If you’re active on social media, which I’m going to assume you all are to some degree if you’re reading this piece, you may have noticed a new addition to the traditional red, blue, and white Major League Baseball logo.
In keeping with a new campaign, called “Ponle Acento,” MLB has taken the phrase to heart and put an accent on its own logo, to encourage players and fans to do the same.
“Ponle Acento” is a simple phrase for a simple initiative. Plainly translated it means to “put the accent on it,” and that is what this new campaign seeks to do; put accents and tildes on the backs of baseball players’ jerseys and, subsequently, encourage others who write about the sport, in a casual or professional manner, to do the same. It was the brainchild of LatinWorks, an Austin, Texas-based Latino advertising company, working in conjunction with MLB. The press release announcing the campaign noted that its mission is to “highlight the history and excellence of Latinos in MLB,” and that “Ponle Acento” is meant as “an inspiring call-to-action for Latinos to continue leaving their mark on and off the field in our communities.”
The campaign made a splash back in May when Dodgers first baseman Adrián González, a primary supporter, shared a photo of his jersey with the accent and the tag #PonleAcento, and encouraged teammate Enrique “Kiké” Hernández to get the accent on his own jersey.
— Adrián González (@Adrian_ElTitan) May 9, 2016
Roughly, that means that the only things missing after 16 years in the majors has been his accent mark. Hernández then shared a photo of his own, newly accented jersey on both Twitter and Instagram and commented, bilingually, “…so now I invite all my Latino brothers to get their accent.” These photos helped to swirl the campaign into internet relevancy early on in the season, but things didn’t start to gear up until September.
Although Hispanic Heritage Month is nationally recognized as lasting from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, to honor the period when numerous Latin American countries gained their independence, MLB instead devotes the entire month of September to honoring the impact of Latin American players in baseball. During this time there are usually individual team celebrations, such as the Seattle Mariners’ “Salute to Latin American Beísbol Day” and the Kansas City Royals’ “Viva Los Royals Day,” as well as a major league-wide day of remembrance to honor the memory of Roberto Clemente.
This year, on the heels of a new January policy change which officially required all MLB teams to have a Spanish translator on their staff, MLB has increased its involvement with Hispanic Heritage Month by bringing the “Ponle Acento” campaign to the center stage of American baseball. This has most notably included the change in logo, but has also featured numerous teams donning special shirts during batting practice with the accented logo on the front and #PonleAcento on the back.
— Baltimore Orioles (@Orioles) September 15, 2016
It seems like a pretty straightforward initiative, and it is. Innovations in embroidery machinery now make adding diacritical marks much easier and, for those who write about baseball, it requires only a flick of the wrist or two swift keystrokes to “put the accent on it.” However, the presence of this campaign itself carries immense historical significance, and is an important step toward a more progressive professional sports culture.
Before we look ahead, to consider the impact a campaign like this could have on the future, we must first look back to understand the significance of this campaign in the first place. Latin American players have undeniably become a major part of major league baseball, not to mention a strong presence throughout the minor leagues. As of 2016, according to the Major League Baseball Racial and Gender Report Card, Opening Day 25-man rosters included 28.5 percent Latino players. There have even been, albeit incredibly vague, conversations with Commissioner Rob Manfred about the addition of an expansion team in Mexico. The presence of Latinos in baseball is far from a new trend; when we look at the earliest period of baseball in the United States there is almost immediately a Latin American presence.
The origins of baseball itself are a bit convoluted, and subsequently our understanding of baseball’s spread throughout Latin America is somewhat mixed up as well. Shortly after its founding in the United States the game traveled south and, due to geographical proximity, reached Cuba first before expanding throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Though there are no exact dates to be found about the specific arrival of baseball in Latin America, we do know that Cuba’s first professional league was established in 1878, less than a decade after the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed in the United States. The development of professional baseball in the U.S. and in Latin America occurred almost tangentially, and that rich history has enabled Latin American countries to develop strong baseball roots in their own right. However, playing in “Los Mayores” continues to be the ultimate goal for many of those who grow up outside of the U.S.
