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December 20, 2023 25 mins

There’s no shortage of sports teams that change cities or names over the course of their franchise history. But what about the teams that just cease to exist? Perhaps no team story packs more drama into one year of existence than that of Los Dragones de Ciudad Trujillo. It’s a story that combines one of the most celebrated names in baseball history with one of the biggest names in twentieth-century dictatorship. This special episode comes from the audiobook edition of Mobituaries. You can learn more here: http://bit.ly/MoAudio

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Speaker 1 (00:03):
Hi, it's mo. When I first came up with the
idea from obituaries in twenty eighteen, it was clear that
sticking only with dearly departed people would be too easy.
The fun part was coming up with concepts, countries, things
that had never gotten a sendoff. I mean, things rarely
get obituaries right. The idea of a defunct sports team

(00:26):
was one of the first non human entities that sparked
my imagination back when I was eight. During that brief
stretch when I decided I wanted to play soccer, my
ever indulgent parents took me to see the Washington Diplomat's
soccer team play the New York Cosmos, both teams no
longer with us. The only thing I remember from the

(00:46):
game is that the great Pele played for the Cosmos,
and Peley wasn't just a great player, he went by
one name like Cher. I never actually ended up playing soccer.
For the podcast, we considered doing an episode on ice
hockey's Hartford Whalers, and we still may. They have some

(01:07):
super fans step forward to convince us why we should.
And yes, I know, the team didn't technically die, It
just moved south to become the Carolina Hurricanes, but the
logo they had in Hartford was fabulous. Ultimately, my co
author on the Mobituary's book, Jonathan Greenberg, suggested we devote
a chapter to a team that lasted less than a

(01:30):
year but packed in more drama than the New York
Jets have in their franchise history. Did I get that right?
This story includes one of the most celebrated names in
baseball history. It also includes one of the biggest names
in twentieth century dictatorship. It's a whale of a tale.

(01:50):
That one's for you, Hartford. I'm Morocca and this is Mobituaries,
This moment death of a sports team, Los Dragones de
Siuda Trujillo, nineteen thirty seven to nineteen thirty seven. If

(02:26):
you don't think of me as a sports guy, I
get it. You'll hear the mobit for my short lived
baseball career at the end of this chapter. I'm not
obviously athletic, although I can do a one handed cartwheel
with a glass of water in my free hand without
spilling a drop. But I love drama, and sports is
guaranteed drama. The sides are always clear. You've got winners,

(02:49):
You've got losers, heroes and villains. I was eleven years
old when the Americans yay, defeated the Soviets oooh in
ice hockey at the Lake Platte Olympics. I've heard that
the movie Miracle, which depicts that event, is terrific. I'm
sure it is, but I don't need to see it.
I can remember the thrill of the Miracle on ice

(03:11):
as it happened. Actually it was on tape delay. And
if you happen to grow up in the Washington, DC area,
as I did, you may remember that our local news
anchor actually announced the final score during a commercial break
in the middle of the game. I'm pretty sure she
had to go into the witness protection program after that.

(03:33):
Even better, I like drama with big personalities. So a
story about one of baseball's all time great pictures and
a bloodthirsty Latin American dictator set in the nineteen thirties
on an island nation. I'm in Leroy Satchel Page was
born on July seventh, nineteen oh six, one of eleven

(03:54):
children born to a poor African American family in Alabama.
He started work at a young age carrying bags at
the mobile train station for a dime apiece. He realized
he could make a lot more money if he strung
all the satchels on a pole and carried them in
a single trip. That's how he earned his famous nickname.

