Thursday, June 13, 2019

Labels, Baseball, and Equality

New book on Westside Baseball, Available Soon
     The professor’s assignment: “Write what you know, what you’re good at, and use details.”
      At 25, I was a Catholic high school and a community college graduate. I’d helped lead an artillery section in Vietnam and was discharged a sergeant. Growing up, I’d played sports, was in a popular band around town, and now, I was completing my university education while working full-time and raising a family. Honestly, I couldn’t think of a thing I was good at.
     As a kid raised among other working-class kids on LA’s westside, mostly Mexicans, Americans, and Japanese, society had drilled into us kids that we weren’t good at much, or that our parents’ work in construction, factories, gardens, and garages didn’t amount to much in comparison to kids whose parents lived north of Wilshire boulevard or east of Overland, fathers who were insurance agents, businessmen, managers, lawyers, contractors, doctors, producers, directors, actors, composers, bankers, etc. etc.
     The subtle inferiority was even in the words we used to describe ourselves. In the 50s, even though we were all Americans, Anglos would refer to us as Mexicans. I’d even hear my Spanish-speaking grandparents, uncles, and aunts refer to Anglos as Americanos, Chicanos as Mejicanos, and Japanese as Japones, the same with my dad and his friends, even though they’d been born and bred in the states and had served in the military, and gone off to war. They were still Mexicans, or, as they began to see themselves, Mexican-American.
     At the time, there was little to no immigration from Mexico in Los Angeles.
     My dad would say to a friend something like, “Yeah, you know that American guy, Earl, the one who played football with us in high school.” Or, if he was talking to an Anglo friend, he’d say, “Bobby Mora, the Mexican kid from San Fernando.” A few times, I’d hear him say to a close Mexican friend, “Sammy! You know Sammy, the Chicano from Santa Monica.” It was the only time I’d hear him use “Chicano”, a private word, his generation’s label.
    To me, even into the 1960s, I was still a Mexican. The Army might have been the only place my superiors did not refer to me as a Mexican but as the ubiquitous “trooper” or “soldier,” unless I ran into an ignorant, racist NCO, and it was back to “Mexican”, “Spanish”, or “Spic”, which a Puerto Rican friend had to explain.
     Growing up and hearing ourselves, our family, and friends objectified as something other than American automatically put us in a cultural sub-category; though, it wasn’t something we analyzed, or even considered. Worse, it just--was.
     The Japanese kids, who attended Japanese school after a regular school day, as teenagers, started calling themselves Buddhaheads, proudly creating their own label. After WWII, their community was more insulated than ours, probably for fear of being unjustly whisked away again.
     The Mexican kids deemed trouble-makers, usually because if they got into a fight with an American kid and won, they were seen as delinquent. So, many of them did—become delinquents and started clubs that became, to the authorities, gangs.
     In the 50s, Westside Anglo teenagers did have car clubs. They drank, smoked dope, and got into fights, using chains, zip guns, the works. Still, the authorities viewed them as “clubs”. Not so, the Mexican clubs. In Santa Monica, the Cobras became Santa; in West L.A., the Falcolns became Sotel;  and in Venice, the Dukes became, Venice 13. As time passed, they lived up to the society's expectations.
     So, with all this in mind, I racked my brain: What do I know? What am I good at? Hmmm, not much, I concluded. I’d bought into the stereotype that manual labor produced muscles and not brain, even if my father, with an 11th grade education, devoured two newspapers a day and books by Mailer, Steinbeck, and Styron.
     The professor made us dig. I began to consider a time when I did feel good about myself. Little League, I thought, baseball, sports, the great equalizer.
    When I was seven or eight, I watched my cousin Johnny, sharp in his purple and white Sky Knights uniform, strike out 17 batters. It didn’t matter who they were, how good, how rich, or their skin color They went down to his wicked curve ball.
     In high school, the coaches couldn’t wait to get their mitts into him, but by that time, his friends had sucked him into the inferiority stereotype, especially when they saw he was as good with his fists as he was with a baseball.
     Starting when I was barely five, every evening, for a couple of hours, or so it seemed, after he’d worked eight-hours lugging cement up and across wobbly scaffolding, two to three stories high, my father had me pitching and scooping up grounders in our front yard. On weekends, he'd take me to the park where he’d pitch batting practice, showing me how to stand correctly and swing a bat, pitch after pitch.
     I played my first game at seven years of age. I was small for my age. I just walked to the neighborhood park and asked to join the team. They told me I was too young. One coach decided to give me a try. When I struck out the best batter on his team, his son, he put me on the team. So, I had been good at something.
Before the big game
     So, I wrote about the time I pitched in the championship game and faced the opposing team’s best hitter. The details flowed, the feel of the ball, the look in the kid’s eyes, the dirt under my rubber cleats, the smell of the grass, the sound of the ball hitting the catcher’s mitt, but mostly the noise from the fans. We won, but I wanted to make my piece more dramatic and had the kid hit a home run. I also remember how that felt.
