A quick glance at baseball's record books reveals nothing special about Louis Castro. His official file says he was born in 1876 in New York City and shows that he played 42 games as a second baseman for the Philadelphia Athletics during the 1902 season. He batted .245 that year with one home run and 15 runs batted in, then bounced around the minor leagues. He died in New York in 1941.
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At a glance, Castro was just another one-season role player from baseball's early days. Yet many baseball historians are interested in his brief, unremarkable career. Dick Beverage, president of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), describes Castro's story as "a mystery." Gilberto Garcia, who recently finished a biography of Castro for the baseball journal Nine, says Castro is "part of American folklore." And baseball writer Leonte Landino calls Castro "a mystical, mysterious, even phantasmagorical figure."
So why all the mystery surrounding someone who appears to have had little to no impact on the game of baseball? The answer lies in the most basic of details: Castro's birthplace.
Until 2001, Castro was listed in the official records as being born in Medellin, Colombia—not New York City. That would make Castro the first foreign-born Hispanic to play Major League ball. That's a prestigious historical role, considering that at the start of the 2007 season, nearly 25 percent of Major League Baseball's players were from Mexico, South America or the Caribbean.
"He was the first one," says Nick Martinez, a baseball researcher and Castro biographer who runs louiscastro.com, a Web site dedicated to getting Castro a tombstone indicating he was the first Hispanic in the major leagues. "He laid the stake and made it easer for everyone else who is Latin to come in and play the game of baseball."
To be clear, Castro was no Jackie Robinson in terms of talent or cultural impact. When Castro broke into the major leagues in 1902, there was little fanfare surrounding his signing, and he didn’t have to deal with the animosity that was directed at Robinson every day of the 1947 season. Why? He looked white—or, at least, not black.
"The only issue they [Major League Baseball] had at that time was if it was a Negro player," Landino says. "Castro was a white player. Even though he was a Latino, he was white, and they didn’t have any problem with that."
The baseball portion of Castro's story begins at Manhattan College, where he was a pitcher and a utility infielder near the turn of the century. Manhattan College regularly played exhibition games against the New York Giants, and after college Castro played a couple years for semi-pro teams. Somewhere along the line, Philadelphia manager Connie Mack saw the young prospect.
Of course, sometimes prospects don't work out. Napoleon Lajoie, who had played second base for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1901, was ruled ineligible to return to the team early the following season, for contractual reasons. Castro filled in serviceably for 42 games in 1902, but he was not Lajoie—a future Hall of Famer who, in his first year with the A's, had batted .426, the fourth-highest single-season average in baseball history.
That left Castro with some big shoes to fill. "Ultimately, I think the shoes won out—because he only played that one season with the Athletics," says Adrian Burgos, author of Playing America's Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line.