Island Trailblazer

Ozzie Virgil became first Dominican Republic native to play in big leagues

October 11, 2012
(NBHOF Library)

By Connor O’Gara

Ozzie Virgil Sr. is not remembered for his 14 career home runs and .231 batting average. He isn’t remembered for his ability to play nearly every position on the field. And Virgil isn’t remembered for his 19-year coaching career after his playing days were over.  

That’s because Virgil’s place in baseball history trumps any sort of measurable statistic. 

Virgil was not only the first non-white player to ever suit up for the Detroit Tigers, he was also the first Dominican Republic native to ever play in the major leagues. 

“What it did is similar to what happened with Jackie Robinson,” said Rafael Perez, the Dominican born director of the international development for the New York Mets. “Jackie Robinson was the right person at the right time. The same thing with Ozzie Virgil. 

“Major League Baseball went through changes, and it was a chance and an opportunity to get Latin players. And in that case it turned out to be Ozzie Virgil.” 

Virgil, who also spent time in the Negro Leagues like Robinson, carried a similarly reserved demeanor. The Tigers were the second-to-last big league team to add a non-white player. Despite the lack of diversity on Detroit’s roster when Virgil joined, his teammates did not see his addition as anything more than a baseball move. 

“It wasn’t a big deal to us,” said Hall of Fame teammate Al Kaline. “He was a baseball player – and a good one. That’s all there was to it.” 

Virgil went on to play nine seasons in the big leagues with six different clubs. The only positions Virgil didn’t play in the big leagues were center field and pitcher, which made him a mainstay as a defensive chameleon. While the previous generation of baseball fans might not have appreciated what Virgil did for Dominicans in the big leagues, his followers are well aware of his trailblazing ways. 

“A lot of people didn’t know the significance,” said former Washington Nationals manager and Dominican native Manny Acta. “But it has a lot to do with us. He was the one that took it on the chin for all of us, basically. Because it wasn’t easy to be a minority in the big leagues back then. Ozzie went through hell for us to be reaping the dividends today.” 

Hundreds of Dominican natives have played in the Major Leagues since Virgil’s debut in 1956. Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal got his chance four years later. Current All-Stars like Robinson Cano and Starlin Castro are able to play in the big leagues because of Virgil’s efforts. Without Virgil, baseball as we know it wouldn’t be the same. 

“Everybody in the Dominican Republic knows he was the guy who opened the door,” said Tigers infielder and Dominican native Ramon Santiago. “A very important man.”

Check out bios of other Latin Legends here

Connor O’Gara was the 2012 public relations intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development.

For information on how to apply for the Class of 2013 Steele Internship Program, click here