Baseball in the Dominican Republic (much like in Cuba) is a national obsession. In 1937 the DR’s dictator – Rafael Trujillo – sought to ride the wave of baseball’s popularity to feed his megalomania and win the hearts of his countrymen. But before we talk about this Ciudad Trujillo baseball team, it is important to examine the man behind the team, Rafael Trujillo.
Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, nicknamed “El Jefe” (translated as “The Boss” – same as Fidel Castro) ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. He served as president officially from 1930-38 and then again from 1942-52. Unofficially he ruled the rest of his tenure as a puppet master hiding behind elected lackies as an unelected military strongman. His tyranny, historically known as “La Era de Trujillo” (“The Trujillo Era”), is considered one of the most miserable in the history of the Caribbean. This era is also a classic example of the cult of personality with Trujillo being the prototypical caudillo – that is, an immensely charismatic political-military authoritarian leader.
In his youth, Trujillo enjoyed playing with and collecting bottlecaps. He quickly earned the nickname chapita which means “bottlecap” in english. Trujillo hated it so much, that one of his first acts when he became president of the Dominican was to outlaw the word from being used.
At the age of 28 Trujillo joined the Dominican army and rose through the ranks quickly. 2 years following his initial enrolment, Trujillo was nominated for Officer’s School and upon completion achieved the rank of Captain. During this time US Troops had been occupying the Dominican to ensure that the nation would not default on its debt. Trujillo took the opportunity to impress US recruiters. Following another 2 years of service Trujillo was appointed Chief of Staff, National Police and then Colonel and Commander of the police in 1925. The US troops established a Dominican Army Constabulary, and Trujillo was awarded the rank of Brigadier General.
When the occupying forces left, Trujillo was left in charge. Three years later a rebellion against president Horacio Vazquez took place, appearing to be led by Rafael Estrella – however it was Trujillo himself who was the mastermind. Trujillo disobeyed instructions to subdue the insurgents and Estrella became President – temporarily. Rafael Estrella was proclaimed as acting-president when Vásquez resigned. A new party was formed – the Dominican Party – and Trujillo then became the nominee in the 1930 presidential election. Trujillo achieved victory through coercive tactics, registering 99% of the vote. A judge declared the election fraudulent and was subsequently forced to flee the country.
On August 16, 1930 the then 38-year-old General Trujillo took office, wearing a sash with the motto, “Dios y Trujillo” (God & Trujillo). He immediately assumed dictatorial powers.
Three weeks into Trujillo’s rule, a devastating hurricane levelled all of the capital city of Santo Domingo. Trujillo was able to rebuild the city thanks to relief funds supplied from the American Red Cross. This marked the beginning of Trujillo’s “Cult of Personality” as Trujillo sought to take credit for the restoration of the capital.
Congress voted overwhelmingly in 1936 to rename the capital from Santo Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo. The province of San Cristobal was created as “Trujillo,” and the nation’s highest peak, Pico Duarte, was renamed in his honour. Statues of “El Jefe” were mass-produced and erected across the Republic, and bridges and public buildings were named in his honour. The nation’s newspapers now had praise for Trujillo as part of the front page, and license plates included the slogan “Viva Trujillo!” An electric sign was erected in Ciudad Trujillo so that “Dios y Trujillo” could be seen at night as well as in the day. Eventually churches were required to post the slogan, “Dios en cielo, Trujillo en tierra” (God in Heaven, Trujillo on Earth). As time went on, the order of the phrases was reversed (Trujillo on Earth, God in Heaven). Trujillo was recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize by his admirers, but the committee declined the suggestion. When he received (or summoned) a visitor, his four bodyguards would have submachine guns trained upon the “guest” during the meeting. His daughter Angelita was designated “queen” of the 1955 Fair of Peace and Fraternity of the Free World, a pompous event that cost US$30 million. Fair organizers declared Trujillo’s semi-literate wife María Martínez a ‘writer and philosopher.’
Rafael Trujillo was one of the worst dictators of all time. At the beginning of his reign, Trujillo enacted an openly racist policy against black Haitians, and attempted to assassinate the Venezuelan president. In 1937, he ordered the massacre of 20,000 to 30,000 Haitians living on the border with Haiti.
Over the next few years Trujillo would monopolize every industry in Dominican society: tobacco, salt, newspapers, sugar, beef, milk, and gaming. The judiciary was immediately stripped of its powers. Trujillo was not only the most powerful man in the Dominican Republic from a political point of view but also economically. Trujillo’s wealth was estimated to be $500,000,000 in 1958 dollars. The only thing that Trujillo did not control was baseball, and that is something he had to remedy.
Trujillo’s political rivals owned two teams – the Estrellas Orientales and the Aguilas Cibaeñas. They raided the Negro Leagues to ensure victory and secured such players as Cocaina Garcia, Chet Brewer, Martin Dihigo and Luis Tiant Sr.
This was a war that Trujillo was determined to win.
In 1936, dring Spring Training for the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro League, agents for Rafael Trujillo approached Satchel Paige. Trujillo had formed a baseball team and it was important that it would be the best because the possibility of Trujillo losing face was not an option.
Would Mr. Paige be willing to come to the Caribbean and be the star pitcher for Ciudad Trujillo? Cool Papa Bell remembered what happened next: “Now Satchel was the type of guy that if you showed him money – or a car – you could lead him anywhere. He was that type of fella.”
Satchel was also given money to convince his teammates to come to Ciudad Trujillo as well. Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson and 4 other Crawfords were persuaded. Give credit to Trujillo, he got the best player out there: ol’ Satch.