(04:15):
Black players were barred from Major League Baseball starting in
eighteen eighty four, shortly after Toledo's Moses fleetwood Walker became
the first African American to play pro ball. You'll hear
about him later. The ban wouldn't be lifted until nineteen
forty seven, the year Jackie Robinson became a Brooklyn Dodger.
So In nineteen twenty six, at the age of nineteen,

(04:38):
the tall and sinewy Page tried out for the all
black Chattanooga White Sox, reportedly throwing with such accuracy that
he could from the mound knock over soda bottles lined
up on home plate. Page became known not just as
the hardest thrower around, but also the most creative. He

(04:59):
was a showman on the mound with his high leg kicks,
and off the mound, he became known for his homespun wit.
His later six rules for staying young included avoid fried
meats which angry up the blood. Makes sense to me
over a forty year career, Satchel Page would become one
of history's most beloved players. One of the few Negro

(05:22):
League players known to white fans during baseball's long segregated era,
Page knew how good he was. He would tell his
fielders to sit down on the grass behind him while
he struck out the opposing team. Joe DiMaggio, who batted
against Page in an exhibition game in nineteen thirty six,
called him the best he'd ever faced. In nineteen thirty one,

(05:45):
he signed with the Pittsburgh Crawfords, one of the greatest
Negro League teams ever assembled, arguably one of the greatest
baseball teams ever. Page's teammates eventually included cool Papa Bell,
the fastest man in baseball. Page one said that Bell
could turn off the lights and jump into bed before

(06:06):
the room got dark, and the great catcher Josh Gibson,
the Black Babe Ruth, who was estimated to have hit
more than eight hundred home runs in his career. The
team's owner, Gus Greenley, was a larger than life figure.
A machine gunner in the trenches of France during World
War One. The six foot two mixed race Greenley came

(06:28):
back with shrapnel in his left leg, but that didn't
stop him from running bootleg whiskey to speakeasies. His sprawling
numbers racket basically in illegal lottery, earned at its height
twenty five thousand dollars a day. Naturally, he opened his
own nightclub and used the profits to buy off police

(06:48):
and politicians and provide loans to black people who had
been rejected by white owned banks. With his outsized personality,
wealth and charm, he dominated Pittsburgh politics, music, business, and sports.
Greenlee financed the first stadium built exclusively for a black

(07:09):
ball club, Greenlee Field and what else would he call it?
Even installing lights. For six years, the Pittsburgh Crawfords dominated
the Negro National League, but the end was in sight.
The depression was eroding the Negro League's financial foundation, and
state attorneys general were cracking down on numbers running. Greenlee

(07:31):
faced a handful of indictments, and he could not be
as free with the salaries as he had been. In
such a climate, The cross with a roster for the
ages assembled by rating. Other Negro League teams were themselves
raided the man who stole their talent. General Lissimo Raphael Trujillo,
the brutal strong man who had taken control of the

(07:54):
Dominican Republic in nineteen thirty. If there were a Hall
of Fame for bloodthirsty dictators, Trujillo would be voted in
unanimously on the first ballot. As a boy, he had
collected shiny metal bottle caps to pin on his shirt
in imitation of a military leader. He began his rise

(08:15):
to power by serving in a street gang, and then
worked as the paid muscle for the wealthy owners of
sugar plantations. After he forced Orasiovaskez from power. Trujillo, then
a general, won the election of nineteen thirty with an
impressively high ninety nine point two percent of the vote,
although the numbers are somewhat less impressive once you learn

(08:37):
that all the other candidates withdrew because of death threats
from Trujillo's goons. Once in power, he renamed the country's
capital city of Santo Domingo Siudad Trujillo. He renamed the
country's tallest mountain, Pico Trujillo. He renamed the province of
San Cristobal Trujillo Province. He made his three year old son,

(09:00):
Ramphis a colonel. To be clear, a three year old
in military uniform is kind of cute on Halloween. Trujillo
later did allow an opposition party to organize such a
policy he believed made it much easier to identify and
murder his political enemies. The story of how Page came
to play for Trujillo is told in Avril Ace Smith's

(09:23):
terrific book The Pitcher and the Dictator. Trujillo himself was
not much of a baseball fan, but he knew that
the Dominican people loved the game, and he thought a
successful team would be good for public relations. During the
upcoming pseudo election of nineteen thirty seven, he directed a
diminutive dentist named Enrique Ibar to form Lostragonos des Sioudad

(09:48):
Trujillo the Trujillo City Dragons. The goal was to defeat
the reigning Island Champs Lasestreas Orientales of San Pedro the
San Pedro Eastern Stars, with Trujillo bankrolling him. Eyebar traveled
to New Orleans in the winter of nineteen thirty six,
where Page was training. Iebar offered Page a contract of

