Grand slam for Latino history
By SEAN NEALON, The Press-Enterprise, May 6, 2009
Mariachi bands played, families picnicked and cars sometimes provided the lighting during amateur and semi-pro Sunday baseball games that galvanized Mexican-American communities throughout Southern California during the early to middle 20th century.
Preserving that spirit -- along with baseball's importance as an assimilation and political tool for Mexican-Americans -- is the aim of "Latino Baseball History Project: The Mexican-American Experience," an archive and traveling exhibit that will now be housed at Cal State San Bernardino.
"Baseball was more than just a pastime," said university librarian Cesar Caballero, who spearheaded the establishment of the baseball project at the school. "It was a social glue in some of these communities."
The project started in 2004 at Cal State Los Angeles, where Caballero was then a librarian, with a focus on Los Angeles. It showed how Mexican-Americans thought of baseball -- America's pastime -- as a way to assimilate. It also conveyed how baseball helped lay the groundwork for civil rights struggles.
The move to Cal State San Bernardino is meant to broaden the project to Southern California. The next phase is to launch it nationally and expand it to other Latino groups.
At Cal State San Bernardino, oral histories from former players and memorabilia -- such as photos, uniforms and baseball gloves, which are part of a traveling exhibit -- will be kept at the Pfau Library.
Cal State San Bernardino librarian Cesar Caballero led the effort to bring the Latino baseball archive and exhibit to the university.
Also, students in Cal State San Bernardino history classes will likely collect oral histories from Inland players and archive exhibition materials. And the university plans to create books about the history of Latino baseball that can be used to teach at elementary, middle and high schools.
How it Started
Amateur and semi-pro baseball in Mexican-American communities peaked between the 1920s and 1940s, and continued through most of the 20th century, Mexican-American baseball experts said.
The peak coincided with the rise of industrialization, said Richard Santillan, a Cal Poly Pomona professor, who has studied Chicano studies since 1972. Packing houses, steel mills and railroads sponsored teams made up of their employees.
Players also competed on teams sponsored by cities, businesses and the Catholic Church, Santillan said. Most games were on Sundays because that was only day players didn't work.
Semi-pro players would travel throughout the Southwest and sometimes into Mexico, Santillion said. Some players worked their way up to Major League Baseball.
Jose Alamillo, a Chicano/a studies professor at Cal State Channel Islands, wrote a book, "Making Lemonade out of Lemons," that focused on citrus workers in Corona.
Baseball games provided citrus workers with an avenue to learn about conditions in other workplaces and helped them organize, debate strategies for advancement and build solidarity. This, Alamillo argues, helped lay the groundwork for post-World War II civil rights struggles.
Alamillo, whose father and grandfather played on lemon company-sponsored teams in Santa Paula in Ventura County, interviewed former players from Riverside, San Bernardino and Corona, including Jim "Chayo" Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, 80, is a lifelong Corona resident who played for, coached and managed baseball and softball teams in Corona, Cucamonga and Colton. He still coaches today.
Tomas Benitez sets up a Mexican-American baseball display of Ted Williams, whose mother was Mexican, at Cal State San Bernardino.
Rodriguez started playing semi-pro baseball for the Corona Athletics when he was 14. Before the color line was broken in professional baseball, he remembers playing African-American and Japanese-American teams.
He thinks it's great the Mexican-American baseball project is expanding to Cal State San Bernardino.
"It's good for the Mexican-American players to get recognized," he said.
The Project Grows
The Mexican-American baseball project is the idea of Terry Cannon, executive director of the Baseball Reliquary, a nonprofit in Pasadena devoted to creating an appreciation of American art and culture through baseball.
The Baseball Reliquary creates exhibits and honors players in the "Shrine of the Eternals." Players are inducted based on distinctive play (good or bad), unique personality and baseball imprint.
In fall 2004, Cannon noticed empty display cases at the Cal State Los Angeles library. He asked Caballero about setting up an exhibit focused on Mexican-American baseball history in Southern California, an idea Cannon had thought about for years.
Caballero signed on.
Meanwhile, Cannon asked Caballero if a couple of graduate students might be interested in collecting oral histories of former players. Francisco Balderrama, a Cal State Los Angeles history professor, liked that idea.
Balderrama created an entire oral history class focused on the project. He taught the class in fall 2005, expanding it from 15 to 25 slots to accommodate student demand.
The following spring, with help from a $5,000 grant from the California Council for the Humanities, the exhibit debuted at the Cal State Los Angeles library.
It has since traveled to Los Angeles Trade Technical College, the Pomona Public Library and a community organization in Brawley.
This coming school year, Alamillo, the Cal State Channel Islands professor, and Santillan, the Cal Poly Pomona professor, will teach classes modeled after Balderrama's course.
Santillan, a lifelong Los Angeles Dodger fan, and Balderrama, who favors crackerjacks and hot dogs over double plays and sacrifice flies, are also working on a book about the project.
To the Inland Area
At Cal State San Bernardino's Pfau Library, display cases are filled with baseball cards, paintings, programs and photos, including one of Rodriguez.
Tomas Benitiz, an artist and member of project's advisory committee, filled a display case with mini-shrines he created to honor former Mexican-American professional players, including Bobby Avila, Hank Aguirre and Ted Williams, whose mother was Mexican.
Cherstin Lyon, an assistant history professor at Cal State San Bernardino, said the projects fits nicely into the public history degree curriculum.
Public history classes tend to prepare students for non-teaching history jobs, at places such as archives, libraries, museums and historical societies, Lyon said.
She teaches oral history classes. She said it's logical for students in those classes to conduct oral histories on former baseball players in the Inland area.
"We're always looking to get students engaged in real projects with real outcomes," Lyon said.
Reach Sean Nealon at 951-368-9458 or snealon@PE.com