Working to Play, Playing to Work: Mexican American Baseball and Labor in Southern California
"I remember traveling to Lake Elsinore, which was a long way in those days," reminisced Zeke Mejia in 1996. "But the 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." 1
For Mejia and thousands of other Mexican Americans laboring in Southern California during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, baseball served as a means to at once demonstrate belonging in the United States, while simultaneously asserting their own identity. In Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside counties, Mexican American baseball 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.
"Mexican Americans used baseball clubs to promote ethnic consciousness, build community solidarity, display masculine behavior, and sharpen their organizing and leadership skills," reflected professor Jose M. Alamillo, from Cal State University at Channel Islands, in 2003. For these players, referred to as peloteros, baseball clubs provided the critical foundation for larger collective action. 2
Of course, sport as an organizing principle for immigrant and minority communities has been a frequent topic in Intersections. Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino Americans used sport, notably baseball and basketball, to suture bonds between far flung communities and define identities, in opposition to dominant stereotypes and racialization, on their own terms.
For Mexican Americans, baseball played a similar role from the 1920s through the 1960s. Once again, sport's multiple and often divergent meanings bound and rebound from group to group, shaped by economic and social conditions specific to location, ethnicity, and the surrounding politics and institutions.
Today, when we think of Latino baseball players, we often visualize those from the island nations of the Caribbean. In fact, baseball in Mexico starts in Cuba. First introduced there in the mid-nineteenth century by American sailors and returning Cuban émigrés, the game later spread across the Caribbean. The game first reached Mexico via the Yucatan peninsula in the 1860s, but failed to gain national traction until the dictatorship of Porfiorio Diaz, which lasted roughly from 1876 to 1910. Under Diaz, the government encouraged industrialization and foreign investment; predictably American capital poured into Northern Mexico, and soon after, following the trail of U.S. railroad and mining expansion, baseball reached the nation's more remote central and western regions. 3
As demonstrated by the Japanese and Filipino examples, sport rarely travels without ideological attachments. For Filipinos, American imperialists introduced the game as means to "instill American values and 'discipline'." For Japanese Americans, playing baseball enabled them to define themselves within their own ethnic enclaves and American society, but also tied themselves to a game at the heart of Japan's new industrial, world power status.
For Mexican Americans and their Southern California communities, baseball proved no less important, nor any less complex. U.S. investors and "Porfirian liberals", points out Alamillo, believed baseball to be a useful means by which to introduce "modern industrial values such as teamwork and self discipline to the Mexican lower classes." 4 As in the Philippines and Japan, one can smell more than a whiff of paternalism.
If American companies south of the Mexican-U.S. border saw baseball as a central plank in spreading industrialization and capitalism, particularly regarding the work habits of laborers, organizations such as the California Growers Exchange (CFGE, aka Sunkist) utilized baseball and sports through its own "corporate welfare system" of the 1920s. Such programs included housing, Americanization courses, recreational facilities, and sport clubs. "In order to produce the desired workers, they have to become a member of a local society or baseball team," Sunkist Industrial Relations director GB. Hodgkin told his fellow growers in 1921. Baseball, he argued, would "increase their physical and mental capacity for work." 5
By the 1920s, Mexican and Mexican American labor occupied a critical place in California and Southwest economies. Unfortunately, rhetoric of the day, both against and for migratory labor, described Mexicans in animalistic terms and made little attempt to differentiate between Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans. Even pro-immigration advocates justified the migration of Mexican labor in racist essentialist terms, arguing that Mexicans were designed for manual labor -- work frequently described as beneath white Americans. "Much of California's agricultural labor consists of those tasks to which the Oriental and Mexican, due to their crouching and bending habits, are fully adapted," Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce official George P. Clements told a group of Southern California agriculturalists in 1929, "while the white is physically unable to adapt himself to them." 6
Ironically, while Sunkist and other growers encouraged baseball clubs among its Mexican and Mexican American workers to ensure workplace discipline and efficiency, in the process the sport contributed to the growth of permanent communities -- the exact kind of permanence that men like Clements promised would be prevented with the use of Mexican labor. Teams like the Corona Athletics, the Oxnard Aces, and the La Habra Juveniles, to name only a few, helped to build community amid the segregated landscape of 1930s Southern California. In many cases, such as with the establishment of the Athletics in 1931, teams had already begun to organize themselves, breaking off from their industry sponsored squads. Even when independent, however, teams often remained dependent on the local business community for financial support.
