Field of Sueños: Baseball and the (Mexican) American Dream

Alex Nuñez

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”[1]

C.L.R. James posed this question in the preface of Beyond a Boundary, a foundational sports history text, which suggests that individuals who interpret the significance of sports at the surface level take no notice of the complex social, cultural, or political meanings that sports can elucidate. As an undergraduate student who had an earnest interest in sport, I received some pushback from some faculty and peers about the validity or benefit of studying sport in a scholarly way. I will be the first to admit that I do not consider myself a historian of sport—I am a Mexican American historian but recognize the contributions of using sport as a vehicle to understand dense concepts and experiences. Even though I could not quite articulate this counterargument as well as James, I have continued to recognize the significance of sport.

Growing up, I liked rummaging through my grandfather’s office, which was filled with news articles, pop culture artifacts, and sports memorabilia from his three decades as the first Latino referee for the National Basketball Association. My grandfather, “Tata,” also likes to indulge in stories about growing up, usually involving sports. When I was born, my grandparents gifted me a baby baseball glove, following my dad’s footsteps and putting me on track for a sports-centric childhood in a proud Mexican American family.

Eventually, I found other items tucked away in Tata’s garage, items I hadn’t expected someone who didn’t finish high school to have, such as copies of Ricardo Romo’s East Los Angeles: History of a Barrio and Rodolfo Acuña’s Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, and newspaper articles and pamphlets that discussed strikes and the Chicano movement.[2] When I look back now on how Tata spoke about growing up in Phoenix, I shouldn’t have been surprised that he had these items. When he recalls his time playing and working in sports, he always connects sports to his community and takes pride in celebrating his Mexican roots growing up in the barrio.

My research is inspired by my own experiences as a baseball player and fan, my upbringing as a Mexican American in a predominantly white environment, and the meaning my grandfather found in sports to develop community, take pride in his Mexican roots, and as a source of labor to establish socioeconomic stability for his family. I became curious about how sports could be understood as something larger than a game and how Mexican Americans experienced race through their unique relationship with citizenship and national identity. It made sense to ask these questions together because I had witnessed their convergence in my own family’s experiences and the tangible outcomes that it produced, and I wanted to see if others had similar narratives. Growing up in suburban Phoenix, I occasionally observed small doses of microaggressions, jokes, and other attitudes that alerted me to my “Mexicanness” even though I spoke the same language, lived in the same neighborhood, and had the same schooling experiences as most of the other kids. These memories lingered with me all the way into adulthood and would go on to form the basis of one of my research questions about the proud yet confusing experiences of Mexican Americans in the United States. In the process, my research became a quest to learn more about myself and to come to terms with my own identity while trying to carve out a thoughtful space in academia where the historical experiences of Mexican Americans are valued.

The most prominent question was how Mexican Americans experienced the fluidity of race. Baseball seemed to be the perfect conduit to address these questions as the American sport with the most visible history of racial segregation. Jackie Robinson’s efforts at desegregating Major League Baseball (MLB) in 1947 help showcase the centrality of race to the sport’s professionalization and offer a glimpse to the meaning of race in other contexts.[3] However, most iterations of this narrative position race as a binary between black and white, and did not address my own question: what about Mexican Americans (and other Latinos for that matter)? Mexican Americans certainly experienced discrimination in areas such as housing, school, employment, public facilities, and government policies, but some successfully entered and participated in white spaces while many others could not. The baseball field was one iteration of this, and we can interpret baseball as an institution that implemented its own policies of racial exclusion. Mexican American baseball players, among other Latino players, existed. Historian Adrian Burgos notes how “the Negro Leagues,” and other nonwhite environments, “remained the primary destination” for most Latino players.[4]

The earliest codification of professional baseball’s racial exclusion policy dates to 1867, when the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) voted to reject a membership application from the all-Black Philadelphia Pythians, setting a precedent for the exclusion of any club “composed of one or more colored persons.”[5] Owners and league administrators enforced this practice as the sport standardized, teams folded or expanded, and leagues consolidated. Justification for these exclusionary practices became rooted in baseball’s identity as a sport grown out of Victorian Era values and social norms, a game that reinforced the significance of strategy, discipline, gentlemanliness, honor, and propriety. Proponents of baseball believed it could become a sport that appealed to mass audiences, including women, children, and families, and could carry the brand as “America’s national pastime.”[6] Professional baseball’s policy of racial exclusion reflected a contemporary national identity in the sport, informed by racial logic that perceived players of color as too incompetent or improper to uphold its brand.

