Hispanic Heritage Month: Mexican-Americans and Baseball

This is a guest post by Ryan Reft, a historian in the Manuscript Division. The post celebrates both National Hispanic Heritage Month and the Library’s ongoing exhibition Baseball Americana.

“I remember traveling to Lake Elsinore, which was a long way in those days. … [T]he only ride we could get was from a friend who hauled fertilizer in his truck, so all the guys crawled inside … and tried not to breath during the ride. By the time we arrived to play well we all smelled like fertilized fields. We did it because we loved the game.”

—Zeke Mejia, June 29, 1996, Press-Enterprise (Riverside, Calif.) 

For Mejia and thousands of other Mexican-Americans in Southern California during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, baseball served as a means both to demonstrate their belonging in the United States and to assert their unique identity. In Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties, Mexican-American teams dotted the landscape, creating a human geography of social, economic and political connections that helped buoy working-class communities, and even contributed to unionization efforts amid widespread discrimination, writes historian Jose M. Alamillo. For these players, referred to as “peloteros,” baseball clubs provided the critical foundation for larger collective action.

Members of the Los Hermanos Peloteros Team in Los Angeles, 1932. Courtesy Shades of L.A. Photo Collection / Los Angeles Public Library.

Although the game first reached Mexico in the 1860s, it didn’t gain traction there until the dictatorship of Porfiorio Díaz, beginning in the 1870s. Under Diaz, the government encouraged industrialization and foreign investment. Predictably, American capital poured into northern Mexico; soon after, following U.S. railroad and mining expansion, baseball reached the nation’s more remote central and western regions.

U.S. investors and “Porfirian liberals” saw baseball as a useful means by which to introduce modern industrial values, such as teamwork and self-discipline, to the Mexican lower classes. Similarly, American companies operating in northern Mexico and Southern California viewed baseball as a vehicle for spreading industrialization and capitalism, particularly regarding the work habits of laborers.

By the 1920s, Mexican and Mexican-American labor occupied a critical, if underappreciated, place in the economies of California and the U.S. southwest. The rhetoric of the day described Mexicans in derogatory terms – even immigration advocates justified the migration of Mexican labor in racist terms.

A Mexican laborer works in a field planted with cantaloupes in California’s Imperial Valley, 1937. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

While agricultural growers like Sunkist encouraged baseball clubs among their Mexican and Mexican-American workers to ensure workplace discipline and efficiency, peloteros competed for very different reasons. Teams like the Corona Athletics, the Oxnard Aces and the La Habra Juveniles, to name a few, helped to build community amid the segregated landscape of 1930s Southern California.

Teams sprouted from sports clubs, mutual-aid organizations, churches and even businesses. Organizations like the Asociacion Deportiva Hispano Americana and La Asociacion Atletica Mexican del Sure de California, formed in 1932 with help from the Los Angeles Department of Recreation, promoted the sport among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. La Asociacion Atletica even formed a new baseball league, Liga Mexicana de Sur de California (Southern California Mexican Baseball League), which included over 15 amateur and semipro squads, including the El Paso Shoe Store Zapateros, the Oxnard Aces, La Habra Juveniles, Carta Blanca Cerveceros, Hermosa Mexican Club Pescadores, Santa Paula Limoneros, Placentia Merchants and the Corona Athletics.

Mexican-American businesses also staked a claim to the burgeoning sport. Hoping to capitalize on the growing Mexican and Mexican-American community in 1948, Mario Lopez and his partner Francisco “Pancho” Sornoso opened the Carmelita Provision Company in Los Angeles, a factory that marketed popular Mexican pork to Mexican-Americans.

Carmelita boomed. Soon Lopez founded the Los Chorizeros (“The Sausage Makers”), a team that would become the “New York Yankees of East Los Angeles.” One of the team’s many highlights was its victory in the 1961 Los Angeles City Final.

For some players, baseball provided a break from the numbing labor of agricultural fields and citrus groves; for others, it functioned an expression of identity and community; for still others, it served as a means for organizing workers.

Mexican field laborers on strike in Bakersfield, Calif., in 1938. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

Labor militancy worried growers. World War I had threatened agricultural interests, as unionization began to gain adherents nationwide. Recreation programs were seen as antidote to such “radicalism.” The Los Angeles Department of Recreation often pointed out that baseball’s ideals of “good sportsmanship, fair play, team work, clean living, and plant loyalty” promised to create a “spirit of cooperation between employer and employee.”

Yet the experience of Mexican-American peloteros encouraged labor solidarity and ultimately promoted unionization among agricultural workers in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Numerous ballplayers emerged as labor leaders and organizers, including several members of the Corona Athletics, who served as organizers for the United Cannery Agricultural Packing and Allied Workers of America. And many former Chorizeros, in addition to becoming educators, professors and community leaders, worked on political campaigns.

Likewise, political leaders and activists attended games, as did leaders of Mexican-American organizations and veterans groups. As Francisco E. Balderrama and Richard A. Santillan assert in “Mexican American Baseball in Los Angeles,” baseball, much like family and religion, served as the “institutional thread that united community.”

Following Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League Baseball in 1947, several Mexican and native-born players of Mexican descent, all plying their trade in the Southern California league, received opportunities to compete in the minor leagues. Even California-born Mexican-Americans got into the act – San Gabriel Valley native Hank Aguirre signed with the Detroit Tigers in 1951.

Today, baseball’s place among Mexican-Americans might not be as dominant as it once was. Without doubt, however, baseball played a central role as the Mexican-American community expanded, fostering cultural identity among one of the nation’s fastest-growing populations.

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