Day 21 of 2022 baseball books: The Mexican American baseball story casts a wider net

“Mexican American Baseball in the South Bay”

The editor:
Richard A. Santillan

The co-editor:
Ron Gonzales

The publishing info:
Independently published
Latino Baseball History Project
464 pages
Released April 13, 2022

The links:

The review in 90 feet or less

Using a Sharpie, protractor and some creativity allowed on an Auto Club fold-out map, the area to circle in Southern California that we’ve been calling the South Bay (as opposed to the one by the same name that also exists in Northern California) starts with anything in sweeping proximity of the Santa Monica Bay. Yet, you’re supposed to exclude the cities of Santa Monica, Venice and Marina del Rey, whose neighborhoods preferred to be more aligned with “The Westside.”

The coastline south of LAX and Westchester hits El Segundo, and the beaches of Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo. The Palos Verdes peninsula juts out with Rolling Hills and San Pedro at the Port of L.A., which goes right up Wilmington, Carson and Gardena. It surrounds Torrance, Hawthorne, Lawndale, Lomita and Lennox, touching as far north as Inglewood. It can stretch East to Dominguez Hills and its Cal State campus, and it of course can wade into the Pacific Ocean to capture Catalina Island.

There are more than a dozen cities and boundaries of L.A. proper that claim it. And it’s baseball fertile, especially with youth teams, high schools and JCs.

The game’s royalty associated with the area starts with George and Ken Brett, George Foster, Garry Maddox, Mike Scott, Scott McGregor, Brian Harper, Jason Kendall and Alan Ashby. Dozens of MLB players are also connected to the area over the last 100 years.

Now’s as good a time as any to cast a bigger net when trying to record its history.

There’s the introduction to Raul “Bumble” Gonzales on the cover, in photo that appears to be hand-colored, highlighting the blue and white of his uniform of the Pan Pacific Fisheries.

The 16-year-old pitcher was part of a team made up of those connected to the tuna- and fish-canning companies that were associated with “Fish Harbor” on Terminal Island, near the Vincent Thomas Bridge that connects San Pedro to Long Beach and adds a piece of jewelry to the L.A. Port.

Gonzales, who grew up in San Pedro’s Mexican American neighborhood of La Rambla, was on the team in 1949 and went onto play at San Pedro High, shows a team photo on page 87. His catcher on semi-pro teams in the area was often his older brother, Ricardo “Tito” Gonzales. Their younger brother, Albert, was often the bat boy.

The photo of Bumble on page 86 used for the cover comes courtesy of Albert and Nancy Gonzalez, and a San Pedro News-Pilot story from 1954 that documents a pair of wins by the Harbor Merchants, one by the “air-tight hurling of Bumble Gonzales,” who also had two hits, merited mention in the four paragraphs.

Very cool.

The latest edition of the Latino Baseball History Project at Cal State San Bernardino appears to be the most prolific, an oversized book that dwarfs the projects printed previously by the Arcadia Publishing Company/Image of Baseball over the last 10-plus years that has collected stories, photos and whatever information can be gathered about Mexican American baseball first in Los Angeles (2011), and then expanding to the Inland Empire (’12), Orange County (’13), Central Coast (’13), Pomona Valley (’14), San Fernando Valley (’15), East L.A. (’16), Ventura County (’16), San Gabriel Valley (’18) and Westside of L.A. (’19).

Beyond California, it has also reached Mexican American baseball in Sacramento (2019), Santa Maria Valley (’19), Kansas City (‘18), El Paso (‘17), Houston and Southeast Texas (‘17), South Texas (‘16) and the  Alamo Region (‘15).

The project goes back to Baseball Reliquary founder Terry Cannon and exhibits he used to curate for the library at Cal State L.A. It led to Chicano studies and history departments at the university coordinating research projects. All the group’s history is laid out in the opening pages as a wonderful reminder of how far it has come and how much it has collected, shared and published. It notes that to date, nearly 80,000 Mexican-American players have been documented, men and women, baseball and softball, all levels of play.

(Because, who of us who watched it all happen can forget the impact Victoria Brucker made in the 1989 Little League World Series, when the first baseman/pitcher and cleanup hitter for San Pedro’s Eastview team was the first U.S. girl to play in the series and get a hit. She played softball at San Pedro High as well as winning awards as a swimmer and soccer player, and was named for her great-grandmother who came from the famed La Rambla area of the city. Catch up with her on page 128).

