Sports and immigration
Baseball and boxing were America’s two great sports prior to World War II. From the mid-19th century, both were particularly associated with immigrants. As urban sports that developed at a time when immigrants flooded into U.S. cities in order to work in mills and factories, they were accessible to newcomers. They relied heavily on physical prowess and required little in the way of equipment, thus allowing anyone with real talent the potential to become successful. In this, they were tailor made to the American meritocratic ideal.
Although most early U.S. baseball players were Anglo-Americans, by the late 19th century, an increasingly large percentage were Irish and German. As the new immigration flooded the country with immigrants from southern and eastern Europe beginning in the 1890s, baseball stars came from a widening circle of ethnic groups. Between 1900 and 1940, dozens of foreign-born men played in the major leagues, including players from Germany, Ireland, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Russia, Austria-Hungary, England, Cuba, and Hawaii. Dozens more were second-generation immigrants still closely tied to their ethnic communities. Some of the greatest players in the game were proudly followed by their ethnic communities; nevertheless, their objective successes on the field and as part of multiethnic teams helped to reinforce the idea that anyone could become an American icon. Joe DiMaggio, born to Italian immigrants; Hank Greenberg, born to Romanian-Jewish immigrants; and Jackie Robinson, the first African American allowed to play in the major leagues, all demonstrated that ability counted more than background.
After World War II (1939–45), African Americans and Caribbean players of mixed or African descent played an increasingly large role in the development of baseball. Players such as Roberto Clemente, Luis Tiant, and the Alou brothers served as visible models to young Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Dominicans who had developed a love of the sport in their own countries. By 1990, 13 percent of major leaguers were Hispanic, and by 1997, the figure had jumped to 24 percent. In 2002, 230 of 827 players on opening day major league rosters were born outside the 50 states: 79 from the Dominican Republic; 38 from Puerto Rico; 37 from Venezuela; 17 from Mexico; 11 from Japan; 10 from both Canada and Cuba; seven from Panama; six from South Korea; three from both Australia and Colombia; two each from Aruba, the Netherlands Antilles, and Nicaragua; and one each from England, Germany, and Vietnam. According to a February 4, 2002, commissioner’s report, 42 percent of all professional baseball players came from outside the United States; more than three-fourths of those were from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Of the 3,066 foreign-born professional players, 1,630 (53 percent) were from the Dominican Republic and 744 (24 percent) were from Venezuela; 165 (5 percent) from Puerto Rico; 114 (4 percent) from Mexico; 26 were from Cuba, with half on major league rosters.
Boxing was another sport well suited to the rough, urban life of industrial, immigrant America. The first boxing champion of the United States, Yankee Sullivan, was born in Ireland. Even more popular was John L. Sullivan, a second-generation Irishman, whose name became a household word as the sport expanded and developed. His defeat of another Irish American, Paddy Ryan, in 1882 is sometimes viewed as the first true title fight in American history. If the Irish dominated early boxing, Jewish fighters were especially prominent between 1910 and 1940, when they won 26 world titles. Two of America’s greatest fighters were Jack Dempsey, born to Irish immigrant stock, and Rocky Marciano (Rocco Marchegiano), whose father emigrated from Italy during World War I.
Immigrant and ethnic players were long associated with basketball but did not become prominent in the American consciousness until the sport itself became more popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Basketball was particularly associated with the inner cities, as it did not require the large field associated with baseball or football. Prior to World War II, the early professional clubs were dominated by Irish, Jewish, and Italian players. As they increasingly moved to the suburbs, however, African Americans began to predominate and by 1995 made up 82 percent of the National Basketball Association. As a result of the game’s success outside the United States and Canada, more Europeans, Africans, Australians, Asians, and Latin Americans began to play, and the 1990s saw the rise of many international stars, including Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria), Patrick Ewing (Jamaica), Toni Kukoˇc (Croatia), Vlade Divac (Serbia), Tim Duncan (St. Croix), and Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) and a host of potential future stars in Yao Ming (China), Peja Stojakovi´c (Serbia), and Pau Gasol (Spain). By 2002, the percentage of African Americans was down to 78 percent, and the 2003 draft suggested that foreign players would take a greater number of slots in the future. Of the 58 draft picks, 21 were from foreign countries, and eight of these were taken in the first round. Many commentators speculated that the game itself—not just the players—was being fundamentally changed.
Canada’s preeminent sport, hockey, has also seen an influx of international players in the 1990s. Hockey was first played in Canada in the early 19th century. It gradually spread to the United States, beginning in the 1890s, and then to Europe just after the turn of the 20th century. Until World War II, it remained largely a North American sport, but the seeds that were planted in the first Olympic competition in 1920 eventually grew into a European fascination for the sport. In 1956, the Soviet Union won a gold medal in the first Olympic ice hockey competition it entered and dominated international competition for a quarter century. Ulf Sterner became the first Swedish player in the National Hockey League (NHL) in 1965, and the better European players gradually were brought to play in the world’s top hockey league. By the 1990s, they were considered essential in reviving a sport that lagged behind football, basketball, and baseball in terms of public support. At the beginning of the 2002–03 season, the international character of the NHL was never more evident. Of the 383 players on opening-day rosters, only 53.6 percent were Canadian; represented significantly were the United States (13 percent), the Czech Republic (8.2 percent), Russia (6.9 percent), Sweden (6.2 percent), Finland (5 percent), and Slovakia (2.9 percent).
Some observers feared that North American sports, as they became internationalized, were losing part of their essential national character. There were also fears that sport was becoming too closely tied to international politics and finance. Some African Americans, for instance, feared that white European players were being courted because of greater television marketability. And there was no question that New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner’s pursuit of Hideki Matsui in the 2002–03 offseason was as much about tapping into the Japanese market as gaining the services of a good ballplayer. With the decline of communism around the world from the late 1980s, top athletes from former communist countries were free to market themselves internationally in a way they could not have before. The communist countries that did remain found athletes more likely than ever to defect. In 1991, René Arocha became the first Cuban player from the island country’s famed national team to defect, while on a stopover in Miami. Over the following decade, more than 50 players followed. Liván Hernández defected to Mexico in 1995 and two years later led the Florida Marlins to a world championship. This became an important post–cold war victory, as Hernández’s achievements overshadowed the reburial on Cuban soil of the bones of revolutionary hero Ernesto “Che” Guevera, an act heavily promoted by Cuban leader Fidel Castro.