Some months ago Mark Aubrey sent me this fascinating 1928 photo of the General Directorate of Public Works baseball team in Gonaïves, Haiti (from the University of Florida archives). Its fascination stems in part from the fact that we don’t really think of Haiti as a baseball hotbed.
Haiti actually has plenty of connections to baseball. A number of minor leaguers have been Haitian by birth or ancestry, as well as at least a few major leaguers. Miguel Sanó is Haitian-Dominican, as is Félix Pie, who was born in the D.R. to Haitian immigrant parents. Touki Toussaint, a first-round pick for the Diamondbacks a couple of years ago, is Haitian-American (he was born in Florida, but spent part of his childhood in Haiti).
For all this, though, the truth is that, historically, baseball really hasn’t been played much in Haiti, where football (soccer) is by far the most popular game—even though Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with one of the world’s great baseball nations, the Dominican Republic. Why is that? Why is the D.R. all about baseball, while Haiti couldn’t care less?
Clay Thompson, a reporter at the Arizona Republic attempted to answer this question a few years ago. His explanation? That Haitians resented the U.S. occupation of their country from 1915 to 1934, which resulted in over 2,000 Haitian deaths. After this mess, they had no interest in adopting any part of U.S. culture.
Maybe so. However, as Thompson himself notes, the U.S. has launched military interventions into a number of Carribean countries, and in fact occupied the Dominican Republican around the same time (1916 to 1924). The invasion of the D.R. was, if anything, harsher than the occupation of Haiti—over 3,000 Dominicans were killed by U.S. forces. It’s not altogether clear why American intervention would turn Haitians against baseball, but not Dominicans.
I’ll suggest a few alternative theories:
1) Baseball itself might just not have a good reputation in Haiti. In the 1970s and 1980s many Haitian women labored as poorly-compensated piece workers in baseball factories, which might have helped squash any incipient affection for the sport.
(Sarasota Herald-Tribune, May 8, 1977, p. 38)
Rawlings eventually moved its operations to Costa Rica. Possibly it was no coincidence that this happened fairly soon after the dictator Baby Doc Duvalier was overthrown in 1986, with the company fearing that its workers would be allowed to organize for better conditions and wages.
2) Hispaniola is surrounded by Spanish-speaking countries where baseball is popular, especially Puerto Rico and Cuba, both of whom sent players to the Dominican Republic in the 1920s and 1930s. While there is a Francophone baseball world, it’s mostly centered in Quebec, which is a little far away from Creole-speaking Haiti.
3) Longstanding (and heavily racialized) tensions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic probably limits interest in cultural crossovers. Just consider what happened in 1937. That year saw the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo’s reelection campaign sponsor an expensive baseball championship, with suitcases of money used to lure Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and other Negro league and Cuban stars. Then, only a couple of months after the baseball season was over, Trujillo’s soldiers systematically slaughtered Haitians living near the border—with some estimates placing the number of dead well into the tens of thousands. Baseball was the last thing on anybody’s mind as this was taking place. Still, it probably did not help spread love of the game in Haiti when the guy whose name adorned the nearest baseball league was also responsible for the mass murder of Haitians.