by Lydia M. Reid
When we think of baseball in Panama today we immediately think of Mariano Rivera, Carlos Lee and other young professionals who have kept Panama on firm footing in the sport of baseball. There was a time, however, as with horse racing and boxing, that Panama’s participation in baseball was closely linked to the vigor and skill of the Westindian players dating as far back as the Panama Railroad and Canal construction days. These were the players that put Panama on the road to Baseball glory.
The first indications of the playing of the sport of baseball on the isthmus probably dates back to 1880 appearing rather sporadically before and after. History indicates that it was on a Tuesday, January 9, 1883 that baseball was first played in Panama during which time it was still part of Colombia.
There are still others, however, who attribute its origins to another group of Americans who, as early as 1855, would spend their free time from their labors on the Panama Railroad to play baseball. Even the Panamanian historian Ramon G. Pérez Medina in his book entitled “Historia del Béisbol Panameño” (“The History of Panamanian Baseball“) said that it was initiated by the American residents of The Panama Railroad Company along with some American traders who used to play friendly games of baseball following the rudimentary rules of the time.
Another clue comes to us from a Star and Herald newspaper byline dated Tuesday, January 9, 1883, which cites that a baseball game was played in Chiriqui Plaza, Sunday January 7 of the same year. The game, said the note, was between a home team from that Province and members of the Panama Cricket and Baseball Club which resulted in an easy victory for the latter. We can safely conclude that the entire Panama Cricket and Baseball Club was composed of the Westindian workers who worked on the French Canal construction and had adapted their beloved game to the Yankee sport. They continued organizing Cricket and Baseball games as a form of recreation into the American construction era and produced excellent players as well as entire professional teams.
Soon we see the rise of teams with descriptive and colorful names such as Swift Sure, The Stars of the Pacific, The 20th Century, The Emerald of the Isthmus and the ever popular Panama Athletic Club which had its initials- PAC– embroidered on its players’ caps in capital letters. In Colon we see the birth of ABC- Aspinwall Baseball Club and CBC- Colon Baseball Club.
By 1945 The Professional Baseball League of Panama was organized permitting the isthmus to become one of the four key national groups that formed the important Caribbean Series, whose first event was played in Havana, Cuba in 1949. That year Panama was represented by Spur Cola’s “Refresqueros,” who earned the first triumph of these classics, by defeating the “Mayaguez Indios” from Puerto Rico, 13 to 9.
The Panamanian baseball teams at this time were often named after their sponsors, therefore every year they might have been represented by a different sponsor. Spur Cola was a popular soft drink amongst, particularly, the Westindian employees of the Canal Zone and the Westindian residents of the two major cities Panama and Colon.
A brand name produced by Canada Dry, the company sponsored this team of young players that year. The following year, 1950, during the II Caribbean Series in San Juan, Puerto Rico,the same team of players was called “Los Licoreros de Carta Vieja,” an established and very popular brand of rum produced in Panama. This time, however, the Panamanian team would see a triumphant jump in their performance after having a decisive victory over the “Criollos” of Caguas of Puerto Rico (4-2). This victory squarely placed them at a respectable top of the charts that year.
The League eventually disappeared by 1972 although attempts were made to revive it in later years. Owing to many factors including the precarious economic situation that has reigned in Panama as well as the Caribbean Basin and to the lack of backing on the part of the private sector, attempts at reviving this once prosperous League have proven futile. Nevertheless, Panama has continued to play a significant role in amateur baseball participating in the First World Baseball Classic, which took place in 2006.
Panama’s baseball history is studded with many stellar names and most of them, particularly in its beginnings, have been descendants of the Westindian people who originally came from their Anglo-Caribbean homes to participate in the construction of the Panama Railroad and The Panama Canal.
To name but a few we’ll start with pitcher Humberto Valentino Robinson from Colon, who has been hailed as having been the first national baseball champion to have broken into the American Big Leagues. He debuted with the Milwaukee Braves on April 20, 1955 and went on to be credited with the distinction of having “opened the doors to the ‘Big Show’ for the Panamanian native players” paving the way for a total of forty Panamanians to play at the same professional level.
A few weeks later Héctor Headley López Swainson, a youth from Bocas del Toro descended of Westindian parentage, debuted with the Kansas City Athletics on May 12, 1955. There followed figures like Pat “Lord” Scantlebury, Adolfo Phillips, the immortal Rodney “Rod” Carew, Vibert E. “Webbo” Clarke, Ben Oglivie, Rennie Stennett, Omar Moreno, Juan Berenguer, Roberto Kelly, Olmedo Sáez, until we arrive at the titanic figure of Mariano Rivera, the ace pitcher/terminator for the New York Yankees.
There were also colorful figures like Frank “Bin-Bin” Austin who, although they never reached the heights of the Major Leagues, had an important hand in Panama’s march to triumph especially in the 1950 II Caribbean Series as both pitcher and in-fielder. “Bin-Bin” was also known as “Pee-Wee” Austin when he played “speedy short stop” for the Philadelphia Stars (Negro Leagues) between 1944 and 1948.
Also included amongst these were Fernando Alberto “Mamavila” Osorio, who achieved a record of 24 seasons in professional Panamanian baseball, Andrés “Alambre” Alonso, Marco A. Cobos, León Kellman, Pablo Bernard and Clyde París.
Stay tuned for a more in-depth look at the lives of some of these baseball legends with roots in Panama’s Westindian heritage as we will include highlights of their lives in our culture section.
We thank our friends over at latinobaseball.com and at critica.com for providing some key historical facts for our article.