February 16, 2001
By Richard Santillán
Published in volume 7 of Perspectives in Mexican American Studies
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...
Sometimes, a thousand people, representing dozens of small Mexican communities, would gather to watch baseball games in the years prior to World War II. People socialized and discussed community issues at the games, and strengthened their sense of racial and ethnic solidarity. In the post-war period sports continued to play a major part in the overall cultural and political agenda of the Mexican American population.
In addition to community unity, two other key benefits of athletics have been the leadership skills and survival tactics that young people developed by participating in team sportsskills that have been useful in the political arena and in the fight for social justice. Many parents, in fact, encouraged their children to join teams to develop such skills. Thus, beside the sheer fun of playing and competing, sports served as a means of establishing community solidarity, developing leaders, and imparting a sense of fair play...
In the early part of the 20th century, a handful of Midwestern Anglo charitable organizations and churches offered recreational activities for Mexican youth. In addition, a few of the YMCA clubs permitted Mexicans to join and use their facilities as members. Nevertheless, Mexican American communities chose to build their own sports networks according to several individuals who came of age in the 1920s, `30s and `40s. They noted that the Mexican community established an elaborate web of athletic associations during the 1920s and 1930s. These included the Aztec Social Club, Los Gallos Athletic Association, El Club Azteca, and El Club Deportivo Internacional. The sports clubs of East Chicago and Gary, Indiana, El Club Deportivo Internacional and the Gary Athletic Club, sponsored a host of sporting events including tournaments in soccer, basketball, and baseball.
In Kansas City, the Mexican Athletic Club was established in 1922 and organized numerous boxing events, bowling tournaments, and track-and-field competitions. In the larger urban Mexican communities, parents pooled their meager finances and purchased buildings and converted the structures into recreational centers. The smaller Mexican communities generally rented buildings for sports activities. These centers and the land around them were the locations of weight rooms, boxing rings, basketball courts, and baseball diamonds.
A handful of Mexican athletic clubs even had swimming pools according to Lando Velandez of Des Moines, Iowa. Lando's father was active with sports activities and tried unsuccessfully to build a gym for the Mexican community in Des Moines. The Anglo power structure prevented the Mexican community from developing a sports center in the early 1920s. His father, nevertheless, did establish the Mexican Athletic Club in Des Moines in 1925. Lando continued his father's work, and in 1962, almost 40 years after his father's efforts, spearheaded the creation of the Mexican American Recreation Club.
World War II disrupted the sports movement in the Midwest as young men and women defended the nation both on the battlefield and in defense plants. Nevertheless, the post-war period witnessed a movement to recapture the athletic spirit and superb talent of the community. Both the second generation of Mexican Americans and recent arrivals from Texas and Mexico enjoyed sports immensely in the Midwest. In retrospect, the pre-war sports activities among Mexicans was only a prelude to far more significant sports participation between 1945 and 1965.
There was an incredible growth in organized sports in the Midwest Mexican community after 1945. Before the war, major sports were limited primarily to baseball, boxing, and basketball. Afterwards, however, more Mexican Americans began taking part in bowling, tennis, golf, soccer, football, and wrestling. Women's sports came of age during this period as well. Whereas women were mainly involved with softball prior to the war, they later became active in baseball and basketball leagues and bowling tournaments. Women's teams in all sports sprung up all over the Midwest.
The Mexican American community followed its rich sports tradition by resurrecting several sports clubs and recreational centers after World War II, including El Club Deportivo Azteca, the Mexican American Youth Association, El Club de Deportivos de Joliet, the Azteca Club, the Wichita Mexican American Athletic Club, the Pan American Club, the Mexican American Athletic Club of North Platte, the Argentine Center, El Club Co-lonia Mexicana, and La Sociedad Deportivo. The Quad-Cities area of Iowa and Illinois formed several sports clubs, including the Quad-Cities Martial Arts Center, Pena's Boys Club, and the Silvis Youth Organization. In addition to developing their own clubs, Mexican Americans became active in various city sports and leagues, said Elmer Vega of Newton, Kansas:
Prior to the war, the Mexican community established its own sports network of clubs, centers, teams, and tournaments. The second and third generations have continued this rich tradition into the 1980s. There is, however, a significant difference. Unlike before, the second and third generations have become directly involved with Little League, Pop Warner, summer sports programs, high school sports, and other mainstream sports activities. We felt that, as taxpayers and citizens were entitled to these recreational benefits.
