Baseball’s Roots in Panama

A 1955 Topps card of Humberto Robinson when he pitched for the Milwaukee Braves.

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 horseracing 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.

Following our look of baseball’s roots in the history of Panama, 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’sRefresqueros,” 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 in 1969 although attempts were made to revive it in later years. Owing to the ever precarious economic situation that has reigned in Panama as well as the Caribbean Basin, however, these 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 all around championship pitcher and batter 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, 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 in Negro League Baseball when he played “speedy right-handed shortstop” for the Philadelphia Stars (1944-1948).

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 (Jonathan Clyde Parris).

We will take a more in-depth look at the lives of some of these baseball legends with roots in Panama’s Westindian heritage as we include highlights of their lives in the culture section of our Heritage web site.

We thank our friends over at latinobaseball.com and at critica.com for providing some key historical facts for our article.

This story continues.

10 responses to “Baseball’s Roots in Panama

  1. It is said that the US'Civil Rights' movement really began in Panama, by actions taken in the Canal Zone when the Yankees and Dodgers barned stormed there in 1947. The Canal Zone professional baseball league was white, with names for cities like Balboa, Cristobal,etc, but blacks had their segregated sections and would pay to attend the games. When Jackie Robinson arrived with the Dodgers and the Yankees to play exhibition games, the league did not allowed the Silver roll people (W.I.blacks) to enter the stadium.
    The league went bankkrupt soon after, as the W.I. decided to boycott the league, and never returned.
    That was power indeed.
    tj

  2. Anonymous:
    Your comment has added some vital information regarding the Silver Roll, as basis and only one of the many important facets and valueable, cultural and natural heritage of our Panamanian Westindianess. We here at the Silver People Chronicle commend you for this aide, that will help us to have salient information to intergrate into our Historical Demands.
    These are all proofs that we have had rights to intangible cultural heritage that "are of outstanding universal value" to our culture from the standpoint of history and the arts. That further more the history of baseball, amongst other things are very important to demonstrate our contributions not only to "our panamanian culture and history. But also to reasure the comming generations that as Silver People we have a vibrant history of Panama, something valueble to share with the world. I will do my best to remember such things that we all as kids knew to restore faith in our forefathers, as we make our case to stand on firmer grounds as we work towards restitution,conservation and the protection of our Westindian Panamanian cultural heritage.

    Thank you very much and may our God keep you until we meet here in our MotherLand Panama.
    Roberto Reid

  3. Kyle and Svet Keeton

    The Kansas City A's: I had that card Hector Lopez was a great player. I got a card like that in the bubble gum packs…

    I watched them play until I think 1967 0r 68 and they moved to ??

    I know that I was crushed because I loved baseball at that point and it seemed that was the last of the era and teams that played because they loved the sport not the money…

    Was it the Oakland A's that came from the Kansas City A's?

    You keep bringing back memories for me! 🙂

    Kyle and Svet

  4. Rod Carew, an incredible basebal player who would make the hall of fame. I think he is of Barbadian origin, if I am not mistaken.

  5. does anyone known anything about a team called the Panama All Stars touring the US in 1933 I have them reported to be playing a debut game at Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson New Jersey on July 1 1933 Lawrence Hogan hogan@ucc.edu 908 497-4235

  6. Why isnt there any mention of one of Panama’s greatest home grown players, George (Bobby ) Prescott?

    • Bobby Prescott was a teammate of Parris. He currently resides in Panama City. I’m still waiting for your reply

      • Mr. Harrison,

        We are gathering the scant historical background on Bobby Prescott that we can obtain but it is from people or fans like you that we get really personal information. This was the case with Clyde Parris. Otherwise, the lives, trials and tribulations of our Silver People sports heroes would go unnoticed and unrecorded. You must remember that Panama’s INDE (Instituto Nacional de Deporte) keeps no records and historical data on the former Silver athletes that came out of the Zone and Panama and Colon City. They don’t hire or pay historians a dime and especially historians for the Silver People. Check back for a future post on Bobby Prescott.

        RR

  7. Alberto Barnett

    Why isnt there any mention of one of Panama’s greatest home run hitters, right fielder, Victor (Lobo) Barnett?

    • You appear to be related to Lobo Barnett; we would be happy to receive some information on him as we have found very little written about him. In fact, some fantastic baseball legends of the Silver People of Panama have only recently come forward to tell us their story. Take a look at the story of Jonathan Parris.

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