It is difficult to determine with certainty who the first Latino to play professional baseball was, due to questionable birth certificates and census records. However, among top Latino baseball scholars such as Adrian Burgos Jr., there seems to be a consensus that Esteban Bellán, a Cuban native from an elite family, was the first Latino to play baseball professionally in the United States. Bellán played on the Rose Hill College varsity baseball team in 1868, just as baseball was becoming professionalized, was a member of the Troy Haymakers barnstorming team for two years, then returned to Cuba in 1872.
This information of baseball in its nascent stages highlights just how intertwined professional baseball in the United States is with Latin America, and Latin American players. Baseball in America would not be what it is today without the influence of Latino players throughout history but MLB, and the American media, have been painfully slow in recognizing their impact.
Examples of baseball’s failure to respect and value these Latino players abound in both far-off and recent history. For example, years ago, when sportswriters included quotes from non-native English speakers they would often write them out phonetically, giving the impression that these men were unintelligent, or uneducated. More recently, it has become expected for sportswriters to clean up the quotes of non-native English speakers, and less eloquent native English speakers, but what should have been a problem of the past persists.
As recently as May of this year Carlos Gómez, then-outfielder for the Houston Astros, was quoted in broken English in a critical piece by a Houston Chronicle writer. Many were offended, including Gómez, who fired off a series of tweets to the writer. The Chronicle editor issued a public apology.
Anglicized nicknames abound, often to make it easier for native English speakers to pronounce more challenging Hispanic names; Esteban Bellán was referred to as “Steven” in news pieces, and Topps and O-Pee-Chee baseball cards for Puerto Rican superstar Roberto Clemente referred to him as “Bob” or “Bobby.”
Even Clemente’s Hall of Fame plaque, the first of its kind for a Latino ballplayer, was incorrect. The engraver mistakenly wrote his name “Roberto Walker Clemente” when, in keeping with Latin American tradition, the mother’s maiden name should come at the end. This error was not rectified until 2000. Sometimes the insensitivity is less suble, as in 1961, when San Francisco Giants manager Alvin Dark attempted to prohibit his largely Latino clubhouse from speaking Spanish.
More relevant to the new “Ponle Acento” campaign, it was not until more than a century had passed since Bellán’s debut that the first diacritical mark that uniform experts are aware of appeared on a major league player’s jersey. During that hundred-plus year period few, if any, media members used the appropriate diacritical marks for players’ names. Anthony Salazar, the chair for the Society for American Baseball Research’s (SABR) Latino baseball committee, noted, “The idea of adding accent marks is two-fold: first, you are correctly pronouncing the player’s name, and secondly, you are building awareness to a culture’s proud history. It’s my hope that #PonleAcento is carried into other areas, such as the newspapers’ sports pages and other media.” Salazar also noted that, in conjunction with this campaign, “officials at Topps Company are currently considering the idea of adding the accent marks to baseball player cards, though internal discussions are ongoing.”
Encouraging the addition of these accents does not make up for decades of mistreatment and prejudice, but it is a critical step forward in recognizing, and appreciating, that baseball is not simply just a North American sport. The “Ponle Acento” campaign is a way for MLB, and its players, to celebrate the future and honor the history of Latinos in baseball by leaving a physical mark.
For MLB to make real progress with Commissioner Manfred’s professed drive for increased diversity in hiring there has to be a point where diversity is not simply something acknowledged by upper level executives, but is embraced by all levels throughout the leagues. The “Ponle Acento” initiative seems small, just a mark on a jersey to many, but in the context of history it stands proud in opposition to the pejoratively anglicized nicknames and phoneticized words of the past.
References & Resources
- Craig Calcaterra, NBC Hardball Talk, “MLB Is Encouraging Teams to Put Accent Marks on Players’ Names on Their Uniforms”
- Paul Lukas, ESPN.com, “Uni Watch: A linguistic evolution”
- Akira Okrent, Mental Floss, “Athletes Are Finally Getting Accent Marks On Their Jerseys”
- Adrian Burgos Jr., The Sporting News, “Spanish translators in MLB long overdue”
- Jonathan Blitzer, The New York Times, “Baseball Campaign Puts the Accent on Spanish Names”
- Tides Sport, “Major League Baseball Racial & Gender Report Card (RGRC)”