Baseball player, coach
There will be no plaque for Ozzie Virgil in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The statistics he compiled during his nine-year major league career simply do not qualify him for baseball's great honor. But there is no doubt that Virgil deserves acknowledgement for the firsts that he achieved, even if it is just an asterisk next to his name in the baseball record book. In 1956, he became the first native Dominican to play in the major leagues. Then in 1958—eleven seasons after Jackie Robinson integrated the big leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers—he became the first person of color to play for the Detroit Tigers.
Virgil was born Osvaldo Jose Virgil in Montecristi, Dominican Republic, on May 17, 1933. His family moved to The Bronx, New York, when he was thirteen, and he attended DeWitt Clinton High School. "I did not make the baseball team in high school but did play sandlot ball," he recalled in a 1997 interview with William M. Anderson in Michigan History Magazine. "I played in a Puerto Rican league, which had eight or nine teams." After graduating from high school in 1950, Virgil joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. "They called me up to active duty. I played baseball with the Marine Corps team at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. When I got out, the (New York) Giants gave me a tryout and signed me."
Played in the Minor Leagues
Virgil made his minor league debut in 1953 with St. Cloud, Minnesota, in the Northern League, where he hit .259. In 1954, he upped his average to .291 at Danville, North Carolina, in the Piedmont League. By 1955, Virgil had developed into a highly-touted prospect. Past midseason, he was hitting .309 for Dallas in the Texas League. "It's too early to bring him up, but the Giant front office suspects it has a major league third baseman in the making in Ossie (sic) Virgil…," wrote sportswriter Zander Hollander in 1955 in the New York World-Telegram and Sun. That season, Virgil led Texas League third sackers with a .975 fielding percentage and was named to the All-Star team. He further honed his skills by playing winter ball in Puerto Rico.
After spending the 1956 season with Minneapolis, where he hit .278 with ten home-runs and 73 runs-batted-in, Virgil made his major league debut with the New York Giants on September 23. He appeared in three games, collecting 5 hits in 12 at-bats. More importantly, he was the first Dominican to play for any major league team, predating players from Hall-of-Famer Juan Marichal to Sammy Sosa, Vladimir Guerrero, Albert Pujols, Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, and Miguel Tejada. "The Dominican Republic likely could have sent several players to the major leagues before Ozzie Virgil made his debut in 1956," observed Kathleen O'Brien, writing in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2004, "but racial discrimination was still the norm."
Virgil spent the 1957 season with the Giants. During the campaign, New York World-Telegram and Sun sportswriter Bill Roeder described him as soft-spoken, "a polite, good-looking chap." By then, it had become clear that Virgil was not star material. Roeder added, "As far as we can tell, it's neither Ossie's (sic) fault nor anyone else's that he has such a hard time attracting attention. He seems to be a good ballplayer, but not the kind that makes a big impression."
Before the 1958 season, Virgil was dealt to the Detroit Tigers along with first baseman Gail Harris for infielder Jim Finigan and $25,000. "I was very disappointed when traded to Detroit," Virgil told Michigan History Magazine in 1997. "I thought the Giants needed a third baseman at that particular time. I knew that the Tigers did not have any black players on their roster or had never invited one to spring training. I wondered what they were going to do with me."
Recalled to the Majors
Virgil began the season with the Tigers' Charleston farm club, where he hit .293 and led the American Association with 34 runs-batted-in. On June 5, he was promoted back to the big leagues. The following day, he made his debut against the Washington Senators in the nation's capitol. "I never expected to play in the major leagues this year," Virgil told the Detroit Free Press after his promotion. "I had resigned myself to another year in the minors. Frankly, I'm completely surprised."
The Tigers' front office downplayed Virgil's advancement. "He was the best player available at [third base] in our farm system," team publicity director Neal (Doc) Fenkell told Lawrence Casey of the Michigan Chronicle. "Virgil was promoted on merit alone. As far as we are concerned he will be just another ball player." Nonetheless, his call-up was of utmost significance to Detroit's black community, some of whose leaders were threatening to organize a boycott of Tigers' games because of the team's reluctance to integrate. The Detroit News reported that Virgil's promotion was "received with satisfaction by Negro leaders and fans.…" Virgil's own version of his promotion is more ambiguous. In 1997—almost four decades after integrating the Tigers—Virgil told Detroit Free Press reporter Jodie Valade, that, although warmly received by most Tigers' fans, he was not acknowledged as a "true representative" by the city's black community. "The only thing I didn't like was that the black people in Detroit didn't accept me," he explained. "They thought of me more as a Dominican Republic player instead of a Negro. "If they called me black, fine. If they called me white, fine. If they called me Latino, fine. I didn't care what they called me—I just wanted to play."