The beauty of this one is it still seems to be a work in progress. The editors – in particular, Dr. Richard A. Santillan – asks readers to pay particular attention to some 75 stories it has collected from La Opinion, the Spanish-language newspaper of Los Angeles since 1926. It translated them into English, but it is lacking more information of photos of the players, teams and ballparks related to these stories from the ‘20s through the 1950s. There is also a couple of pages dedicated to Lolo’s Barber Shop in Catalina Island, which has become a museum of local baseball history with many names, teams and leagues lost to history. This specific book on the South Bay is also an expansion of a chapter included in the group’s project documenting Mexican-American baseball in the Santa Maria Valley, by historians Marcelino Saucedo, Alex Moreno Areyan and Ron Gonzales.

Richard Santillan holds a copy of the book, Mexican American Baseball in the Pomona Valley, during a reception at the University Library at Cal Poly Pomona in 2014. (Photo: Cal Poly Pomona)

The editors also call this book “a forward-looking game-changer” for the Latino Baseball History Project book series, with a “wealthier narrative” that also incorporates the cultural and community roots. It has emerged from an hiatus during the COVID-19 shutdown with a renewed look on the commitment to documenting the game from its Mexican-American prism.

Among the new faces and local legends to read about:

== Manuel Sylva, a member of the semi-pro San Pedro Merchants team in 1907-08. The catcher was born in the 1880s in Wilmington and played for Native American teams around the country.

== Lou Medina, who signed with the St. Louis Browns out of San Pedro High in 1951 after also playing for the Star-Kist Tuna local company team.

== Lefty Olguin, a San Pedro legend in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, who does the books forward and talks also about his time playing at L.A. Harbor College with legendary coach Jim O’Brien.

== Those in the areas of Wrigley Terrace, Pebbly Beach, Falls Canyon and Tremont Street in Avalon on Catalina Island who formed teams, including the Avalon High team of the 1950s that played games at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs’ spring training camp, often wearing the team’s uniforms donated to them.

How it goes in the scorebook

Say, hey, South Bay.

And keep the lineup moving.

All the years we personally spent absorbing South Bay baseball history – from the point when our family moved into the area from South L.A. as I turned 4, through reading about the game in the Daily Breeze growing up, to covering games for the Daily Breeze through college and staff writer years – if you can teach us something new, we’re all for it.

Especially in the discovery, long before Fernando Valenzuela, of Bert “Squeaky” Valenzuela of the 1962 Redondo Beach K Construction baseball team sponsored by Ernie Valenzuela’s construction firm. The back cover also has a team photo of the Hermosa Beach White Sox from 1937, a group of Mexican Americans that competed in the Los Angeles Negro League five years before Jackie Robinson’s integration into Major League Baseball.

You can look it up: More to ponder

== This book actually came on our radar because Ron Kaplan’s Baeball Bookshelf noted it was No. 10 on the list of Amazon’s baseball book rankings on May 6. Why? A college classroom purchase? Whatever the reason, it moved the needle.

== In the big inning, there was “Mexican American Baseball in Los Angeles,” Arcadia Publishing, 201, $21.99, with Santillian and Francisco E. Balderrama. It has a cover photo of Elias Baca, “The Spanish Tornado,” pitching for UCLA during the Great Depression. There is also team photos of the Carmelita Provision Company (CPC), or Chorizeros, wearing their 1953 L.A. City Championship badges, along with a shot of the nine Pena brothers posing with their father, William. It covers the history, social and cultural impact  of Mexican American baseball from the sandlots in 1900 to the barrios, high school to universities, adult leagues and company teams to the Dodgers and “Fernandomania” in the 1980s.

Francisco E. Balderrama

== Santillian and Balderrama wrote the piece, “Los Chorizeros: The New York Yankees of East Los Angeles and the Reclaiming of Mexican American Baseball History” for the SABR’s National Pastime edition: Endless Seasons — Baseball in Southern California, in 2011.

== A Sept., 2011 piece for “How LA’s Mexican American Baseball Teams Hit A Home Run”

== A short story on Santillian via the L.A. County planning commission website: “When Richard was a kid in the 1950s, he didn’t play baseball. But his Mexican immigrant father would take him “to as many games as he could” after the Dodgers came to LA. That would end up becoming the seed of Richard’s long-term passion and academic research interest: the Latino Baseball History Project, a collection of oral histories and family photos from throughout the East San Gabriel Valley and the Los Angeles area, as well as the Southwestern U.S., Texas, and beyond.”


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