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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2003-03-02

The Journey Home: The Latino Baseball Story
By Jose Luis Villegas, Sacramento Bee

Photo by

Home Is Everything: The Latino Baseball Story
It was a glorious late spring afternoon. My writer friend Marcos Bretón was sleeping as we flew around the pillow white clouds over Florida en route to Miami before arriving in Puerto Rico. I can remember thinking; "If we do this right, I know there's a book in it". We were to spend two weeks in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic to do a series of stories on Latin Baseball for the Sacramento Bee. It was 1993.

The week before we had been in Minneapolis -St. Paul and Chicago interviewing Tony Oliva, Zolio Versalles, Minnie Minoso, Jorge Orta and Chico Carrasquel. Four of the five are legendary pioneers for their contribution and the integration of the game of baseball. Those four days are the four most gratifying days of my photographic career.

All five told stories of segregation, racism, as well as having to adjust to a new culture, language, food and the loneliness that comes from being young and alone in a strange new land.

Those four days stayed imbedded in the back of my mind throughout this project.

As I sat through each interview, I reflected on the experiences my father told of his youth. The parallel of his early years to the five, separated only by the profession they came north to pursue. My father had immigrated from Mexico to work the fields of Arkansas and eventually to Chicago in the mid 1950's where he learned how to make water heaters for Westinghouse. All had the same goal, building a better life for themselves and for their family.

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas

Minnie Minoso
By now, I hope you realize this project was more than just a baseball story. On a personal level, and 1st generation immigrant, it's a story that has touched me on so many levels.

I love baseball.

As a child, I followed the Alou brothers, Cepeda, and Marichal; I was a Giants fan. I remember looking at the back of Matty Alou's baseball card - Place of birth, Dominican Republic. Marichal - Dominican Republic, Cepeda - Puerto Rico. Those must be great places to be from I thought.

We thought it was going to be easy to find a publisher. The project was a natural. We had interest from half dozen book publishing houses after it published in the Sacramento Bee in 1993. A baseball strike the following spring derailed us. Rejection after rejection followed for the next eighteen months. The Alicia Patterson Foundation Grant in 1996 jump-started the project but more rejections followed. Two by Simon & Schuster.

In 1996 we met and began to follow a young prospect's rise through the minor leagues, his name was Miguel Tejada. Through him, we were able to tell the story of every prospect that had ventured north to pursue a dream.

It was a real shock and slap in the face to find out that our project had been rejected so many times because of it's content. A lot of book editors liked the idea we had, but the final decision to purchase the project was made by the marketing department within the publishing house. Almost all didn't want to invest in a project because they didn't think they could sell it.

It's a complex story about mostly black Spanish speaking men, immigration, and baseball, the vehicle that drives the story.

Who's going to bye a book like that we were told.

Photo by

Away Games
I think this is when the story took on a life of it's own. So many men had shared their experiences with us; Many for the first time. I felt a fire burning within, a responsibility to tell their story.

From 1994-1998 I continued to shoot portrait's of ballplayers with hope of someday publishing a photography book.

Finally, "Away Games" is published in the spring of 1999 by Simon & Schuster. It is a word driven book.

My mission is not over...

The advance Simon & Schuster gives us allows us to complete the project. Tejada makes it to the major leagues, and we are there.

Simon & Schuster had the first option on the next project, but they aren't interested in a companion book of photographs. Our New York agent gives up on the prospects of selling a photography book. Now I'm on my own....

Within two months Sport Publishing of Illinois buys the rights to the photography book. I fly out, we edit, and over the next four months we tweak the edit. Ninety photographs, too good to be true... and it was.

The day before the project goes to press, they kill it because the marketing director gets cold feet about selling a book about Spanish speaking black men from another country immigrating to the United States to play baseball.

Simon & Schuster sells the paperback rights of Away Games to the University of New Mexico Press. The press turns around and swaps the original cover of the book with an action picture of Miguel Tejada shot by my friend Eric Risberg published in the local paper the day the purchase is made. Did they call to let us know of the change? No...