In his autobiography, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, Paige wrote that the Negro League players were treated like heroes when they arrived in the Dominican.
During a party at one of Trujillo’s plantations, the pitcher was pulled aside by a reporter and told to be careful because “Trujillo won’t like it if his club goes around losing”
“That reporter scared me good,” Paige wrote. “And I could see Trujillo, with those soldiers around him all the time, sure was a powerful man.”
The season ran from March 28- July 11. Ciudad Trujillo finished in first place, going 18-13 13. Aguilas Cibaeñas were the runner up at 13 – 15. Josh Gibson led the league in average, hitting at a .453 clip (with 21 RBI). Cibaeñas’ Martin Dihigo hit 4 HR that season as a positional player and pitcher. Dihigo also had a 6-4 record – second to only Satchel Paige’s 8 – 2 mark.
The championship series between Ciudad Trujillo and the Aguilas was epic. Trujillo’s team was down 3-0 in the best of 7 series and the army’s guns were basically pointed as Satch’s and the rest of the boys’ heads. Ciudad Trujillo rallied from three games down to force a seventh game. The tension was so thick and pressure was so immense that Trujillo had the team JAILED the night before so that they wouldn’t take advantage of the Ciudad Trujillo/Santo Domingo nightlife.
“You’d have thought war was declared,” Paige wrote. “We were guarded like we had the secret combination to Fort Knox.”
Paige wrote later that the team got an interesting pep talk from its manager. “`You’d better win,’ he said. `Whaddya mean, we better win?’ I asked. `I mean just that. Take my advice and win.'”
In 1953 Paige said he believed that if they lost the game, “there was nothing to do but consider myself and my boys passed over Jordan.”
In the 7th inning of Game 7, Ciudad Trujillo was down by 1 run, a precarious position to be in if there ever was one.
“You could see Trujillo lining up his army,” Paige wrote. “They began to look like a firing squad. In the last of the seventh we scored two runs and went ahead 6-5. You never saw Ol’ Satch throw harder after that. I shut them down the last two innings and we won. I hustled back to our hotel and the next morning we blowed out of there in a hurry. We never did see Trujillo again.”
After the season the league collapsed and the Negro Leagurers returned to the US and Trujillo was ousted. The league would remain dormant for the next fourteen years due to the sums of money Trujillo and the two other clubs paid to import and secure their players.
In an interesting aside, it was Rafael Trujillo who accepted Fulgencio Bautista after he was overthrown from the Cuban presidency by Fidel Castro and fled the country.
When Fulgencio Batista was in power, Trujillo initially supported anti-Batista supporters of the Oriente province in 1955 by sending them weapons and supplies. However weapons Trujillo sent were soon inherited by Castro’s 26 de Julio movement when the anti-Batista supporters allied with Castro.
Following 1956, when it was evident that Castro was gaining support, Trujillo flip-flopped and began to support Batista with money, planes, equipment, and soldiers.
Trujillo, convinced that Batista would prevail, was surprised when Fulgencio showed up as a fugitive after being overthrown by Castro and his 26 de Julio movement.
Castro made threats to overthrow Trujillo for harbouring Batista and Trujillo responded by increasing funding for national defense
Batista arrived in Santo Domingo on the morning of January 1st. Batista was declared a Guest of Honor of the Dominican Republic and they lodged him in a mansion, near the National Palace, that was intended for distinguished visitors. Batista thought that the Trujillo would receive him immediately, but he had to wait more than 48 hours to be granted an audience. When they did eventually meet, Trujillo told him that he would put at his disposal 25 thousand men and the necessary ships and planes to head an expedition to Cuba. Batista refused, but offered to promote and finance an attack against the Chief of the Cuban Revolution.
Later Trujillo called him again to the Palace. In their previous meeting Trujillo had appealed to his courage and manliness. Now he appealed to his pocket. Batista had an outstanding account with the Dominican State: he had not paid the last shipment of weapons and the balance of the debt – nearly $90,000. Batista responded that it was not a personal matter, but that those weapons were a debt of the Cuban State. Trujillo looked at him with sarcasm:
“You cannot claim that I charge Castro for some weapons that were used
against him – he said. He added: Think about it, General Batista. I have to
collect. They are weapons from the Dominican Army and that money is from the
Republic. They were sent to help you…”
“-I don’t have that money. I have hardly enough to live on. I am a poor man”
…- stammered Batista.
Trujillo, of course, did not believe him. Days later a colonel presented himself along with two soldiers and ordered Batista to follow them. Batista was “taken for a drive” through Trujillo City and it was already getting dark when the car in which they were traveling left the capital. In short, they were going to La 40 jail. There Batista spent the night and part of the next day. Batista would say in a letter months later “they forced me to sweep my room.”
Following that brief stay in prison, Batista paid the amount of the debt in full. Days later Trujillo called him again. He wanted one million dollars to defray the costs of anti-Cuban activities. Batista extended him the cheque without saying a word.
On July 17th Batista was arrested at the airport when trying to leave Trujillo City aboard a private plane. The same day, another press release, dated in Washington, said that Batista came to the U.S. Consulate in Santo Domingo to finally request entry into the United States. Eventually the US State Department asked the Brazilian Foreign Ministry to negotiate asylum in Portugal. Before leaving the Dominican Republic, Batista had to pay $4-million dollars to Trujillo for permission to leave.
In 1961 Rafael Trujillo finally met his end. He was gunned down by assassins while out driving. Following his assassination in 1961 Ciudad Trujillo was renamed back to Santo Domingo.
Ciudad Trujillo jerseys may be ordered from Ebbets Field Flannels.