     Not only me, but many of my “Mexican” friends, found their identities in sports, especially baseball. Whether it was on the mound, at the bat, or in the field, they were no longer Mexicans, Americans, or anything else. They were ballplayers, and they worked hard to excel. Some were the best ballplayers on the Westside of town.
     We practiced—hour after hour, if we weren’t working part-time jobs, or with our fathers on weekends. A watershed event was in the 1950s when my cousin Richard, "Buzz," Hernandez, Johnny's older brother, signed a contract with the Pittsburg Pirates then the Baltimore Orioles. For all of us, a taste of success.
     Baseball took us to a different world. At the Little League field in West L.A., adjacent to Westwood, I played with mostly rich kids, including the sons of movie stars and directors. I’d come home to find the actor Richard Jaeckel sitting in the dining room, his gregarious laugh filling the house, as he talked to my dad about his newest movie role and ate my mom’s chile verde, his favorite dish.
Actor Burt Lancaster (top), Billy Lancaster (bottom 2nd from right. Author (bottom left)
     The year Burt Lancaster won his Oscar for the movie Elmer Gantry, he was my assistant coach in Pony League, where I played with his son, Billy. (Billy would go on to write the screen play for “Bad News Bears.")
     If throwing a leather ball at a wood bat and running around bases could produce this type of adulation from the "beautiful" people, what else might be possible in life? I remembered walking in my uniform past the bleachers, before a game, and adults stopped to give me a few encouraging words, or to just acknowledge my existence. During the game, from the stands, they’d holler their approval.
     Here, I learned, nobody much cared about whether I earned a C in math or not or whether I was Mexican or American. They just wanted me to strike people out, get base hits, stop ground balls, and win.
     It wasn’t long before I began to hear the names of other kids, “Mexican” ballplayers from Santa Monica, Culver City, and Venice. Guys like Simon Felix, Tommy Rivera, Joe Esparza, nearly all the Romos, Guajardos, Angels, Hernandez, Huertas, Carrillos, Serras, Garcias, Cassillas, Rodriguezes, Molinas, Cruzes. Valdezes, Sanchez, Dorames, Villas, too many to mention here.
     It was my dad who laughed and told me those names go back to the 30s and 40s, when their dads, uncles and cousins played ball. All those families had excelled in sports, not just Mexicans but mixed with Americans, as well.
     “Freddie Santana was such a good quarterback,” my dad told me about a close family friend, “UCLA wanted him. But he wasn’t a very good student.”
     Like many Mexican boys in the late 30s and 40s, they worked more than they attended school to help support the family. “Mario Vasquez made it to Santa Monica Junior College. He was a star half-back and baseball player there, but he wasn’t big enough to play at the next level.”
     Now, along comes Richard Santillan’s book Mexican American Baseball on the Westside of Los Angles, (Arcadia Publishers). It follows on the heels of other Santillan’s books, highlighting Mexican American baseball across the Southwest, to be followed by a book on Boyle Heights.
     The Westside book highlights baseball and softball players from Santa Monica, Culver City, West Los Angeles, and the San Fernando Valley. Many of the 1930s ballplayers crossed towns and boundaries for the chance to play. The book gives us a glimpse not only of baseball but into the evolution of culture, of how Americans come to be.
North Venice Girls, West Softball Champions
     A moment of pride for me was in 2002, when the girls, including my granddaughter, Stephanie Carrillo and her close friends from North Venice, travelled to Kirkland, Washington to play in the Girls Junior Softball World Series. Another moment of pride was when she graduated from Post University in Connecticut, on a softball scholarship.
     For all its beauty, baseball has also been a sport of conquest and colonization. That's why we see so many Latin American players dominating professional baseball today. Accident? Hardly. Whenever the U.S. invaded a Latin American country, going back to Nicaragua in the early 1900s, Guatemala in the '50s, and Santo Domingo in the '60s, U.S. Marines took gloves, bats, and balls with them. Of course, it caught on, even seducing Fidel Castro, his dream--to play for a major league team.
     As I wrote my paper in class, I also realized I didn’t want to be that guy talking about the big game into his elder years. I loved sports but knew I had to develop my brain. I found the answer in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s piece, “The American Scholar.” “Action (as in athletics and physical labor) is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it he is not yet man. Without it thought can never ripen into truth. Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we cannot even see its beauty. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar with the heroic mind.”
     Athletics mostly takes participation with others. Thinking is a lonely endeavor. Together they complete the human animal, the word made flesh, the body and the spirit. Only when we meld the two will we begin to understand we are beyond labels. We are as good as anybody. We have all done great things. We just need to think about them once in a while and remind our children and grandchildren that beauty and truth are in us all. We just need to seek them out.

1 comment:

Christina Santana Michel said...

Thank you for writing this piece. It was such a great surprise to read about my GrandFather Freddie Santana. Our family had no idea that he played football or that he was a great quarterback. We would love to know more if you have any additional information. My family on both my Mother's and Father's side are from West Los Angeles and have a lot of history there. Enjoyed your Blog very much.