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas

Miguel Tejada
We don't find out until the book has already been printed.

I'm feeling betrayed.

I was fortunate to be selected to work on the book project "Americanos", a book of Latin culture in the United States in 1999. Working on the project and seeing it's success; it rekindles my quest to get the baseball project published.

My friend Jimmy Dorantes, owner of Latin Focus photography agency in San Diego was an editor on the Americanos project. He asked if he could have a shot at selling my project.

Jimmy and I work the next twelve months looking for a publisher. Jimmy comes through; Cinco Puntos publishing house of El Paso, Texas wants to publish the project in English and Spanish. It is the summer of 2002.

It's too good to be true...

I try not to get too excited. I've been down this road before. If all goes well, the project will publish on my 20th year working as a photojournalist, as well as the 10th anniversary of the project. Did I fail to mention I was born in El Paso...? Wow, what a small world.

Over the ten years Marcos and I have felt and seen the magic of the project. When all seemed doomed, we were awarded the Patterson Grant. When Tejada was on the brink of being called up to the major leagues, Simon & Schuster makes an offer, and we are able to follow the kid when he's called up, and finish the project.

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas

Miguel Tejada and his sister.
It is July of 2002. And the magic is at work again. Miguel Tejada, once the shoe shine boy growing up in one of the poorest barrio's in the Dominican Republic; abandoned by his father in his youth, left homeless by a hurricane; signed by the Oakland Athletics for a mere $2,500 signing bonus as a favor to a Dominican scout is carrying the big league team on his back in 2002. He would continue to do so throughout the season, and is named the American League's MVP.

Miguel ... A million to one shot, he has shattered all the odds. He is a remarkable young man.

My voyage is far less remarkable. But I see the parallel in the obstacles he and I faced to make it to publish the book, and the major leagues. Overcoming the biggest obstacle with a mainstream publisher never happened.

There were a few things I did learn in the process. The most important being that there are just as many people in the publishing world that are more than happy to tell you just how bad your work is as there are people who will tell you just how wonderful it is. You have to believe in yourself and the work that you've produced.

The Latin population is the fastest growing in the United States; it's unfortunate that none of the publishers had the desire to use our project to tap into that market. I understand that book publishers are in the business to make money. I just haven't seen very many projects published that could tap the Latin market, as well as catch the attention of people of other cultures like this one. I'm perplexed.

We were fortunate that Cinco Puntos saw the big picture. A good story line, depth, and most important, they believed in the story we were telling, and thought it was important to publish. It helped that a Latin publisher wanted to do a Latin story.

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas

Photo by Jose Luis Villegas
It's interesting the way the idea for this project has come full circle. Marcos and I had hoped from the beginning that a bilingual book would make so much sense. That idea was a hard sell because many publishers perceive that the Latin market doesn't buy books.

After the tragic death of the Mexican pop singer Selena, People Magazine published a story, with the cover photograph of Selena. For the first time in the magazine's history, the magazine sold out. I don't think that many people in America knew who Selena was before the movie of her life was released.

It was Cinco Puntos idea to publish "Home is Everything" with bilingual text, and contains eight-six color photographs.

It's difficult to explain just how heavy this venture has been for me personally. When I think of what my parents sacrificed to give their eight children the chance to grow up in the states; this book, in a very small way is my way to say thank you to them, and to all the people who shared their time and stories with us. Would I do it again, in a heart beat...

As a young boy, I hoped of someday becoming a major league ball player. That never happened. This book is my small contribution to the great Latin-American Pastime...


(Jose Luis Villegas is a staff photographer with the Sacramento Bee. His book "Home is Everything" will be published April 1. He will be a featured speaker at the Sports Shooter Workshop & Luau 2003.)


Related Links:
Home Is Everything: The Latino Baseball Story

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