Famous Tiger Friday

Happy (home) opening day! To kick off baseball season, and since the home opener falls on a Friday, I thought I’d write about a famous Tiger player for Famous Michigander Friday. When you think of famous Tigers, you tend to jump to the big names – Al Kaline, Hank Greenburg, Willie Horton, and of course, Ty Cobb. But I wanted to write about somebody else, who you won’t find immortalized in statue form at Comerica Park but is nonetheless very important to Tigers’ history. Today’s post is about Osvaldo (Ozzie) Virgil, the first Dominican player in MLB history and the player who broke the color line in Detroit.

Ozzie Virgil's baseball card from his time with the Tigers

Ozzie Virgil’s baseball card from his time with the Tigers

Virgil was born in 1932 in Monte Cristi in the Dominican Republic and moved to New York with his family at age 14. According to an interview in Michigan History Magazine, Virgil didn’t make the baseball team in high school, but played a lot of sandlot ball. After high school he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served from 1950-1952. He continued playing baseball while in the the Corps, and when he got out he was given a tryout by the New York Giants. The Giants signed him and he played for three seasons in the minor leagues as well as playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. Finally, in 1956, he was called up. On September 23, 1956 he went out on the field with the Giants and became the first Dominican to play for the major leagues.

Just before the start of the 1958 season, Virgil was traded to the Tigers, a move he was initially unhappy about. He thought his talents were needed by the Giants, and was worried about his reception in Detroit, as the Tigers were among the last few teams to still have an all white roster. In fact, the Tigers’ lack of integration was a point of contention in the community, and the issue was coming to a head in 1958. In April, African-American community leaders organized the Briggs Stadium Boycott Commission, which threatened to boycott Tigers games if the team did not bring in black players.

Virgil was initially sent back down to the minors, but was called up again early in the season. The team stated that he was called up because he was simply the best third-baseman in their system, however, it is quite likely that the pressure from the community had something to do with it. Whatever the reason Virgil was called up to the majors, he certainly delivered at his first game. On June 17, he took to the plate at Briggs Stadium and hit the ball into left field for a two base hit. He ended up going 5 for 5 that first fame, and on his last hit, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Although many were thrilled to finally see a non-white player on the Tigers’ roster, some black community members were not entirely satisfied with the mixed race Virgil. Many did not consider the team truly integrated until the following year, when the Tigers acquired Larry Doby. Virgil knew about these issues, but said that he didn’t much care about what the community said – he just wanted to play baseball.

Virgil played for the Tigers until 1961 when he was traded to the Kansas City Athletics. He continued to hop around from team to team, eventually playing for the Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants before he retired in 1969. He played every position except for pitcher during his time in the major leagues, had a .231 batting average, hit 14 home runs and 73 RBI. After retiring from his playing career, Virgil became a coach, spending 19 seasons working with the Giants, Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners. Fun Fact: his son, Ozzie Virgil Jr., played major league baseball as well, playing for the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves and Toronto Blue Jays throughout the 1980s.

Virgil’s debut may not have had the impact of Jackie Robinson’s, but it was nevertheless important. Not only did he integrate Detroit’s team, but he also served as an inspiration to young Dominican players, who have become an integral part of major league baseball. Hundreds of Dominican players have made a name for themselves in baseball, including Hall of Famer Juan Marichal (inducted 1983), more recent greats such as Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez and 5 current Tigers: Ramon Santiago, Jhonny Peralta, Al Albuquerque, Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel. In 2006, the Osvaldo Virgil National Airport opened in the Dominican Republic in recognition of his achievements. This opening day, don’t just get excited about the season that’s yet to come – remember baseball’s past, including the many players who helped make the league into the diverse organization it is today.

Sources:

Anderson, William M. “Baseball at the Corner,” Michigan History Magazine, 83 no. 5 (September-October 1999, 16
ibid, “Ozzie Virgil Sr.,” Michigan History Magazine (September-October 1997), 47-53
Bak, Richard, “The Negro Leagues in Detroit, Michigan History Magazine, 96 no.3 (May-June 2012), 37
O’Gara, Connor, “Island Trailblazer,” National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, October 11, 2012
Rojas, Enrique, “50 Years Ago, Ozzie Virgil Made Baseball History,” ESPNDeportes.com, September 22, 2006.

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