When Manny Mota was just a 10 year old kid from one of Santo Domingo’s poor neighborhoods, he had the amazing opportunity of watching the Brooklyn Dodgers play in a stadium nearby his house. That’s how Mota, who just turned 79 years old last Saturday, remembers Jackie Robinson for the first time. It was 1948 and Manuel, the boy, had no money to watch the game, nor the small 5-cent fee truck owners were charging to watch from the top of their trucks.Nothing was going to stop him, though. Manuel Mota knew there was a tall mango tree in front of the stadium, and he knew that other kids would have the same idea: climbing the tree to watch the game from there. That’s why he made sure to be there by noon, even though the game was starting at 2pm. “It was a beautiful experience for me, being there since noon, waiting on the mango tree to watch the game. I was a fan of both Brooklyn and Robinson, and by then I was already in love with the game of baseball,” said Mota last week on a special interview for Embracing Diversity.
For Mota, it was very exciting to see one of his favorite teams and his idol Jackie Robinson closer than he will ever get to see them. Or so it seemed then.
Life had other plans…
Born Manuel Rafael Mota Geronimo, a.k.a. Manny, fell in love with baseball playing on the streets of his poor neighborhood in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Like many other Dominican boys, he played without gloves, using only two bases, and with street rules that at times differed with the actual rules of the game. He followed the games and players, and Jackie Robinson was one of them.
As someone who knows about the power of diversity, I truly believe that Jackie Robinson was the reason for Manuel Mota and many other black boys in the United States and the Caribbean to pursue professional baseball as something they could aspire to. Of course, there were other factors in Manny Mota’s upbringing that lead him to become a professional baseball player, things that shaped him and helped him along the way.
“I was very fortunate to receive my education within the Catholic faith,” he said. San Juan Bosco, the Catholic school and church near Mota’s home, provided not only religious guidance for him, but also gave him the first opportunity at playing for an organized team. “We had to attend church, confess and take communion every Sunday in order to be able to play during the week. We had a card that got a stamp after the service and that we had to present to be allow to play,” Mota recalls.
That discipline served him well, especially when he got his first break to play for the Minor Leagues and started to focus in making it into the majors. “Being in the minor leagues was harder than getting into the majors. Back then, the minor leagues had several classifications (D,C,B,A,AA,AAA) that you had to pass before getting into professionalism. I was lucky I played with a good organization like the Giants and when I made it to the United States I was focused on succeeding.”
The Challenges of Discrimination
Getting into the majors was an adjustment for Manny Mota, as it was for many Afro-Latino players of the time. Although segregation had ended 15 years before Mota’s debut in 1962, discrimination was still pretty strong as the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, and segregation outside professional baseball still existed in many public places.
As a Latino player, Mota was focused on the game and ignored the discrimination as much as he could. “I had a goal to get to Major League and I knew there will be many obstacles and I was prepared. I knew that i was in a strange country, with a very different culture and that we had to abide by the laws of that country,” he recalls.
His main focus was baseball, not paying attention to racial discrimination and focusing on following the rules and achieve the goals that he had set for himself as a baseball player. That didn’t make him immune to the reality of the time. “We suffered in our own flesh the way African-Americans were treated. For us it was something new, but we had to adapt to the system,” Mota continued.
During his first year in professional baseball, Mota had Mateo Alou as his teammate and they went through many challenges together. “We experienced many of the same struggles as African-Americans, but we recognized that it was worse for them as they lived here. We were foreigners in the United States and we knew our place and we had to be in our best behavior and avoid getting into any trouble. So, we focused on the game and ignored other things. We were well aware, though,” Mota concluded.
Meeting Jackie Robinson Face to Face
“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” is a famous quote from Jackie Robinson and words the baseball legend truly lived by. During the interview, Manny Mota shared a wonderful moment in his life and his career as a baseball player. An anecdote of the second time he saw Jackie Robinson during his life; this time he not only saw Jackie Robinson, he actually met him and was able to have a few words with him.
When Manny Mota started his baseball career, Jackie Robinson had been retired for 6 years already. He didn’t have the expectation of meeting the idol of his childhood, he was concerned with making it and succeeding. Time went by and fate brought Mota face to face with Jackie Robinson 24 years after that magical afternoon in which Mota, from a mango tree branch, watched the Brooklyn Dodgers play in Santo Domingo, in his neighborhood.
In his own words…
“I saw Jackie Robinson in 1972 before he passed. We were about to have a batting practice and when I looked back, I saw that man with gray hair and long-sleeve white shirt, folded up to his elbows, like he always did. I thought, oh, look, there’s Jackie Robinson, let me go say hi. I went up to him and introduced myself to him. I said, my name is Manuel Mota, please allow me to express my most sincere gratitude, as a Latino, for opening the doors to us in organized baseball. I congratulate you because you were perseverant and your sacrifice wasn’t in vain. You have seen the reward, the results, and we are completely thankful of you. We know you went through difficult moments, of a lot of suffering. On behalf of the Latino players, I want to express my most sincere gratitude.”
When we asked Mota what was Jackie Robinson’s response to that. He reminded us that he was a man of few words.
“He just said: ‘I simply did my duty as a citizen’.
Thanks to my dear friend and colleague Carlos Sánchez, sports journalist from the Dominican Republic for coordinating and interviewing Manny Mota on my behalf. ¡Gracias totales Carlitos!