Hall of Famer, Lou Gherig, once said, "There is no room in baseball for discrimination. It is our national pastime and a game for all"(ZNET).
Baseball: America’s favorite pastime. Hot dogs. Draft beer. Tamales? Baseball is commonly considered to be an American pastime, a source of entertainment for the Anglo, blue-collar workingman. What is not known is the role baseball played in the lives of Mexican Americans, and the struggles to earn acceptance among the Caucasian inhabitants of the United States, especially in California. Such a function would only be a fragment of the imagination if it weren’t for Vincent Nava, a Mexican American and native of San Francisco. He was believed to be the founding figure in establishing acceptance for Mexicans in an American baseball league. Another noteworthy factor was America’s need for Mexican labor, which eventually led to immigrants taking up the pastime. With the development of leagues involving Mexicans in California, the sport became more widely accepted in other states. More specifically, Los Tecolotes, a Mexican baseball team situated in both Texas and Mexico, set the standard for other Hispanic teams and leagues. With an essential figure such as Vincent Nava and Mexicans responding to the need for labor, baseball was able to flourish amongst the Hispanic culture in both the United States and in Mexico.
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Vincent Nava, often praised as the greatest catcher of his time to be developed locally, was considered to be the pioneer of a wave of Mexicans playing baseball in California. This point is made in Joel S. Frank’s book, Whose Baseball? when he states, "[Nava] was a pioneering Latino professional baseball player at a time in his home state when Californians of Mesoamerican, South American, and Native American backgrounds experienced powerful forces of marginalization and dispossession"(Franks, 47). A mestizo in appearance, Nava was of Mexican decent, but often confused to be of a Cuban or African American background. As a result of such resemblance, he had to go to great lengths to avoid Jim Crow. The Jim Crow laws barred African Americans from access to employment and to public places such as restaurants, hotels, and other facilities. To avoid this, Vincent Nava, once known as Sandy Irwin, acquired his mother’s maiden name and moved east to play baseball. Originally a backup catcher, his position became known as merely a fill-in player to pitchers and infielders that needed it. With his patience and work ethic, he emerged as on of the better catchers in a league filled with Anglo-Americans. In 1878, "The Chronicle" declared "that as a catcher he was one of the best belonging to any of the clubs composing the league and that his equal would be hard to find"(Franks, 47). This was the inspiration that many other Mexican Americans of his time needed to prove they could make it in a time run by whites, let alone a predominantly Caucasian baseball league. Franks beautifully states how Nava made a difference in the California baseball system when he says, "The emergence of "Nava" among the ranks of California’s top ball players suggests the growing plebian, culturally diverse nature of the game in the Golden State"(Franks, 48). Such emergence created the sense of motivation for future Mexican Americans to no longer look at baseball as an Anglo-exclusive pastime.
Another key factor in the establishment of Mexicans in baseball was the growing need for labor in America and the groups that consequently formed. As a result of the Anti-Asian movement, which barred certain Asians from immigrating to the United States, the need for "cheap" labor drove employers to look to Mexico. The new availability of work led to mass migrations into California and other parts of the country. A perfect example of this is shown in the rising population of Mexicans in Los Angeles. "In 1900, for example, there were 1,613 people in Los Angeles born in Mexico. Ten years later, there were 11,793 Mexican-born Angelenos and, in 1920, around 30,000"(Franks, 184). While perceived as inferior to the native-born, white population, Hispanics were praised as a solution to California’s labor problem. Baseball comes into play with such labor communities as a solution to cultural and societal issues. Important purposes the sport served were to deflect younger members of their communities from widely frowned upon and illegal pastimes and to show the ancestries had a sense of morality. Also, a significant factor was that Mexican Americans felt as a part of their reform that they had to adjust to the new world they lived in. Baseball "discouraged the growth of cultural practices and institutions which [immigrants] had to surrender if they were to adapt to the modern world"(Franks, 226). This societal need for baseball led to the surfacing of an informal Mexican league that consisted of labor groups and village teams. In 1912, the Los Angeles Times covered an indoor baseball game at a local recreation between a Mexican team and a team of Anglo Americans, which was the first of its kind. Although the "white" team won 6-3, it paved the way for an expansion of Mexican baseball leagues all over California, including clubs situated in the Bay Area and Sacramento. Eventually, Hispanic leagues and teams became more accepted throughout other states.
A considerable example of how acceptance of the involvement of Mexicans in baseball changed can be seen through the Tecolotes baseball team. In 1939, the only foreign baseball league to hold official status in the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues was a AAA minor league known as the Mexican League. The Tecolotes, or Owls, more commonly known by the abbreviated nickname, "Tecos," were one of the league’s charter franchises. The team was originally named "La Junta Federales de Mejoras Materiales" because the it was headed by a group of Army generals, but by 1943, they were known to institute the first night games, which is when they appropriately acquired the name, the Owls. Although the team was affiliated with the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo, what signifies this as a historical achievement were the players, fans, and contests that came from Laredo, Texas. By crossing over the Mexican border to Texas for the sole purpose of baseball stressed the importance of such a sport to a Mexican public that once was unable to take part in the event. Jim McKay, author of the book, Masculinities, Gender Relations, and Sport, stressed this importance by saying, "No matter which side of the Rio Grande fielded teams, the players and fans were just as like to come from the other side"(McKay, 73). The progress did not stop there. The sport reached another level when a single team compromised of the best athletes was chosen to represent that region. This binationalism was finally formalized in 1985 when the Tecos finally became known as the Owls of the Two Laredos, becoming the only binational sports franchise in the world. More success in establishing the league followed when Caucasians began participating in the sport, more stadiums were built, and the relationship between the cities of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo remained strong. Such accounts can be seen in the following passage:
The Tecos came to have two home fields in two countries, played two national anthems before each game, had the owner living in Nuevo Laredo and the general manager and vice president living in Laredo, had a constituency in both countries, and had a team made up of Anglos and Mexicans (McKay, 73).
This official AAA minor league came a long way in advancing the status of Mexican Americans in the baseball system in America and also pushed on the boundaries that subtly remained between Anglo Americans and Hispanics in the sport.
Many factors led to the rise of Mexicans in baseball. The talent of Vincent Nava led the way and gave courage to others of the same nationality to play the sport. In response to the need for labor, Mexicans migrated to California and, as a part of their reform, began taking up American traditions, such as this favorite pastime. And, in culmination of the steps taken to achieve the equality that can exist behind home plate, Los Tecos showed that not only can Caucasians and Mexicans coexist in the same sport, but also set a worldwide standard in binationalism by expanding the horizons of the sport into Mexico. Baseball may be America’s favorite pastime, but the next time you are at a baseball game appreciating your hot dog and beer, take the time to appreciate the diversity of the sport, and the many steps taken to achieve it.
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