(10:10):
thirty thousand dollars, a ridiculous sum to a player who
was receiving a few hundred a month from Greenley. Page
knew he was underpaid in the Negro leagues. That bunch
would hold on to a dollar bill until Old George
screened in pain, he said of the Negro League owners.
What's more, he was tired of the segregation he faced

(10:31):
when playing in the South, where it could be hard
to find a restaurant or hotel, or even a gas
station that would serve black people. Page took the money
with one condition. He insisted on bringing his catcher, Cy Perkins.
The two became the toast of Siudad Trujillo and were
soon joined by other Negro League stars. The American players

(10:53):
were thrilled with the music, the food, the beer, and
what Ace Smith discreetly calls las casas deccika us. Page
was not one for monogamy. The story goes that he
was once served with divorce papers on the bound at
Wrigley Field. Never be unfaithful to a lover, except with
your wife, he equipped. Satchel and Cy had the money

(11:15):
to enjoy it all, and not a single establishment was
closed to them because of the color of their skin.
In Trujillo's dictatorship, they had more freedom than they'd had
at home in the States. But Page's first outing was
rougher than expected. He gave up six runs in five innings.
Soon enough, a pseudonymous newspaper column suggested that stricter off

(11:37):
the field control of the high paved players was needed.
The late nights and sleepy mornings were catching up with
the American stars. At the same time, the two other
Dominican clubs there were just three teams on the island
were bringing in their own ringers from stateside. The president
of one of those clubs flew to Pittsburgh to court

(11:58):
Greenley's remaining stars. Greenley, already in a rage over the
defection of Page, had the visitors arrested by his friends
in the Pittsburgh Police Force. Alas, unlike Trujillo, he lacked
the power to imprison people who hadn't committed any crime,
and the Dominicans were released. Back in the dr Satchel's
performance improved, but his team was still struggling. Another article

(12:22):
in Trujillo's state sanctioned newspaper called for a curb on
the licentiousness of the American players, whose reckless lifestyle was
undermining the team's success. The head of Trujillo's death squads
was put in charge of discipline, and armed thugs became
constant companions of Satchel and the Americans, shadowing them wherever

(12:44):
they went. Bars in nightclubs were off limits. No store
owner would sell them whiskey. As for the casastchkas no chance.
Evenings instead were spent playing long games of cards at
the hotel. Even team practices lost to their casual, playful air.
I started wishing of his home when all those soldiers

(13:07):
started following us around everywhere we went, and even stood
out in front of our rooms at night, wrote Page
in his autobiography. The new regiment of chastity and sobriety
may have been less fun, but it worked wonders on
the field. By the time the playoffs came around, Page
was sporting a six one record. Los Dragonez defeated Lasstreas

(13:29):
for the championship eight to six. Page really couldn't afford
to let the team down. As he later recalled, he
was terrified of failure, thinking the whole time about the
line of Trujillo's soldiers arrayed on the edges of the field,
knives and guns tucked into their belts clearly visible. The
championship trophy was presented to Trujillo's son, Colonel Raphael L.

(13:52):
Trujillo Martinez, now all of eight years old. This remarkable season, however,
rang the death knell for the Dragones. The Dominican clubs,
for all the excitement of the season, had essentially bankrupted
themselves with their spending sprees, and the entire league was disbanded.

(14:16):
Satchel and the other American players collected their winnings and
moved on. Banned from the Negro leagues for defecting and
unable to play for Major League Baseball, page and the
others had no option but to barnstorm the nation, sporting
the pinstripes of Los Dragones, billing themselves as Trujillo's All Stars,

(14:36):
even defeating the National Negro League All Stars at Yankee
Stadium in September nineteen thirty seven. Eventually, the National Negro
League rescinded its lifetime bans of Satchel and the other defectors.
He continued to pitch, despite age and some injuries. With
the death of Major League Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Landis in