Across Southern California, Mexican teams sprouted from sports clubs, mutual aid organizations, churches, and even businesses. Organizations like the Asociacion Deportiva Hispano Americana, established in 1927 by L.A.'s prominent Spanish language newspaper La Opinion along with a collection of Mexican professionals, businessmen, and Mexican consul officials, and La Asociacion Atletica Mexican del Sure de California, formed in 1932 with help from the Los Angeles Department of Recreation (LADR), promoted the sport among Mexican and Mexican Americans. La Asociacion even formed a new baseball league, Liga Mexicana de Sur de California (Southern California Mexican Baseball League), which included over fifteen 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, Palcentia Merchants, and the Corona Athletics. 7
Of course, Mexican American businesses also staked their claim to the burgeoning sport. On an individual level, business leaders demonstrated an acute business acumen and a dedication to building local cultural values, but collectively the growth of such teams illustrated the economic power of the booming population. In 1948 Mario Lopez, along with his partner Francisco "Pancho" Sornoso, opened the Carmelita Provision Company, a factory dedicated to popular Mexican pork products. They wanted to capitalize on L.A.'s growing Mexican community in Los Angeles, which in the 1940s and 1950s was home to the largest concentration of Mexicans, second internationally only to Mexico City. Living primarily in East L.A, Mexican Americans, ignored by white entrepreneurs and companies, presented a true economic boon for an open minded and opportunistic business person. As result Carmelita boomed, and Lopez sought to establish a Mexican American baseball team to create more than just financial bonds.
The same year he opened Carmelita, Lopez founded the Los Chorizeros (The Sausage Makers), a team that would become the "New York Yankees of East Los Angeles." A talented ballplayer from Chihuahua, Mexico Lopez had been promising enough to be offered a professional contract with the Cleveland Indians in the 1920s. Playing then for the prominent Mexican team Anahuac, Lopez carried his love for the game north to Los Angeles, plying his skills for the famed Carta Blanca ballclub. Los Chorizeros would dominate the latter half of Mexican American baseball's "golden age," winning numerous city, county, community, and tournament championships. One of the team's many highlights was their 3-2 victory over Venice and future L.A. Dodger pitcher Joe Moeller in the 1961 L.A. City Final.
For players, baseball served a multiplicity of purposes. For some it provided a break from the numbing labor of agricultural fields and citrus groves. "Everyone used to comment how we would work like a dog all week picking lemons, then [play] baseball all day on Sundays," reflected former Corona Athletic Tito Cortez. "But you see that was the only thing to do since there was not television." Zeke Mejia saw the sport as a way out. "I did not want to pick lemons like my father and needed an incentive to stay in school and so I stared playing sports, especially baseball," he reflected. "It taught me something about myself. I hated to lose then and I still hate to lose now." 8
Labor militancy also worried growers. WWI had threatened agricultural interests as unionization began to gain adherents across the U.S. Recreation programs were seen as antidote to such "radicalism," and progressive reformers believed sporting activities to be critical tools for incorporating immigrants into American culture. The LADR promoted such visions, often pointing 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." 9
Yet, in another ironic turn, the experience of Mexican American peloteros actually encouraged worker solidarity, and ultimately promoted unionization among agricultural workers in 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 (UCAPAWA). Athletics manager Marcelino Barba worked as a fruit crate assembler and machine operator, and through his managerial experiences scheduling ball games, fundraising from sponsors, and cobbling together tournaments, emerged as a community leader with a vast network of connections across Southern California, perfect for labor organizing. Gilbret Enriquez, also a coached for the Athletics, later became Corona's first Mexican American to sit on the city's recreation commission and served as a founding editor of the Spanish Language newspaper El Imparcial. 10 Many former Chorizeros, in addition to becoming educators, political activists, professors, and community leaders, worked on Edward R. Roybal's successful city council (1949) and Congressional (1961) campaigns.
