by: Jon Reischel
Ozzie Virgil was the first Dominican player in the Major Leagues; more than a thousand of his countrymen have followed since.
In Major League Baseball in 2021, there were more players from the Dominican Republic than from any other country in the world except for the United States. In fact, more than 1,000 players from the small Caribbean nation have played in the Majors, according to Baseball Reference. But there wasn’t always a path to the big leagues from the Dominican. Someone had to blaze the trail.
On September 23, 1956, Ozzie Virgil became the first person born in the Dominican Republic to play in the Major Leagues when he started at third base for the New York Giants against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Giants lost that day, but an entire country rejoiced. Less than two years later, Virgil became the first Dominican (and the first person of color) to play for the Detroit Tigers when he took the field against the Washington Senators on June 6, 1958. Unlike the Giants, the Tigers won his debut. But the game of baseball was the real winner – the floodgates had been opened wide by a humble and smart ballplayer who lived and breathed the game he loved.
Just two days after Virgil’s Tiger debut, fellow Dominican Felipe Alou started his big league career with the San Francisco Giants. In 1960, they were joined by Juan Marichal, Julian Javiar and several more Dominicans. The next decade would bring the likes of Manny Mota, Rico Carty, Pedro Borbon and Cesar Cedeno to the league. In time, Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltre, Pedro Martinez, Vlad Guerrero, David Ortiz and hundreds more would establish the Dominican as the greatest inch-for-inch training ground for baseball talent the world would ever see.
And it all started with the man who opened the door. The man who was born in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic and emigrated with his family to the United States when he was 13. The man who dedicated 35 years of his life to the game. The man who is still going strong and will celebrate his 90th birthday next May. From his baseball debut with St. Cloud, Minnesota, in the Northern League in 1953 to his final year as a professional coach in 1988, Ozzie Virgil was the epitome of class, dedication, grit and gratitude.
It’s never easy to be the trailblazer. Ozzie Virgil did it better than anyone. His impact was so profound in his home country, the airport that serves the Monte Cristi Province in northern Dominican Republic is now called the Osvaldo Virgil National Airport. It’s the place where young local ballplayers start their voyages to make their Major League dreams come true. How fitting is that?