(14:57):
nineteen forty four, the time was right for integration of
the major leagues, and Jackie Robinson broke the color line
in nineteen forty seven. The next year, Page signed with
the Cleveland Indians, helping them to win the World Series
they haven't won since. The forty two year old Page
was the oldest rookie in Major league history. He played

(15:20):
for five years in the majors, was twice named an
All Star, and even made a return appearance pitching three
scoreless innings for the nineteen sixty five Kansas City As
at age fifty nine. Yes, that's right, at age fifty nine.
It's great to watch Satchel Page and TV appearances from

(15:40):
the nineteen sixties and seventies, adored by the panelists on
What's My Line and tossing a ball with host Steve
Allen on I've Got a Secret. Dick Cavitt invited him
on in nineteen seventy one, shortly after Page became the
first negro leaguer to be voted into Baseball's Hall of Fame.
Page is five and gracious, even pretending to be charmed

(16:02):
by fellow guest Salvador Dali, who brought along his pet
ant eater. When Cavit asks Page, how good the players
in the Negro leagues were, he answers, Back in those days,
they had a lot of Satchel Pages. There wasn't just one.
I just pitched more than everybody else back then. I'm
as old as Methuselah, he says, as if to suggest

(16:24):
that his longevity, rather than his great talent, is the
main reason he's remembered. In the last of his six
Rules for Staying young, he wrote, don't look back, something
might be gaining on you. Page had outlasted Greenley, who
died in nineteen fifty two, and the tyrant Trujillo, who
was assassinated in nineteen sixty one, and the fabulous, if

(16:47):
short lived teams on which he had starred. The owners,
the teams, and the leagues themselves passed on, but Satchel
Page himself seemed to just keep going. And other teams
you can't root for anymore. The Philadelphia SPAZ nineteen seventeen

(17:08):
to nineteen fifty nine. The letters stand for South Philadelphia
Hebrew Association, founded by Eddie the Mogul Gottlieb in nineteen eighteen.
The Spas dominated basketball back when it was referred to
as the Jewish game because it required, in the words
of one New York postwriter, an alert, scheming mind and

(17:30):
flashy trickiness. The Svas dominated the American Basketball League in
the nineteen thirties and forties, winning seven titles in thirteen years.
Stars included household names such as Harry Litwack, Csy Caselman,
Moe Goldman, Irv Torgoff, Red Wolf, Max Poznak, and perennial

(17:52):
MVP candidate Shikey Gottoffer. But the demographics of basketball, always
an urban game at heart, were all ready changing. The
Great Migration was bringing millions of African Americans to the
cities of the North, while Jews were moving their families
to the suburbs. Gottlieb sold the Spas to Red Klotz,

(18:12):
a former player, who refashioned them the Washington Generals, a
traveling opponent for Abe Saberstein's Harlem Globetrotters. For the next
forty four years, they served as stooges for the world's
most famous exhibition club. Gottlieb meanwhile founded the Philadelphia Warriors
of the NBA, signed a kid named Wilt Chamberlain and

(18:34):
never looked back. The New Jersey Generals nineteen eighty three
to nineteen eighty five. In nineteen eighty three, the upstart
United States Football League put the formidable National Football League
on notice, paying big salaries for high profile stars, including

(18:54):
Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker and future Hall of Famer
Jim Kelly. The next year, a New York real estate
baron named Donald J. Trump joined the league, buying the
New Jersey Generals for about nine million dollars. I could
have bought an NFL team, he said to The New
York Times. Is iraburke ou At the time. I feel
sorry for the poor guy who's going to buy the

(19:16):
Dallas Cowboys. He continued. It's a no win situation for
him because if he wins, well, so what they've won
through the years. And if he loses, which seems likely
because they're having troubles, he'll be known to the world
as a loser. Within two years, the USFL collapsed and
Trump ended up twenty two million dollars in the red.
The Cowboys are currently worth five billion dollars. The Washington

(19:43):
Senators eighteen ninety one to nineteen seventy one, the Washington
Senators baseball team died three times. The first Washington Senators
played from eighteen ninety one to eighteen ninety nine. We
know little about them except that they were awful. In
nineteen hundred, the team folded, but when the American League

(20:05):
was founded in nineteen oh one, the Senators were reborn.
They were awful, too, losing so much that in nineteen
oh four sportswriter Charles Dryden equipped Washington first in war,
first in peace, and last in the American League. On
the bright side, their historic ineptitude inspired the musical Damn Yankees,

(20:25):
in which a Senator's fan sells his soul to the
devil in exchange for a World Series victory. That's the
show where Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon met. Now that's
a team. In the nineteen fifties, as franchises began moving westward,
owner Calvin Griffith vowed the team would remain in Washington forever.

