Breaking a Barrier

Photo courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

From the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum's Cooperstown Chatter Blog

Baseball may be regarded as America’s Pastime, but in baseball-crazed Puerto Rico, the sport is the past, present and future.

Prior to 1942, however, no native Puerto Rican had played at the major league level in the United States.

Hiram Bithorn made history as the first player from Puerto Rico to play Major League Baseball. As pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, Bithorn debuted April 15, 1942.

Wednesday, July 3, Karl Bithorn, Jr. – whose great great uncle was Hiram – visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Director of Research Tim Wiles showed Bithorn around the Hall’s Giamatti Research Center.

Karl reflected on his great great uncle’s accomplishments. Following in Hiram’s footsteps, Karl too had baseball in his blood. He went on to play college ball at State University of New York-Ulster and Bacone College. “When I was old enough to walk, I remember my dad throwing socks to me and I had a coat hanger in my hand and would swing and hit the socks,” Karl said. “I have been playing baseball my entire life.”

Karl calls Cooperstown home in the summer, as he has joined the coaching ranks with the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League’s Cooperstown Hawkeyes. “My playing days are over now, so now I’m in the coaching scene,” Bithorn said. “I’ve had the privilege of coaching the collegiate summer league here in Cooperstown, which is unbelievable. I started at an early age and plan on staying in baseball as long as I can.”

Karl’s great great uncle opened the door for a whole nation of baseball talents. Since his debut in 1942, over 200 Puerto Rican players have played at the MLB level.

“[Being related to Hiram Bithorn] means a lot. To have somebody that is a relative of yours to open the floodgates – so to speak – to now probably over [200] ballplayers in the major leagues is definitely significant,” Bithorn said. “It’s someone that I look up to even though I was never fortunate to meet him. Knowing that I’m related to someone that was the first – there’s only one first – so that’s unbelievable. It’s a great feeling.”

Overall Hiram Bithorn played four years in the MLB – three with the Chicago Cubs and one season with the White Sox. He won 34 games while posting an ERA of 3.16.

To honor hometown hero Hiram Bithorn, the municipality of San Juan built and dedicated a baseball stadium in his name – Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Since 1962, the stadium has hosted MLB games, Puerto Rican league baseball games and most recently rounds of the World Baseball Classic. The stadium pays homage to the memory of Bithorn and the sacrifice he made by enduring all the trials and criticism against Latin players, while paving a way for all Puerto Ricans that dream to play in the major leagues.

“He definitely a footprint left in the baseball world. To me, it means a lot,” said Karl.

Andrew Kivette is the 2013 public relations intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development.

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