KANSAS CITY -- Mexican businessman Jorge Pasquel was an innovator and an earlier version of George Steinbrenner. In the 1930s and '40s, he handed out huge contracts and brought top Negro League and Major League players to play in the Mexican League.

The genesis formed a safe haven for Negro League players, created professional baseball's first integrated league and made Pasquel one of the most important persons in the desegregation of Major League Baseball.

John Virtue, the author of the new book, "South of the Color Barrier: How Jorge Pasquel and the Mexican Baseball League Pushed Baseball Toward Racial Integration," detailed Pasquel's role on Saturday.

Addressing a crowd at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Virtue's speech was one of the major events in the weeklong celebration for Buck O'Neil. The museum held several events in honor of O'Neil -- who would have turned 96 on Tuesday -- including paying tribute to Pasquel.

While Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson are considered the most important persons in the integration of Major League baseball, Virtue said Pasquel was a "secondary player," on par with Commissioner Happy Chandler, Kansas City Monarchs' white owner, J.L. Wilkinson, and Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese.

"[Pasquel] showed that black and white players can play together harmoniously," Virtue said.

Pasquel and his four brothers built their fortune by running a penny-ante cigar factory in Vera Cruz, Mexico, and eventually made millions by working for banks, ranches, real estate, steamship lines, General Motors and custom brokers for the Mexican Government.

Pasquel, buffeted by his wealth, turned the Mexican League into an elite baseball organization. The Mexican League, formed in 1924, never posed a threat to the Major Leagues nor had any star players until the late 1930s.

In 1938, Pasquel, who had control of Club Azules de Vera Cruz, landed Satchel Paige, arguably the greatest and most famous pitcher of the Negro Leagues. Pasquel paid Paige $2,000 a month, an incredible amount of money at the time.

"[The Pasquels] were beginning to play a dangerous game of chicken with Major League Baseball," Mark Ribowsky wrote in "Don't Look Back," a biography of Paige. "By elevating the Mexican League -- at the expense of American ball -- the brothers hoped to make their circuit a competing Major League."

"The first stroke would be to use the great black resource ignored by the Major Leagues," Ribowsky wrote. "Then, they would raid the big league teams themselves and field integrated clubs in the name of international baseball."

During the next few years, Pasquel used similar tactics to sign Josh Gibson, Ray Dandridge, Monte Irvin and other top players.

Gibson, possibly the greatest catcher in baseball history, hit .467 with 11 homers and 22 RBIs in 22 games in 1940 and batted .374 with 100 runs and 124 RBIs in 94 games the next season for Vera Cruz.

Gibson's offense paced juggernaut teams that included Willie Wells, Cool Papa Bell, Dandridge, Martin Dihigo, Leon Day, Ramon Bragana, Angel Castro and Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe. The 1940-41 Vera Cruz Blues won pennants and probably could have competed with the best Major League teams of the day.

Pasquel's wealth also helped the Negro Leaguers receive freedoms they never had in the United States. While blacks were treated as second-class citizens in the United States, they were hailed as heroes in Mexico.

"They were branded negroes in the States and had to act accordingly," Wells said. "Everything they did, including playing ball, was regulated by their color."

But Pasquel offered an alternative.

In 1942, Irvin, a Newark Eagles player, approached Effa Manley, the Eagles' owner, about a $25 pay raise from his salary of $165 a month. Manley didn't have the finances to pay Irvin. However, Irvin had received a telegram from Pasquel that offered a significant pay raise, plus a maid and an apartment.

After he talked with Manley, Irvin headed south. He got married, hit .398 and won the Triple Crown. He also received equal treatment.

"It was the best move I ever made," Irvin said Saturday. "They treated everyone the same. 1942 was one of the best years of my life. We were heroes who came from the States."

Dandridge, one of the Negro Leagues' best third baseman, played in Mexico for several years. Manley tried to take Dandridge and Wells back to the Eagles in 1944 by revoking their draft exemptions, but the plan failed and Dandridge returned to Mexico and eventually entered the Mexican Hall of Fame.

O'Neil also played in Mexico. He, like many other Negro Leaguers, didn't speak Spanish well, ordering fish at restaurants by turning his hand sideways and moving it back and forth -- replicating a fish swimming in water.

Even with the language barrier, the Negro Leaguers loved playing in Mexico. One player, Bill Wright, settled in Mexico and only went back to the United States twice.

Wright became a national hero in Mexico, and according to the Negro League Baseball Museum's Web site, "[found] racial discrimination in Mexico to be considerably less pronounced than in the U.S. during the '40s and '50s."

"There was a tremendous brotherhood between the Negro Leagues and Latin America," said Bob Kendrick, marketing director for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

In 1946, Pasquel started his final plan: bringing Major Leaguers to Mexico. He offered huge contracts to big-name stars, including Ted Williams, Bob Feller and Stan Musial.

While those elite names never signed with Pasquel, he still landed plenty of other top players, including New York Giants second baseman George Hausmann, Max Lainer, Vern Stephens and Mickey Owens, the Brooklyn Dodgers' No. 1 catcher. Overall, 27 Major League players signed with Pasquel and many Latinos under MLB's control also headed to Mexico.

According to a 1946 Time Magazine story, Pasquel announced he signed Owens for "enough in five years to retire on." The first 24 games of the 1946 season drew 700,000 fans, who watched the white Major Leaguers, Negro players and Mexicans play against each other in the first integrated league.

And the Negro Leaguers shined. According to Time, after 24 games in 1946, Theolic Smith, a Negro Leaguer from the United States led the league with a .615 average.

"Pasquel improved the quality of the Mexican game by developing a truly democratic, multi-ethnic league in which ability and the open market determined a player's worth," wrote Yale Professor Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria in a 1994 paper on Mexican baseball.

Back in the States, the Pasquels' move to go after big-name big leaguers forced Major League owners to look at integration as a way to keep players from jumping for higher salaries in Mexico.

The Majors finally followed Pasquel's lead and integrated in 1947, but Pasquel kept bringing Negro League players to Mexico. In 1951, he signed his last big name, catcher Earl Taborn, one of the best catchers in the Negro Leagues.

Taborn, like the rest of the Negro Leaguers, enjoyed Mexico and eventually settled in San Antonio. He led the Mexican League in homers and slugging in 1957.

"They had a chance to be real persons, to be considered real persons," Rose Maria Taborn, Ray's daughter, said. "They were always real persons, but to be considered human beings -- I think that made a big difference.

"When my dad went to play there, all of a sudden, he was white, he was an idol. He was a hero. People loved the way he played. They say he was so spicy. Can you imagine the life he had there?"

It was a life that Jorge Pasquel helped provide.