(20:46):
He decamped with the team from Minnesota two years later.
Senators three point zero, hastily assembled at the behest of
President Eisenhower, lasted only a decade. Their last game was
a riot on September thirtieth, nineteen seventy one, The Senators
were leading in the top of the ninth when irate
fans stormed the field and stole home. They also stole first, second,

(21:11):
and third, grabbed handfuls of the infield grass, and ran
off with the bat boys' chairs. When the umpires couldn't
clear the field, the game was ruled a forfeit. Maurice
Raca's Little league career nineteen seventy nine to nineteen seventy nine,
as reported by my older brother, Lawrence Raca, I don't

(21:34):
remember if the opponent was Blessed Sacrament or Saint Camillas
or our Lady of Lords. What matters is that the
nineteen seventy nine Little Flower Midget be baseball team was
being humiliated once again, this time in its final game,
another blowout in a last place and soon to be
mercifully completed Catholic Youth Organization season. The culprit this time

(21:57):
was the hulking fourth grader batting clean up up for
the other team. He'd already crushed two Titanic homers before
coming to bat with the bases loaded in the top
of the seventh. Sitting on the hill with the rest
of the tiny crowd at Bethesda, Maryland's Westmorland Park. My
parents and I leaned forward in nervous anticipation. The infielders

(22:18):
retreated to the edge of the outfield grass and panicked
self defense. Maurice, who was usually on the bench, betrayed
no feelings in center field, where he was safe at
least from decapitation. A head taller than the rest of
the players, slugger swung violently, sending a towering fly to left,
eliciting ooze, and as before, it hooked and landed harmlessly foul,

(22:42):
just beyond the left fielder's stumbling, tumbling reach. Again and again,
this happened, the ooze and oz turning to laughs a
fourth time, then a fifth. Another soaring fly ball, another
round of expectant laughter, building toward crescendo, suddenly stifled by
a blur, a near collision, and the longest split second

(23:05):
of silence in Cyo history. It was Maurice, running full
speed from center past left. At the last possible instant,
he thrust his gloved left hand to the absolute limit
of his reach, his body at a perfect forty five
degree angle to the ground, just the tippy toes of
his right foot, touching like mercury with a Paul Blair

(23:27):
autographed Wilson. The ball stuck to his palm like belcrow
as his momentum nearly sent him into a cartwheel, and
it stayed in his glove as the crowd erupted in
wild cheers, and the entire last place nineteen seventy nine
Little Flower Midget Bee baseball team ran out and mobbed
him on the spot. It took three minutes for the

(23:48):
umpire to restore order and send everyone back to their positions.
My brother was not a great baseball player, nor a
particularly enthusiastic one. He knew early on that his first
season of cyo baseball would be his last. But what
he lacked in love and skill for the game he
made up in fidelity to two foundational rules. Always hustle

(24:11):
and always back up your teammates. As far as improbable
defensive heroics go, you can have the big money stakes
of Derek Jeter's playoff flip or the perfect cinematography of
Lupas's Bad News Bears miracle. I'll take the one that
jumped right off the pages of Joseph Campbell that day
at Westmoreland Park, I hope you enjoyed this Mobituary. Be

(24:42):
sure to check out Mobituary's Great Lives Worth Reliving, the
New York Times best selling book, now available in paperback
and audiobook. It includes plenty of stories not in the
podcast special thanks to Jonathan Greenberg and Jonathan carp, Richard Rarer,
and Chris Lynch at Simon and Schuster. You can listen

(25:04):
to our final episode of the season in the new year.
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