As a boy growing up in Havana, Cuba, Pedro Sierra heard stories about the high levels of racism in United States baseball, but that didn’t deter him from dreaming of becoming a professional.
At 16, after making an impression on Cuban Negro League scouts on a field 13 blocks from his home, Sierra signed for $100 and played with the Indianapolis Clowns in 1954.
The scout assured Sierra’s dad, Pedro Sr., that his son would be safe because there would be older Cubans on the team to guide him.
So his dad let his son leave home.
“In my opinion, the Negro Leagues were the most important chapter in the history of baseball,’’ the younger Sierra says. “I’m very proud to be part of the legacy. It allowed me to fulfill a dream. I always wanted to become a professional baseball player.’‘
Sierra is about 100 players left that were in the Negro Leagues, according to estimates by the Negro Baseball League Museum in Kansas City, Mo.
The centennial anniversary of the start of the Negro Leagues will be celebrated across Major League Baseball on Sunday. It was originally scheduled for June, but was postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak.
All players, coaches, managers and umpires will wear patches to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues’ founding.
Teams will also recognize the Negro Leagues with ballpark and digital activities, throwback uniforms, educational panels, documentaries and auctions that support the Negro League Baseball Museum.
The first organizational meeting for the Negro League was on Feb. 13, 1920 in Kansas City when owners from independent Black teams from the Midwest created the Negro National League. Rube Foster, considered the Father of Negro League baseball, organized the meeting at the red-brick Paseo YMCA in Kansas City.
The Negro Leagues continued for four decades. The decline started after Jackie Robinson, who played one season (1945) in the Negro Leagues, broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
After Robinson, whose uniform No. 42 has been retired from baseball, Black players started signing with MLB’s minor league teams and the last Negro League games were played in 1962.
There are Negro League stars in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron.
Sierra, 82, who lives in Mays Landing, N.J., played for 22 seasons. He played in Canada, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. He played in the farms systems of the Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins. He served in the infantry of the U.S. Army for three years.
In the Army, he pitched for the Fort Hood Tanks. And he also played on a makeshift fields in rodeo arenas in Wyoming.
Former Senators pitcher Camilo Pascual, also from Cuba, showed Sierra had to throw a 12-to-6 curveball. Sierra became friends in the minors with Tony Oliva and Rod Carew, players who became Twins superstars.
Sierra never made the major leagues, but he did pitch batting practice to the Senators before games when they played at RFK Stadium in D.C.
He was the type of pitcher that also learned a knuckleball. He had excellent control, moved his pitches in and out, and got advice from Paige, the high-kicking legendary pitcher who was known for a hesitation pitch.
Paige also told him to never pitch to a batter’s strength. Sierra asked Paige if it was all right to pitch to a batter’s power if the defense was set properly.
“He said, ‘No, he’ll hit it over everybody,’’ Sierra says. “Satchel always told me to make hitters go after the ball.’‘
When he played for the Detroit Stars for three seasons - getting paid $125 a month - he played in Briggs Stadium, eventually renamed Tiger Stadium. In 1956, he went 14-3 and played in the East-West All-Star Game.
The excitement was to play in big-league parks.
“I played in Yankee Stadium, Forbes Field (in Pittsburgh), Comiskey Park (in Chicago),’’ Sierra says. “The deal was that we could play in those ballparks when the other teams were out of town.’‘
Sierra left baseball in 1976 and worked for the Montgomery County Department of Recreation for 25 years when he implemented a program, Get High on Sports, that took kids to Orioles games.
The kids would sit in the front row at Memorial Stadium during batting practice and Sierra would have players come over and talk to them about staying in school and away from drugs and alcohol.
Sierra’s dad was a famous welterweight boxer in Cuba. He worked on construction and on Sundays, he ran a shoe-shine business a block and a half from home.
A neighbor, Rafael Almeida, would visit Sierra’s dad at his shoe-shining chair. Almeida played three seasons for the Cincinnati Reds starting in 1911.
How was Almeida allowed to do that?
“He was a white Cuban, he didn’t have dark skin,’’ Sierra says. “That was the difference.’‘
Sierra, 82, remembers Almeida and his dad talking boxing and baseball on those Sunday afternoons: “Rafael Almeida always said that they should let the colored guys play in the major leagues.’‘
One day, it happened.
The young Sierra remembered hearing the news on the radio that the Dodgers were going to allow Robinson to play in the big leagues.
“It was, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ ” Sierra says. “Some of the guys were saying, ‘Did you hear that?’ There was excitement. Some guys were loud with excitement. We are very passionate about sports.’‘
When Sierra played in the Negro Leagues, the players had to deal with prejudice and taunts. The team had to find rooming houses in special parts of town and stay three or four in a room at cheap hotels.
Sometimes, teams slept on their bus. They were prohibited from certain restaurants.
“My dad taught me by saying, ‘You’ll hear the taunts, but don’t listen, don’t let it go down deep into your brain,’ ” Sierra says. “I knew English, so I knew when they were using the N-word.
“You just had to play above it. They had to come to the ballpark to insult, so I just wanted to play well so that they want to come to the ballpark.’‘