Sports have been a major presence in the lives of Mexican Americans since the early 20th century. This has been particularly true of Mexican Americans in the Midwest, where sports such as baseball took on a special significance. More than merely games for boys and girls, the teams and contests involved nearly the entire community, and often had political and cultural objectives…
— Richard Santillán, Vol. 7, Perspectives in Mexican American Studies, February 2001
It is estimated that 27 percent of today’s major league and 42 percent of minor league baseball players are Latino. We have come a long way since the great Roberto Clemente, Juan Marichal, and Luis Aparicio burst onto professional baseball diamonds, ushering in a dramatic demographic shift like no other in professional sport. Forty-three players from Puerto Rico alone have played for the Kansas City Royals, last year’s World Series champions. If you were to add players from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela, and other Latin American countries, KC’s numbers would be even more stunning.
While fans have marveled at the prowess and achievements of the likes of Pedro Martínez, Sammy Sosa, Fernando Valenzuela, Rod Carew, Mariano Rivera and today’s David Ortiz (aka Big Papi), Yasiel Puig, Johnny Cueto and Jake Arrieta (whose paternal grandfather was Puerto Rican), and while Major League Baseball is taking stock of how Latinos are transforming the professional game, I think it is equally important to closely examine the role baseball has played in Latino community formation.
Kansas City and the Midwest offer us an excellent lens through which to explore the impact of the game on our communities. On August 12 and 13, the Kansas City Museum and local baseball enthusiasts will host a community forum and collecting program designed to do just that. The program is part of a Smithsonian Institution initiative, Latinos and Baseball: In the Barrios and the Big Leagues. Spearheaded by curator Margaret Salazar-Porzio and advised by an accomplished and diverse group of scholars and community leaders, the initiative has already conducted similar programs in Los Angeles and San Bernardino, CA. After Kansas City, the initiative moves on to Syracuse, NY, back to Los Angeles, and then to Tampa, FL. A visit with the family of Roberto Clemente in Puerto Rico is also scheduled. Decisions on excursions into other communities are pending finalization. With these stories and objects in hand, the plan is to open an exhibition at the National Museum of American History in 2020.
The Midwest experienced a great influx of Mexicans, owing, first, to the chaos of the Mexican Revolution, 1910-21. It is estimated that by 1910, over a half-million Mexicans had crossed the border, among them my maternal grandfather who became a copper miner in Arizona. The numbers continued to increase, with many workers recruited by railroad companies and meat packing industries of the Midwest. Understandably, Mexican families desired to acculturate to the ways of their new homeland, and baseball, including fast-pitch softball, became a path. Ever alert, companies encouraged the formation of baseball teams and leagues as a strategy to keep their Mexican workers content, with the added notion of discouraging or diminishing the impact of union organizing, among other worker-based initiatives. Not surprisingly, institutionalized racism and segregated social norms acted as strong deterrents to integrated play, forcing Midwestern Mexicans to organize their own leagues and tournaments. The Railway Ice Company of Argentine, KS, supported its own Mexican American team, while Kansas City, KS, fielded the Kansas Stateline Locos. Many of the teams selected ancestral names, like the Aztecas, Mayans, Cuatémoc and Águilas.
In his book, Making Lemonade out of Lemons: Labor and Leisure in a California Town, 1880-1960, José Alamillo argues that Mexican Americans helped lay the groundwork for civil rights struggles and electoral campaigns in the post-World War II era. In this case the “lemons” were low pay, segregated schooling, inadequate housing, and racial discrimination faced by Mexican citrus workers and their families in Corona, CA. The “lemonade” was how Mexican families transformed baseball, among other leisure activities, into political spaces to voice grievances, debate strategies for advancement, and build solidarity. Dr. Alamillo is a Professor of Chicana/o Studies at California State University, Channel Islands. He is also a member of the Smithsonian’s advisory baseball team.
Adrián Burgos’ benchmark study on Latinos and professional baseball from the 1880s to the present, Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line, provides us a compelling story of the men who negotiated the color line at every turn—passing as “Spanish” in the major leagues or seeking respect and acceptance in the Negro leagues. Dr. Burgos teaches in the History Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also a Smithsonian pelotero.
While we acknowledge achievement at the professional level, let us also continue to learn more about and celebrate baseball in our local communities—from San Juan to San Bernardino—and its role in narrating our valiant and vibrant history of cultural negotiation, struggle and achievement.
Copyright 2016 by Eduardo Díaz. Smithsonian logo and book covers used under”fair use” proviso of copyright law. All other photos are in the public domain.