As most of you know, baseball’s Hall of Fame has a character clause. Basically it says the voters have to take into account the man’s (and except for Effa Manley it’s always been a man) character when electing him to Cooperstown. There’s been a varied history of enforcing this clause. Some notable rogues have gotten in despite the clause. As my son pointed out when we talked about this post, most of them have taken at least a couple of elections before being enshrined among the baseball immortals. But it seems to be more baseball foibles, rather than actual “character” issues that have kept players from the Hall. Whitey Ford and Gaylord Perry, both noted for doctoring a ball or two, took a while to get in. Roberto Alomar was surely hurt by the spitting incident. And of course the steroids controversy which currently dogs the Hall should be noted. But if your problem is away from the diamond, like, say a Ty Cobb, well, you have less problem. Case in point, Alex Pompez.
Alejandro Pompez was born in South Florida in 1890 to Cuban parents. His dad was a member of the Florida State Assembly and ran a cigar factory. When the father died in 1896 he left his estate to the Cuban independence movement, leaving the family penniless. By 1902, the family was back in a now independent Cuba. Pompez returned to the US, played a little ball, the moved on to New York to work as a cigar roller. He did well, finally opening a cigar store in Harlem.
It’s here that the character clause kicks in. The cigar store made money, but not a lot. Pompez began running numbers, eventually rising to control much of the numbers racket in Harlem. A friend of Nat Strong (who is worth a post by himself), he became instrumental in helping funnel Latin players to the Negro Leagues. By 1916, with help from Strong and his numbers racket, Pompez formed the Havana Cuban Stars baseball team, stocking it with Latin American players.
In 1923, The Cubans, now known as the New York Cuban Stars, joined the Eastern Colored League. Although the team never won a ECL pennant, Pompez became a major player in both the league management and in Negro League baseball in general. In 1924 he led ECL negotiations for setting up the first Negro World Series against Rube Forster’s Negro National League. Until the ECL collapsed in 1928, Pompez was one of its most influential members (although never league President).
He kept his team afloat during the early 1930s by barnstorming. In 1935 he joined the newly reformed Negro National League, renaming the team the New York Cubans. For the first time, he added local Black American talent to his Latin players.
But Pompez was having legal troubles. In the late 1920s the mobster Dutch Schultz was moving into the numbers racket. In 1932 he and Pompez met and the Pompez network was absorbed (probably at gunpoint) into the Schultz mob. It cut into Pompez’s money and at the same time drew attention to him from federal prosecutors who wanted Schultz. In 1935 Schultz was killed and Pompez regained control of his numbers route. But by now he was a federal target. Pompez fled to Europe, returned, was indicted on racketeering charges, fled to Mexico. Eventually he was picked up by Mexican authorities and returned to New York. He made an agreement with the prosecution team (led by future New York governor and Presidential candidate Thomas Dewey) and turned states evidence against the rackets. For his trouble, he received probation only and promised to stay clear of the number route in Harlem.
Now free to run the team again, Pompez led the Cubans to their sole pennant in 1947 and saw his team win the Negro World Series that year. But the club, and all of black baseball, was in trouble. Integration was killing the fan base and taking the best players into white leagues. The Cubans hung on through 1950 before folding. But Pompez was not through with baseball. He’d made an earlier arrangement with the New York Giants that gave his team use of the Polo Grounds and the Giants first call on his players. With the team gone, the Giants hired Pompez as both a scout and as a mentor for their black and Latin players. As the team’s Director of International Scouting, he was instrumental in finding Latin talent, especially in the Dominican Republic, for the Giants.
In 1971 he retired from the Giants. He still wasn’t through with baseball. The Hall of Fame chose him to serve on the special committee designed to choose Negro League players for the Hall. He remained in the position until his death in 1974. In 2006, he was chosen for the Hall of Fame as a Negro League executive.
Without trying to condone Pompez’s foray into the world of racketeering and the mob, I would remind you that options for black entrepreneurs was limited in the first half of the 20th Century. Many of them turned to what “the better element” in American society labeled ‘shady’ or worse. Black baseball was no exception to that. Pompez is not the only owner who made his money in ways that might offend some of that “better element.” Of course that can be true of people in a lot of professions.