The Pulaski Yankees are at home tonight, and the Salem Red Sox are on the road, which gives Roanoke Valley baseball fans an excuse to drive down to check out the renovations to historic Calfee Park.
You’ll also get to see some pretty good baseball. Pulaski and this weekend’s visitors — the Bluefield Blue Jays — are the two best teams in their division in the Appalachian League. For us, this is an opportunity to explore a little-remembered moment in American history and relate it to the present.
When the New York Yankees’ rookie league team took the field in June, it was noted that most of the players were natives of Spanish-speaking countries. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of baseball knows that it’s not unusual to see players from countries in the Caribbean Basin.
On Opening Day this year, Major League teams had a record number of foreign-born players — 26.5 percent. Of those 230 players, 83 were from the Dominican Republic, 66 from Venezuela.
So when the Pulaski Yankees field a team that has more Dominican players (15) than American ones (11), well, that’s noteworthy but not particularly surprising. Baseball players from southern climates have always had an advantage over players from the north, just as hockey players from the north have an advantage over ones from the south — a longer season to practice in.
We could use that as the jumping-off point to talk about the global economy, and how baseball leagues in the United States are really world leagues that now draw talent from around the planet. Instead, we’ll use it to talk about this: All these Dominican players could have been American citizens. In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant proposed annexing the Dominican Republic as a territory with an eye toward making it a state. The Senate voted him down. If Grant had prevailed, American history might have evolved in a very different way.
The curious story of a potential state in the Caribbean dates back exactly 150 years. A declining Spain had pulled out of the Dominican Republic in 1865. By 1867, the young nation faced an invasion from Haiti, which occupies the other half of the island. The Dominicans’ solution was to ask the United States to annex them. Some business leaders in the United States liked the idea — seeing the island as a form of commercial Manifest Destiny. President Andrew Johnson was interested, as well, but by that point his relations with Congress were so bad that Congress had no intention of doing anything he proposed. Within a year, the House impeached him and the Senate came within a single vote of removing Johnson from office.
The idea of Dominican annexation didn’t go away, however. The election of 1868 brought the Civil War hero Grant into the White House. The U.S. Navy wanted to set up a refueling station in the Caribbean. Grant, the military strategist, suddenly took an interest in what was then called Santo Domingo. An American military base there would both expand U.S. power and perhaps thwart European meddling — Monroe Doctrine and all that.
Grant also saw another opportunity: Perhaps freed American slaves could be persuaded to move to Santo Domingo. He thought that might help race relations in the former Confederacy.
Civil peace in the South. Business opportunities for Northern manufacturers. National security for the whole country. Those seemed to Grant three big arguments for annexation. There was just one problem: Did the Dominicans really want to be annexed? The president sent his private secretary — akin to today’s chief-of-staff — to the island to investigate. Orville Babcock returned to Washington with a treaty in hand. Grant kept the treaty secret — springing it on an unsuspecting Congress in 1870. The reaction was not the joyous one he hoped for.
Not everyone was in favor of annexing a cash-strapped island of non-whites — some for very different reasons. Grant was a Republican; Congress was controlled by Republicans. Yet just as President Trump today cannot always get his proposals approved by a Republican Congress, neither could Grant. His main obstacle was the influential Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who chaired the Foreign Relations Committee. Sumner thought annexation would lead to an American empire in the Caribbean, which is exactly what some business interests wanted. Sumner would have been considered a liberal in his day; more conservative senators simply didn’t want a territory — and a future state — that would clearly have a black majority.
The Dominican government was deep in debt and eager for what it saw as an American bailout. The government held a referendum to demonstrate their people’s support. The vote showed 16,000 in favor and 11 against, which only smelled like the fraud that it was.
The treaty needed a two-thirds vote in the Senate. Instead, the vote tied 28-28. For reasons lost to history, only one of Virginia’s senators voted — Democrat John Johnston of Abingdon opposed annexation.
We can speculate all day about how a black-majority state in the 1870s might have changed American history.
We also can look to a modern case in the Caribbean, where Puerto Rico held a referendum in June in which 97 percent voted for statehood. The catch: Not many people voted. Puerto Rico — like the Dominican in 1870 — also has a debt problem. The Republican platform in 2016 endorsed statehood, but in practice, many Republicans are skeptical of admitting a debt-ridden, Spanish-speaking state that might send two Democratic senators to Washington. Puerto Rico is certainly Spanish-speaking and debt-ridden but whether it would automatically vote Democratic is an unsettled question. Puerto Rico’s political parties don’t correspond to the ones on the mainland. One of the island’s recent governors, Luis Fortuño, served on the platform committee at the 1996 Republican national convention and was touted as a possible Cabinet secretary had Mitt Romney been elected president in 2012. Puerto Rican statehood presents the kind of uncertainty that our current political system recoils from — just as our political system of 1870 recoiled from the prospect of making the Dominican Republic a state.
Those are all things you can think about tonight during a warm summer evening at the ballpark.