This discrimination also typically applied to Latino players, with some exceptions. In his 1922 report on physical education, University of Michigan coach and instructor Elmer Mitchell noted that “the emotions…make (the Latin) more easily swayed, more quickly aroused to temper, and more fickle in his ardor…He has less self-control…he is cruel, as shown in the bull fights of Mexico and Spain…the Latin does not possess the patience required for team routine practice.”[7] Pseudo-scientific studies such Mitchell’s reified the justifications for excluding players of color from participating in organized athletics. The language of exclusion also applied to many other social and political contexts in the early twentieth century for Latinos living in the United States (most of whom were ethnic Mexicans), including border crossings, segregating schoolchildren, obtaining jobs, and skepticism from heightened anti-immigrant sentiment.[8]

But what about those exceptions? Dozens of Latino players, including Mexicans and Mexican Americans, made rosters on MLB teams before Robinson’s breakthrough. Outside of sports, some Mexican Americans circumnavigated de facto segregation to attend predominantly Anglo schools, join legislatures, skirt around redlining practices, and evade discriminatory interactions. These Mexican Americans were typically native-born, educated, wealthier, and fair-complexioned, often fluent in English and possessing deep roots in their American communities.[9] These exceptions and ambiguities reflect Jennifer Nájera’s observation of a middle ground that she calls “accommodated segregation.” She explains, “even though exceptional Mexicans emerged and were seemingly able to cross racial boundaries, Anglos continued to dominate all of the major political institutions and public social spaces.”[10] We can perceive baseball as an example of this to better understand how these social dynamics played out in other environments.

Baldomero “Melo” Almada joined the Boston Red Sox in 1933, and although he was raised in Los Angeles, he possesses the superlative as the first Mexican-born player in MLB.[11] Before departing to Boston, the Mexican community in Los Angeles celebrated with a doubleheader featuring celebrities, consular officials, and other festivities. Almada said, “I can’t express how much I appreciate the efforts of the local Mexican colony in putting on a day for me…I only hope I give them something to cheer about.”[12] During his career, the press commented upon Almada’s ethnic background in a much different way. Reporters frequently referred to Almada as Spaniard or Latin and portrayed a romanticized Mexican heritage. For instance, in one Washington Post column, sportswriter Shirley Povich stated, “Bedecked in shining armor, astride fancy steeds and bearing Moroccan lance points, planted the flag of Queen Isabella in the new world Columbus discovered…through the veins of Washington’s centerfielder courses the purest blood of old Spain.” Similar columns tell exaggerated and fictional exploits of his ancestors in silver mines and on adventurous travels, while printing photographs of Almada posed in clean suits.[13]

Melo Almada with the Boston Redsox

It seems ironic these depictions of Almada occurred during a decade of intense racism and xenophobia resulting from restrictive immigration policies, the Great Depression, and mass repatriation of ethnic Mexicans (most of whom were American citizens).[14] The insistence on Almada’s romantic past was exceptional enough for the public to accommodate his inclusion in a segregated space while hundreds of thousands of other Mexican Americans endured treatment as second-class citizens. Almada’s case also reflects journalist Carey McWilliams’ observation of the “Spanish fantasy heritage,” in which Anglos consume the palatable (and often exoticized) aspects of Mexican traditions and history, such as food, film motifs, and architecture, under the guise of “Spanish.”[15]

