Monday, October 5, 2009

Latinos went from sugar beet fields to baseball fields

Sugar beets to baseball: Northern Colorado's Hispanic baseball league
Adam Chodak,

GREELEY - According to the movies, baseball can grow out of cornfields. But in Northern Colorado, baseball emerged alongside fields of sugar beets.

This story starts right around the turn of the 20th century.

Great Western Sugar Company had begun aggressively recruiting Mexican-Americans and Mexican natives to work its sugar beet fields in the West.

By 1920, thousands of the company's workers were of Hispanic heritage.

Great Western eventually built adobe homes for the workers. With the homes grouped together, the Spanish-speaking workers called these small communities "las colonias."

To pass the time in between backbreaking shifts, the male workers started playing baseball.

Teams were then formed; one per colony. A league then formed. They called it the Rocky Mountain League of National Semi-Pro Baseball Congress, but most folks called it the Sugar Beet League.

"We always had uniforms," said Ricardo Lopez who played for the formidable Greeley Grays in 1950s.

Lopez's father was one of the first to play in the league. All 13 of his boys would follow suit, all playing for the Grays.

For the Lopez family, like so many others attached to the Sugar Beet League, baseball was everything.

"You had baseball for breakfast, lunch and dinner," Lopez said.

While the Grays could always brag about their record, never could they boast about their field.

"We called it the Home of the Brave because you'd have to brave the rocks," Lopez said with a laugh.

Lopez and his brothers have told anecdotes like that at family functions for years. Gabriel Lopez, Lopez's nephew, always had trouble believing them.

A Hispanic baseball league in Colorado just seemed too odd. But then he and his wife, Jody, started a small investigation.

"Within an hour, we had proof," he said.

From the Greeley Tribune, they found blurbs that gave the results from games and pictures of various players.

They soon had a enough pictures and articles to fill an exhibit at Centennial Village Museum in Greeley and a book titled, "From Sugar to Diamonds: Spanish/Mexican baseball 1925-1969."

In both, the Lopez's talk about the dedication of the players, who were willing to travel across the state to take on any team.

There's also evidence of how good these ballplayers really were.

"They played against the Metropolitan League in Denver ... and they held their own," said Gabriel Lopez.

Some of the players even went on to play professional ball.

But to Gabriel Lopez, one of the most respectable aspects of the league was its acceptance of anyone who wanted to play.

"To them, there was no race," he said.

There was only that field; the field that arose out of the sugar beets; the field of rocks and dreams.

"It was just love of the game," said Ricado Lopez, who is now in his 70s. "We lived for that."

This story is one of several produced by 9NEWS in recognition of Hispanic Awareness Month.

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