Virgil had earned his opportunity with the Tigers, and his Briggs Stadium debut was triumphant. In his first game in the Detroit ballpark, on June 17, he went five-for-five, doubling and singling off Washington Senators' hurler Pedro Ramos and adding three singles off Al Cicotte. After his final hit, the crowd of 29,794 serenaded him with a standing ovation. "In the locker room Virgil accepted congratulations from teammates and visitors with inherent modesty," reported Detroit News sportswriter Sam Greene, who added that the ballplayer "dismissed his effort as a 'good night' and voiced gratitude for his reception by the Detroit public." Virgil often has cited this game as his foremost baseball thrill.
At a Glance …
Born Osvaldo Jose Virgil on May 17, 1933, in Montecristi, Dominican Republic; married Maria Lopez, January 29, 1955; children: three (including Ozzie Virgil, Jr., who played in the major leagues between 1980-1990).
Career: Professional baseball player, 1953-68; played in the major leagues for the New York Giants, 1956-57, the Detroit Tigers, 1958-61, the Kansas City Athletics, 1961, the Baltimore Orioles, 1962, the Pittsburgh Pirates, 1965, and the San Francisco Giants, 1966, 1969; Phoenix (San Francisco Giants' AAA affiliate), player-coach, 1968; San Francisco Giants, coach, 1969-72; held numerous jobs in professional baseball, among them managing winter league teams in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Mexico, coaching for the Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres, and Seattle Mariners, and coaching, scouting, working in player development, and managing in the minor leagues for the San Francisco Giants, 1971–.
Awards: American Association All-Star Team, 1959; voted "Smartest Player" in a poll of International League managers, 1964; voted the Phoenix Giants' most popular player, 1967; Pacific Coast League All-Star Team, 1967.
During the 1961 season, the Tigers traded Virgil to the Kansas City Athletics. He eventually served brief stints with the Baltimore Orioles (for one game), Pittsburgh Pirates, and San Francisco Giants while shuttling between the major and minor leagues. Virgil retired as an active player after the 1968 campaign; he never appeared in more than 96 major league games a season (which he accomplished with the 1957 New York Giants). His big league career lasted 324 games as an infielder, outfielder, and catcher. He collected 174 hits in 753 at-bats for a lifetime batting average of .231.
Began His Coaching Career
Virgil's expertise at teaching the game was acknowledged in 1968 when he became the player-coach of Phoenix, the Giants' AAA affiliate. After that year's campaign, Clyde King, the Giants manager, named him a coach. At the time, he was one of four black coaches in the major league; the others were Elston Howard (New York Yankees), Jim Gilliam (Los Angeles Dodgers), and Luke Easter (Cleveland Indians). There were no black managers or general managers, and few persons of color in major league front offices.
Virgil's hiring was a testament to the high esteem in which he was held by the Giants. "His tutoring of young players and all-round savvy helped the Giants take the West Division championship in 1971," observed Pat Frizzell in The Sporting News in 1974. Charlie Fox, by then the Giants manager, told Frizzell, "We won a lot of games with Ozzie coaching at third." Virgil himself added, "I enjoy managing and I enjoy coaching at third base. You're right in the game there.… I like to work with young players, too, and help them if I can."
Virgil remained with the Giants through 1972. During subsequent decades, he led a nomadic existence as a major league coach, scout, and winter league manager. His early successes included winning pennants managing Aguilas in the Dominican League during 1971-72 and Caracas in the Venezuelan League in 1972-73. He coached for the San Diego Padres against the Detroit Tigers in the 1984 World Series. He also coached in Montreal and Seattle, and managed various teams in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and Mexico. Virgil's son, Ozzie, Jr., a catcher, played in the major leagues from 1980-1990 and, in 2004, his grandson, Oklahoma State outfielder Jose Virgil, was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 18th round of the baseball draft.
With typical modesty, Virgil has downplayed his breaking the color line in Detroit while expressing dismay that so many younger players are unfamiliar with Jackie Robinson. "He gave me the opportunity to make a living in baseball," Virgil told the Detroit Free Press in 1997. "If these kids don't know Jackie Robinson, they're crazy. He opened the game to all of us."
Detroit Free Press, June 6, 1958; June 9, 1958; July 5, 1997.
Detroit News, June 6, 1958; June 18, 1958.
Michigan Chronicle, June 14, 1958.
Michigan History Magazine, September-October 1997, pp. 47-53.
New York Times, April 6, 1969, p. S3; April 15, 1997, p. B15.
New York World-Telegram and Sun, July 26, 1955; September 22, 1956; May 2, 1957.
Sporting News, February 23, 1974.
"Ozzie Virgil," The Ballplayers Historical Biographies, www.baseball-almanac.com/players/player.php?p=virgioz01 (October 13, 2004).
"Ozzie Virgil," Baseball Reference, baseballreference.com/v/virgioz01.shtml (October 13, 2004).
"Ozzie Virgil," MLB, mlb.mlb.com/NASApp/mlb/mlb/stats_historical/mlb_individual_stats_player.jsp?playerID=123736 (October 13, 2004).
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