Thus, intergenerational cooperation was a powerful social adhesive that brought together people of all age groups playing sports. Alex Cruz of Parsons, Kansas, noted that:
I was the manager of the Parsons baseball team from 1952 to 1954. Our team was sponsored by several companies, including "Big Heated Red" and Coca-Cola. We played Chanute, Kansas City, Topeka, Coffyville, and Fred-onia... My father played baseball for the MKT railroad company during the 1930s. It was not uncommon to have three generations of ball-players from the same family in the Midwest.
The most popular sport among Mexicans in the U.S. has been baseball. The rise of baseball as a spectator sport in the Mexican community simply reflected the rise of mass spectator sports in the nation. Nearly every Midwest Mexican community, small or large, has baseball teams to represent it. The sport became one of the major forms of recreation, and was played before overflowing crowds. Most of the teams selected names from their rich historical past, such as the Azte-cas, Mayans, Cuauhtemoc, and Aguilas. The choice of these names was a way of respecting and reaffirming the Mexican culture.
There were Mexican teams in the Topeka area as early as 1916, and by 1919 several Mexican baseball teams in the Kansas City and East Chicago areas were already playing. Additional clubs were organized and various leagues formed during the 1920s. Some of the early Mexican teams included Los Obreros de San Jose of East Chicago; the Osage Indians of Kansas City; the Mexican All-Stars of Silvis; the Moline Estrellas; Los Mayans of Lorain, Ohio; Las Aguilas Mexicanas and Los Cometas of Topeka; and Los Nacionales of Wichita, Kansas.
In fact, there were several popular types of baseball leagues in the Mexican Middle West: Industrial, Catholic, community, migrant, and women's leagues. It was not unusual for a remarkable player to participate in two or more of these different leagues. Moreover, being an outstanding player was oftentimes a ticket to employment for Mexicans, because businesses wanted to have winning baseball teams. Companies went out of their way to find outstanding Mexican players. Furthermore, many Catholic schools had baseball teams composed largely of Mexican players and called themselves the Guadalupanos. Likewise, most Mexican communities had their own teams that represented them in statewide competitions.
Migrants had their own baseball teams during the summer months. These migrants teams and leagues were found in Western Nebraska, for example, in Scottsbluff, Bayard, Bridgeport, Morrell, Lyman, and Minatare. Other migrant teams could be found in Kansas, Minnesota, South and North Dakota, and Colorado. There were women's teams that played prior to and after world War II as well. There was also an informal network of Mexicans who played pickup games between regular games and tournaments.
Unfortunately, for those trying to organize baseball games, it was often true that Mexican teams were not allowed to play on city diamonds or in parks owned by local businesses or cities...
Because they were barred from some public parks before the war, Mexicans made their own ball fields, frequently in vacant lots or in pastures near the railroad tracks, roundhouses, or steel factories...
The Mexican communities constructed baseball fields with colorful names such as La Yardita, El Huache, and Devil's Field. Another was known as Rabbit Field because players continuously had to chase rabbits off during games. Sometimes, cars were used in the outfield as bleachers, with people sitting on the hoods, trunks, and roofs, said perfecto Torrez of Topeka. Eva Hernandez of Hutchinson recalled, "Our baseball team... played near the National Armory. Both the Morton Salt and the Carey Salt Company has baseball teams with Mexican players. We played in the cow fields, which we affectionately called Las Vegas." Hernandez's husband, Matt, was an outstanding baseball player and she often watched him play before and after World War II.
El Parque Anahuac, for example, had a seating capacity for 500 people. It was not unusual for large crowds to show up to see the better Mexican teams. When Los Aztecas de Chicago came to play against the East Chicago team during the first week of June of 1927, the game drew a standing room only crowd of over 3,000 spectators. Large crowds were common in the Great Lakes area. This beautiful baseball diamond in East Chicago was eventually destroyed during the Depression because the wooden seats were used as firewood during the cold winter months. Also, someone discovered that beneath the surface of the field were deposits of coal. Apparently a coal of railroad company had left if there. The news spread quickly, and soon the leveled, desolate field became a center of activity with men, women, and children digging for the precious fuel with shovels and sticks...
Sunday was baseball day in Mexican communities across the Middle West. Residents first went to church and then breakfast before heading to the game. The players, on the other hand, ran home after church changing quickly into their uniforms and hurried to warmup before the fans arrived, said Phillip Martinez of Dodge City, Kansas. The baseball games started around one in the afternoon. The people wore their Sunday best to the games.
Some of the games in Hutchinson drew better than a thousand people from in town and the surrounding communities said Bacho Rodriguez. Rodriguez was an outstanding pitcher for the Hutchinson team during the 1930s. He remembers games that usually drew 1000 to 1500 spectators. He noted that he and a few other players were scouted by the New York Yankees...
Richard Santillán is a professor of Ethnic and Women' Studies at California Polytechnic University at Pomona. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.