Living History: A Conversation with Ozzie Virgil

History was quietly made on September 23, 1956, when Bill Rigney submitted his lineup card for the New York Giants’ Sunday afternoon home matchup with the Philadelphia Phillies.  Slotted in at third base, in his major league debut, was 24 year old Ozzie Virgil.  And although Virgil wouldn’t record his first major league hit until his second game a week later, he had already made his mark by becoming the first Dominican born player to reach the Major Leagues.

Anthony Simonetti meets with Ozzie Virgil in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic.

Anthony Simonetti meets with Ozzie Virgil in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic.

Osvaldo Virgil was born on May 17, 1932 in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic.  At the age of 13, his family would immigrate to the United States and settle in the Bronx.  Growing up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, Virgil attended DeWitt Clinton High School, graduating in 1950.  Following high school, Virgil joined the US Marine Corps Reserves, and was called up in 1950.  In 1952, after getting out, Virgil was signed by the New York Giants following a tryout.

Virgil would work his way up through the Giants’ minor league system, spending time in St. Cloud, Minnesota; Danville, North Carolina; Dallas, Texas; before spending the 1956 season with Minneapolis, where he hit .278 with 10 home runs.  This play would earn him that late season September call up, and despite his debut being a historical landmark, Virgil arrived to almost no fanfare.

In a recent conversation at the New York Mets’ Dominican Academy in Boca Chica, Virgil recalled his path to the majors, as well as several other anecdotes about his time playing baseball.  When asked who the best player he faced or played with was, Virgil was torn between Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax.  “Both of them had more than just talent, they always wanted to win.  That’s all those guys were focused on back then, winning.”

In nine seasons and 324 games as a professional, Virgil spent time with the Giants (both in New York and San Francisco), Kansas City Athletics, Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates, and was the first non-white player for the Detroit Tigers.  He would slash .231/.263/.331 with 14 home runs, 73 RBIs, 174 hits and 75 runs.  And though Virgil may have produced an otherwise undistinguished -0.5 rWAR, his contribution to the game will never be forgotten.

“I may not have been the most talented, and I may not hold the records or any huge numbers, but I’ll always have a special number: number one!  And I’m glad that I was able to be that person that opened the door for many other Dominicans after me, especially considering there are many others more talented than me.

Since Virgil took the field that fateful Sunday afternoon, 628 other players born in the Dominican have played in the Major Leagues, including Hall of Famers Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez, and notable All-Stars such as Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Alfonso Soriano, George Bell and many others.  Now one of the top producers of Major League talent outside the United States, Virgil’s trail blazing path was much different from modern day Dominicans.

Despite debuting almost a decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Virgil spoke about the struggles of being a non-white player in the 1950s and 60s.  “One of the hardest parts was that we weren’t accepted within the black community, the African-American community.  It was hard being ignored by both the white people and the African-Americans, who didn’t always consider us Latinos as black.  We had to stick together.”

Speaking with Virgil is truly an opportunity to interact with living history, as one of the most influential, and perhaps most forgotten, players in the history of Major League Baseball.  At 83, Virgil still has the spark and energy of a young man, and our afternoon spent with him was truly a powerful moment.  Seeing what Dominican players have today, and hearing from Virgil what players had in the past, gives a true hope that the Dominican game, and the Dominican community, will continue to grow as the years pass.