Ethnic Mexicans typically had greater access to pass via this fantasy heritage than many other Latino counterparts, especially in baseball. By the 1930s, the sport had deeply rooted itself in other countries such as Cuba and despite the prevalence of baseball talent there, very few players crossed the threshold into MLB, and those who did still experienced challenges. The culture and history of Afro-Latinidad on the Caribbean islands, as well as generally darker complexion, meant that Latinos from countries such as Cuba often faced higher levels of scrutiny when seeking to join predominantly white spaces compared to ethnic Mexicans. For example, Roberto “Bobby” Estalella joined the Washington Senators in 1935, two years after Almada joined the Red Sox. Estalella rotated between the major league roster and the minor leagues, and his inclusion in professional baseball caused angst among purists. Critics said he “looked different enough” from any lighter-skinned Latino predecessors and caused them to “resent the presence of the Cuban ball players, particularly the swarthy ones like Estalella.” One teammate even remarked, “You might be Cuban, but you’re still a n***** sonuvabitch to me.”[16] The Spanish fantasy heritage required a proximity to prevailing notions and characteristics of whiteness that individuals who were suspected or known to be Afro-Latino could not possess, which more often affected Cubans, Dominicans, and other Latin backgrounds.

Becoming “exceptional” Mexicans partnered well with Americanization efforts to demonstrate fitness for inclusion. Community-based organizations and mutualistas such as the Alianza Hispano-Americana (AHA) and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) emphasized participation in sports as important components of youth development. The AHA commented, “Sports occupy a prominent place in the Fraternal Service Program of the Society…through this medium sportsmanship, discipline, cooperation, and health in body and mind all blend to create the very highest form of morality and character in the individual.”[17] LULAC created an entire Committee on Athletics and Entertainment, stating that these activities “are vitally related to the policies” of the organization, which sought to “develop within its members of our race the best, purest and most perfect type of a true and loyal citizen of the United States,” recognizing that equal social standing could be accessible through sports as vehicles for assimilation.[18]

While Mexican Americans pursued sports as a suitable path to social equality, it did not come at the expense of losing pride in one’s Mexican heritage. According to José Alamillo, baseball in Mexican American communities could “promote ethnic consciousness, build community solidarity, and sharpen their organizational and leadership skills.”[19] For example, 1920s sugar beet workers near Greeley, Colorado, utilized baseball not just for leisure and recreation, but as a necessary space that helped workers and their families adapt a game steeped in American tradition to fit their social, cultural, and economic needs. As employees for the Great Western Sugar Company who were not welcomed to live in the main town, laborers lived in an isolated company housing community referred to as the “Spanish Colony,” which resulted in restricted mobility and a lifestyle dependent upon the provisions of welfare capitalism. One resource the laborers did have was space, and lots of it. There, they constructed ball fields, formed teams, and organized leagues with other nearby agricultural communities throughout the region, forming a Mexican American diasporic baseball network. Residents connected holidays, church, school programs, and other community events to baseball games as opportunities to engage outside the gaze of their employer. Former Greeley player Alvin García remembered, “We scheduled games with anyone who wanted to play. The families of the Colony would make their lunches or dinners for a large picnic and pack them in the car.” When teams traveled to other towns, García recalled, “Players who would normally not talk to other players from small Weld County towns became friendly. Fans from other towns would come to games and socialize with one another.”[20] Even though Colony residents understood the sport’s underlying American symbolism, they used it as a tool to connect with their neighbors, discover a meaningful expression of cultural citizenship, and reestablish a shared cultural heritage in harsh working-class living environments.

When I think about these Mexican American baseball stories, I think about Tata and the dividends his participation in sport have contributed to my family’s story. I think about the continued duality of Mexican Americanness addressed nearly 100 years ago by LULAC and experienced by people such as Melo Almada and even myself. I think about how transnational the Mexican American experience has become, with sporting events such as the World Baseball Classic or the inevitably hostile discourse about an increasingly militarized border. I also think about how inaccessible academic spaces remain for Mexican Americans today, and how some of these ideas and stories should be shared with wider audiences. The Smithsonian is one agency working to remedy this, with recent exhibitions such as ¡Pleibol! In the Barrios and the Big Leagues / En los barrios y las grandes ligas and the forthcoming National Museum of the American Latino.[21] Local institutions and projects such as the Latino Baseball Heritage Project and Arizona Historical Society are working to preserve microhistories and share them through community outreach initiatives.[22] I hope eventually that this research contributes to those efforts.

