from the ’20s through the ’50s. (Paige had played for the House five years before he played for Trujillo.) The House also sent bands to the vaudeville circuit and ran a popular zoo and amusement park. Remarkably, the House Of David remained intact after it was revealed that Purnell had raped several underage girls in his tight-knit religious community, which seems to be where every religious cult goes south. The group may have survived the revelation of the abuse because Purnell died shortly after, and under his widow’s leadership, the House survived his reputation and continued until her death at age 90.


Further down the Wormhole: While Trujillo was responsible for horrible atrocities, his environmental record was good. He banned slash-and-burn forestry, expanded nature preserves, and banned logging in river watersheds. He wasn’t anti-development, however, as he sold some of the country’s mineral rights to an oilman from Louisiana. Much of that state, as well as the Gulf Of Mexico it borders, was formed when Pangea split apart in the Cenozoic Era. That epoch was one of climate change, but unlike today, the Earth was getting steadily cooler, thanks to the Azolla event. We’ll look at a tiny plant that reshaped the Earth next week.

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About the author

Mike Vago

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.