The news that Chan Ho Park has signed to pitch for the Yankees got me to thinking about men from other countries who have played in the Bigs. Players from the Spanish-speaking Americas and from the Caribbean have been around the majors for a long time, but the signing of Park shows that there are still frontiers to be crossed: He is the first big-league player to have been born in South Korea — or in any Korea, for that matter.
The first player from outside the United States was probably Andy Leonard, who was a native of County Cavin, Ireland. Leonard broke in in 1876 as a second baseman and left fielder with the Boston Red Caps and appeared with that team until 1878. In 1880 he played shortstop and third base with the original Cincinnati Red Stockings.
Although Leonard was born on the Auld Sod, he was raised in Newark, N.J., and got some of his early playing experience with a club in Irvington. In ’76, when he broke into the majors, five other players from Ireland appeared with major league teams, along with five from England and one from Germany, which means that England and Ireland had more representatives in the big leagues than all but four states of the Union — New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.
Other than the United States, the Dominican Republic has contributed the most players to the Major Leagues — 494 through the 2009 season. Venezuela is second with 246 and Canada is third with 225. Puerto Rico, which is part of the United States, has chipped in with 228.
Considering all the Italian-Americans who have played Major League baseball — not the least of whom were the three DiMaggio brothers — it’s curious to find that there have been only six players who were born in Italy. The first of these was Lou Polli, who was born in Baveno, which is up there in the Piedmont region. Polli pitched a few innings of relief for the St. Louis Browns in 1932 and didn’t appear again until 1944 — a war year in which a lot of guys who otherwise wouldn’t have been in baseball got a crack at it while the regulars were Over There. In ’44, Polli pitched almost 36 innings for the Giants.
The most successful Italian-born player was Reno Bertoia, who might as well have been a Canadian inasmuch as his family moved there when Reno was a year old. He was born in St. Vito al Tagliamento in the comune of Udine, which is near the border of Slovenia. He played in the big leagues from 1953 to 1962, the first six and last two of those years with the Tigers. He was an infielder — a second and third baseman — and he had a lifetime batting average of .244 over 612 games. After he retired from baseball, he was a Catholic-school teacher for 30 years in Windsor.
The Baseball Almanac has a lot of stats about foreign-born baseball players at THIS LINK.