Baseball is a situational sport—determining which pitch to throw, where to stand in the field, or whether to swing the bat depends on how the game has played out thus far. Through curveballs, strikeouts, and occasional home runs, Mexican Americans can learn from their past experiences to help them contextualize the present and anticipate the future.

Author

Alex Nuñez is a PhD candidate in the Department of History and the Associate Director of Recruitment and Admissions in the W.A. Franke Honors College at the University of Arizona. He is currently completing his dissertation, “Field of Dreamers: Becoming Mexican American through the National Pastime,” which explores the role of baseball in community and identity formation for Mexican Americans during the early twentieth century.

Notes

[1] C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary: 50th Anniversary Edition (2013), xxvii.

[2] Ricardo Romo, East Los Angeles: History of a Barrio (1983); Rodolfo Acuña, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos (1981).

[3] Gerald Gems, ed., Before Jackie Robinson: The Transcendent Role of Black Sporting Pioneers (2017); Ryan A. Swanson, When Baseball Went White: Reconstruction, Reconciliation, and Dreams of a National Pastime (2014); Sarah L. Trembanis, The Set-Up Men: Race, Culture, and Resistance in Black Baseball (2014); Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (1983).

[4] Adrian Burgos, Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line (2007), 100.

[5] “Bans of Black Clubs,” Jerry Malloy Research Papers, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library Museum Archives.

[6] Harold Seymour and Dorothy Seymour Mills, Baseball: The Early Years (1989).

[7] Elmer D. Mitchell, “Racial Traits in Athletics,” American Physical Education Review (1922), 8-10.

[8] John Mckiernan-González, Fevered Measures: Public Health and Race at the Texas-Mexico Border, 1848-1912 (2012); David G. García, Strategies of Segregation: Race, Residence, and the Struggle for Educational Equality (2018); José M. Alamillo, Making Lemonade out of Lemons: Mexican American Labor and Leisure in a California Town, 1880-1960 (2006); George J. Sánchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945 (1995).

[9] David G. Gutiérrez, Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity (1996).

[10] Jennifer R. Nájera, The Borderlands of Race: Mexican Segregation in a South Texas Town (2015), 84.

[11] Author interview with Eduardo Almada, April 6, 2021, videoconference.

[12] “Almada Honored Today,” Los Angeles Times, July 23, 1933.

[13] Shirley Povich, “Breath of Old Spain in Centerfield,” Washington Post, July 27, 1937; Dick Farrington, “A Mexican Revolution Gave Mel Almada to the Diamond; His Keen Eye and Speed Make Him a Star With Red Sox,” The Sporting News, September 5, 1935; Shirley Povich, “Melo Almada, Nats’ Centerfielder, Traces Lineage to Conquistadors,” Washington Post, May 15, 1938.

[14] Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez, Decade of Betrayal: Repatriation in the 1930s (2006), 225.

[15] Carey McWilliams, Matt S. Meier, and Alma M. García, North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States (2016), 17; Almada still experienced discrimination as a player, Almada interview.

[16] Burgos, Playing America’s Game, 154-5; Shirley Povich, “Bob Estalella, Cuban, Is Back Again,” Washington Post, March 14, 1938; Robert Heuer, “The Cuban Slide: Who Really Broke Baseball’s Color Barrier?” Chicago Reader, Sept. 26, 1997.

[17] Alianza Alliance, October 1947.

[18] Article IX, League of United Latin American Citizens constitution (1929), Alonso S. Perales Papers, University of Houston Libraries Special Collections.

[19] Alamillo, Making Lemonade out of Lemons, 100.

[20] Gabriel and Jody López, From Sugar to Diamonds (2009), 3, 25; T.M. Fasano, “Love of the Game,” Greeley Tribune.

[21] “Latino History is U.S. History,” Smithsonian Institution, https://latino.si.edu/gallery.

[22] Latino Baseball Heritage Project, California State University-San Bernardino; Arizona History Museum, Arizona Historical Society, https://arizonahistoricalsociety.