Pedro Sierra, 81, left his native Cuba in 1954 — then just 16 — with the opportunity to follow what he describes as the only thing he’d ever dreamed of — to play professional baseball.
It would mark the beginning of a memorable, 22-year career for the talented right-hander after being signed by the Indianapolis Clowns and joining a legacy of pioneers who made up the Negro Leagues.
Before a worldwide pandemic shutdown sports, Major League Baseball had planned to use Tuesday, June 29, as a celebration and tip of the cap to the Negro Leagues which began 100 years ago. But even COVID-19 could not keep fans of the game and those eager to express their admiration for great players of the past, including former President Barack Obama, from using social media to “tip their cap” as a means of respect.
The Negro National Leagues would serve as the first organized baseball leagues for Black men, established 27 years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. And despite economic hardships, prejudice and racism, those teams, their players and coaches somehow persevered.
Sierra represents one of the hundreds of men who found a home in the Negro Leagues as well as an opportunity to showcase their prowess in the sport that has emerged to become not only a popular sport but a cultural phenomenon — with few things, as the saying goes, “being more American than baseball and apple pie.”
After playing for the Clowns from 1954 to 1955, Sierra joined the Detroit Stars. He played in the Canadian Provincial League, the Mexican League, in the Dominican Republic and played for two stints in the Washington Senators’ system — even serving in the U.S. Army during his colorful 22 seasons on the mound.
He left baseball in 1976 and worked for the Montgomery County Department of Recreation for 25 years where he implemented a program, Get High on Sports, during which he took youths to Baltimore Orioles games where he connected the boys with his friends from his days on the mound. The children would sometimes meet with players during practice, meet them while in the stands and hear inspiring words aimed at keeping them away from drugs and focused on education and sports.
Today he lives in New Jersey with his brother and for the past nine years, he’s honored a commitment with Major League Baseball traveling to fan fests where he signs autographs, talks about his years in the Negro Leagues and talks with youth who hope to make professional baseball their career one day.
He’s currently working on a book, his biography, which he says will be titled, “You Are What You Wanna Be, Not What You Can Be” — something that his father, a famous boxer, often said to him.
“I have to thank Jackie Robinson both for his resiliency and for enduring so much hardship but never giving up or giving in,” Sierra said. “Because of him, I was able to fulfill my dream to become a professional baseball player. It was something that I promised my mother when I was just a teenager and I kept that promise so that she would not have to work anymore.”
“In the early days, we traveled all over the U.S. and we took a bus. The older guys mentored those like me who were young. They taught us the ropes and looked out for us. I was fortunate because when I came to America, I already spoke English, having learned it in school back in Cuba. But there were plenty of setbacks and disappointments. One day you’d be playing with a team and then you’d be looking to sign a new contract somewhere else. It didn’t matter to me — I just wanted to play baseball.”
“I have always felt honored to represent the Negro Leagues and there were some really tremendous players who played. I could name so many men who helped me during my career — and there were a lot who were really good men and wanted to see me, and others, do well. Men like Ted Williams, Oscar Charleston, Joe Cambria, Poppa Joe, Pedro Roberts — they opened doors or made introductions that would help me find my way.”
“Sometimes, I let my Cuban temper get in my way, but for I learned to keep it under control, most of the time anyway. I recently pulled a baseball card out designed by Tops that showed me in my youth. I keep it close to my heart. Those were some great days with some great men — great players. And one thing we all shared was a profound love for the game of baseball. Baseball changed my life and changed it for the better.”