Denied access to municipal ball fields and parks prior to WWII, teams transformed unused or neglected city spaces for baseball. The Corona Athletics converted an empty railroad yard, located just north of the city's Mexican barrio, into a field with bleachers and concessions. With free admission, everyone could afford to attend games, no matter one's income, and the park provided a space for reconnecting with neighbors and relatives. "This Sunday afternoon ritual fostered cultural pride among Mexican residents regardless of class, gender, generation, and citizenship status," notes Alamillo. Occasional cultural festivals put on by local "Mexican oriented" organizations built upon national pride, highlighting the music, food, language, and history of Mexicans and Mexican Americans.
The Athletics' field even served as a key site for organizing strikes. For example, on February 27, 1941, 800 citrus workers congregated at the ballpark to plan picket lines and coordinate the strike. 11 The city council, however, soon passed a resolution granting the police the authority to impose a "no parking zone," effectively blunting the space's effectiveness as an organizing center. Still, baseball players, union members, and others, came to common cause over the physical space of the field and the experience of the game. Moreover, in order to appeal for financial, political, and moral support during the strike, Athletics ballplayers traveled to parks in Placentia, Ontraio, Santa Ana, Oxnard, and San Fernando. These social networks, created through baseball, facilitated collective action and solidarity while also serving as nodes of communication.
Formed after WWII, Los Chorizeros benefited from marginally improved attitudes regarding race. Fresno, Belvedere, and Evergreen Parks provided the team with better facilities in comparison to their predecessors in Corona. Here, games turned into cultural festivals. Local political leaders, like Edward R. Roybal and activist and musician Eduardo "Lalo" Guerrero, attended games, as did leaders of Mexican American organizations like the Community Service Organization (CSO) and the American G.I. Forum. "Smart politicians attended the games," remembered former Chorizero pelotero Johnny Peña, "because that was where the Mexican people were -- at the church and ballpark." As Francisco E. Balderrama and Richard A. Santillan asserted in a 2011 article on the Chorizeros, 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 American league players received opportunities to compete in the minor leagues. The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Corona Athletics' Tito Cortez, Ray Delgadillo, and Remi Changnon to contracts in the late 1940s, adding Bobby Perez and Louis Uribe in the early 1950s. Southern California also produced Major League Baseball's first Mexican American players. After pitching for the El Paso Shoe team and Los Angeles High School, Melo Almada played seven seasons in the pros, beginning with the Red Sox in 1933. Jesse Flores worked at La Habra before signing with the Chicago Cubs in 1942. Like Almada, Flores played seven productive seasons in the majors and eventually, after retiring, became a scout for the Minnesota Twins. Both players had migrated from Mexico, and worked in the citrus orchards of Southern California. 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 in the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s. Of course, baseball's popularity among most demographic groups in the U.S. has generally been on the decline. Still, numerous Mexican American players currently compete and excel at the Major League level, so the sport continues to draw participants. Whatever its state and relationship to Mexican Americans now, baseball's role in the growth and cultural identity of Mexican Americans remains a central aspect of one of the nation's fastest growing populations, and a community that has given itself to the betterment of the U.S.
1 Jose M. Alamillo, "Peloteros in Paradise: Mexican American Basebll and Oppositional Politics in Southern California, 1930-1950", Western Historical Quarterly 34 (Summer 2003) pg. 198.
2 Ibid., pg 192.
3 Ibid., pg 192.
4 Ibid., pg 192.
5 Ibid., pg 193
6 David G. Guitierrez, Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), pg. 48.
7 Jose M. Alamillo, "Peloteros in Paradise: Mexican American Baseball and Oppositional Politics in Southern California, 1930-1950", Western Historical Quarterly 34 (Summer 2003) pgs 196-197.
8 Ibid., 197.
9 Ibid., 194.
10 Ibid. pg. 198.
11 Ibid., pgs 208-209.