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Virgil a trail blazer for Tigers

Virgil a trail blazer for Tigers

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Virgil a trail blazer for Tigers
To most baseball fans today, Ozzie Virgil is a relatively little-recognized name. Those who do find it familiar might know the son, a former catcher, more than the father.

To Latin-American players, however, he's a pioneer.

"In Latin America," Ramon Santiago said, "he is like Jackie Robinson."

To the Tigers, he's a pioneer as well.

When Virgil broke into the big leagues with the New York Giants in 1956, he became the first Dominican-born player to make it to the Majors. For that, he's a hero in his native country.

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Two years later, he was traded to Detroit, where he eventually had an altogether different honor. After starting the season at Triple-A Charleston, he got a midseason call to the Tigers. When he took the field wearing the Old English D, he broke the team's color barrier.

Virgil, born in the Dominican but having lived in New York, was not the first African-American to play for the Tigers, a distinction that has been often confused over the years and more often debated for historical purposes. It's a confusion created around a franchise that was later to integrate compared with other franchises; only the Red Sox took longer.

Larry Doby became the first African-American Tiger, playing in 18 games after the Indians traded him to Detroit before the 1959 season. Doby was better known a decade earlier as the first African-American to play in the American League. Virgil, and later Doby, were the figures that allowed the Tigers -- under a new ownership group that included eventual majority owner John Fetzer -- to join the rest of the league.

The Tigers had a procession of prominent African-American players help the franchise to greatness in the 1960s, from Jake Wood to Willie Horton to Earl Wilson and Gates Brown. Somewhere in the years since, Virgil's accomplishment became somewhat overlooked, in part, arguably, because his Tigers career wasn't a long one.

For a generation of players, though, Virgil's career -- including his stint in Detroit -- was significant and groundbreaking. When one considers the influence Latin players have had as Tigers in the decades since, it was vitally important.

"He opened the door for all the Dominican players," Santiago said, "and he got recognized for that a lot in the Dominican. The people recognize that."

After a strong start in the Minors earned the versatile infielder a callup to play regularly at third base, Virgil made his Tigers debut at Washington's Griffith Stadium on June 6, 1958 at the start of a lengthy road trip on the East Coast. By the time the Tigers finally came home, he had played in 11 games in a Detroit uniform in Washington, Boston and New York.

If the start of a Tigers' homestand June 17 was supposed to be a significant day, it wasn't felt that way in the Tigers clubhouse. Hall of Famer Al Kaline, by then a perennial All-Star, recalled last week that it didn't feel like a big deal when it happened. Perhaps it was because so many teams had integrated already.

"I don't remember it [being a big deal]," Kaline said. "Maybe I was naive about it."

It was a big deal for fans. The Tigers drew an attendance of 29,794 that day, twice their normal attendance for a weekday game.

If Virgil wanted to endear himself to the fans at Briggs Stadium, his performance at the plate did it. With a 5-for-5 performance in his opening game, he was welcomed enthusiastically.

"It felt special," Virgil told the Detroit News a few years ago. "I loved Detroit. They were such good people. They treated me nice."

Virgil hit .244 that year with three home runs and 19 RBIs in 49 games. He returned to play 62 games for the Tigers in 1960 before he was traded to Kansas City the next season.

The Tigers didn't forget. When they had their annual Fiesta Tigers celebration a year ago, they welcomed back Virgil, who drew a strong ovation. Among the players to greet him was Santiago, who had the chance to meet him for the first time.

"It was special," Santiago said. "He's one of the guys people really appreciate what he did."

This past offseason, Santiago had the chance to meet Virgil again as part of a Dominican national committee, along with Dominican president Leonel Fernandez. Virgil has spent his retirement in the Dominican, where he continues to serve as an inspiration for players.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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