You can look at Mexican American history through many lenses. Through labor. Through the law and justice system. Through immigration, education and segregation.
I chose baseball.
As a working journalist for close to 40 years, I wrote about the Mexican American experience from many different angles and perspectives. Then I became familiar with the work of the Baseball Reliquary and its efforts to tell the story of Latino communities through baseball and softball.
It became for me a way to understand – and gain an entry point – into the story of my maternal immigrant grandfather, Jose S. Gonzalez, who nearly a century ago was among the first Mexican managers and players in the San Pedro area where I grew up, part of an explosion of Mexican teams that played each other throughout Southern California.
He was a cannery mechanic – a gifted one – who brewed beer at home, insisted that his children complete high school in the wake of the Depression, and always wore a suit to church on Sundays.
After working as a traquero along the rail lines of the Southwest, an unsettled lifestyle that wasn’t to the liking of his bride, he headed west to California, and the promise of work in the Port of Los Angeles. There Mexican immigrants could find work in lumberyards, shipyards and on the docks. Both men and women found job opportunities, too, in burgeoning fish canneries.
Against a backdrop of discrimination and Depression-era efforts to deport them, they latched on to their slice of the American Dream, contributing with their dollars and their toil to making Los Angeles, California and the Southwest the economic powerhouse we see today. Yet it’s a contribution, and a history, that’s often overlooked in the narratives that are told about the port.
As Kelly Lytle Hernandez wrote in “Bad Mexicans” – her account of how Mexicans in this part of the country helped give birth to the Revolution – “the rise of the American West cannot be understood without Mexicans.” Neither can the rise of San Pedro, Wilmington and the port. Nor can baseball.
I wrote about the first two books produced by the Latino Baseball History Project – “Mexican American Baseball in Los Angeles” and “Mexican American Baseball in Orange County” – when I was doing journalism. The project opened my eyes to the idea of telling community history through the lens of baseball and softball. I began to contribute research and photos.
So, when the opportunity arose to write about San Pedro for the recently published “Mexican American Baseball in the South Bay,” I saw it as an opportunity to write about the community that has been my family’s hometown for a century, and to document the experience of Mexican Americans there.
The South Bay book is the 18th in a series published by the Latino Baseball History Project. The project’s roots lie in an effort by the Baseball Reliquary, which aims to foster an appreciation of American culture through the context of baseball history, to better understand the long history of Mexican Americans with America’s pastime.
It’s a history that has been hidden away. Historians at both the national and local levels have failed in many respects to help us understand the experiences of our early 20th century ancestors. But the old-timers, too, neglected to tell us their stories – perhaps because they believed they were just so unremarkable. And we didn’t ask.
After my grandfather died in 1984, my mother began telling more stories about him, and my understanding of him as a baseball guy took shape. I knew him as an avid fan who could sit for hours listening to Dodgers games on his pocket-sized transistor radio. I was the young grandson who would be volunteered by my parents to go with him to Dodger Stadium for games, and when we couldn’t get tickets to see Koufax pitch, to watch from a nearby hill.
He had an encyclopedic knowledge of players and the games. Where did it come from? My mom’s stories began to answer the question.
He played and managed during an era in the early 1930s when Mexican teams, playing on Sunday afternoons, gave families a chance for an outing. When they helped build community cohesiveness. When they developed a sense of pride and dignity. Baseball even became a vehicle for helping families in need, as when players passed the cacucha to help others, not unlike immigrant mutual aid societies.
You’d see bets on baseball games as high as $300 – big money in those days. “Tilts,” as sports writers called them then, sometimes erupted in fistfights. Mexican teams like the Toltecs, Aztecs and Atlas played local diamonds with the likes of the Filipino Sheiks, the Colored Giants and the Fancy Pants. San Pedro’s Mexican teams played teams from the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Army in a competitive town where teams also arose in Japanese, Croatian and Italian communities. Photos and stories from the community as well as articles reproduced in the book, from English-language newspapers like the San Pedro News-Pilot and well as from La Opinión Spanish-language newspaper, help document the scope of early Mexican American teams.
Pioneering managers created associations, and relationships with each other, that created rivalries from the teams of the South Bay, including Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, Torrance, Dominguez, Inglewood, Hawthorne, Lawndale, Compton, Gardena, Harbor City and Long Beach. Barrio teams throughout Southern California, from LA County to Orange County and from the Ventura area to San Bernardino, became part of the circuit.
They played on established fields, like a playground at Terminal Island and a Navy field near the water’s edge in San Pedro, and built their own, too. George De La Torre, who established a fish cannery that evolved into family-owned Juanita’s Foods, developed a field in the 1930s along Pacific Coast Highway in Wilmington that was known as Rancho Grande, complete with its own concession stand. He managed top teams like the Harbor Merchants, which recruited top players from the port’s towns. In San Pedro, sandlot fields dotted the landscape, including a diamond in a waterfront barrio known as Mexican Hollywood, and another up the hill in La Rambla, where my grandfather Jose settled and recruited players. Fans followed teams by the hundreds, and Mexican bands even provided entertainment.
Many second-generation Mexican American players served in World War II and in the Korean War, and as young fathers became coaches. Athletes like Ernie and Ray Martinez, Andy Lopez and Albert “Lefty” Olguin continued to be involved in sports in long careers devoted to the development of young athletes, both on the field and off.
Women and girls came into their own through softball, too, and an early form of that game known as indoor baseball. Sometimes these players, with team names like the Terminal Island Mermaids, the San Pedro Piratas and the Arco Iris, competed just before men’s games, other times they had their own schedules. Just as men and boys competed in baseball over the next century, so too did women and girls. Among the most recent female athletes whose names are memorialized in the San Pedro Sportswalk are San Pedro High softball star Ashley Esparza, who went on to pitch for Penn State from 2005 to 2008, Mary Star of the Sea multi-sport athlete Sarah Gascon, a 2000 graduate who became a multi-sport standout at Southeastern Louisiana University and with the USA Baseball Women’s National Team, and Victoria Brucker Ruelas, who in 1989 became the first girl to play in the Little League World Series.
And many more told me about how baseball and softball elevated their lives.
Andy Lopez recalls growing up as “just a kid from Pedro,” playing wiffle ball and baseball day and night, often surrounded by great coaches and players. He credits that background with helping him become one of the most successful collegiate baseball coaches in history, with two national championships and two different universities. “It happened because of the game of baseball,” he said. “And the grace of God.”