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A graphic of kids playing baseball in the street at dusk.
(Dan Carino)
Street Baseball In Maywood On 'Those Perfect Summer Days'
Ragtag teams of working-class kids played baseball with a flat tennis ball until dusk, "when we had all the time in the world.”
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I grew up in the Southeast L.A. suburb of Maywood, which sits next to the industrial city of Vernon.

  • The definition of American is elusive. But in this city shaped by immigrants, we know that it does not refer to a race, an ethnicity, or a birthplace. So we’re reaching out to you. We’d love to hear your stories as we continue the conversation about Americanness and who it belongs to.

We lived close enough to the famous Farmer John meatpacking plant in Vernon to smell it — most days, the wind blows in the wrong direction, so you either learn to love the smell of bacon or you grow to hate it with a passion.

Growing up there in the 1980s, it felt like a town in the Midwest, except we were all Hispanic kids, our families from Mexico, Central America, South America. My parents were from Ecuador. But we listened to the same music, watched the same TV, and played the same games as kids all over the country. No matter what we looked like, or what language we spoke, we all felt American.

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We lived on 53rd Street, a narrow street with small homes that no one drove down unless they lived there. A couple of trees here and there, but mostly barren.

Most families were working-class Latinos who had bought a piece of the American dream back when it was within most people’s financial reach. Other families were renters, because I’d hear the parents complain about “el dueño” — the owner.

My parents both worked, but my mom’s part-time job allowed her to be home in the afternoon. While she cooked, cleaned, or listened to the radio, inevitably the racket that my brother Lenny and I made would lead her to issue an order: “¡Vayan afuera!” — “Go outside!”

To be honest there wasn’t much to do outside, so we came up with things. We built a soapbox car once. We spent time in the yard with neighbor kids playing Monopoly, Life, Operation and the most high-stakes game of all, Perfection.

But none of those things was as exciting as playing baseball in the street.

A Tennis Ball And A Ragtag Crew

In the early to mid-1980s, the Dodgers were always in the playoffs, and we wanted to be just like them. Some of us played on Little League teams and had baseball gloves and bats. We didn’t have a baseball, but we had a tennis ball.

There wasn’t a park nearby, but even if there was, we had one small issue: only around six or eight kids lived on the block. For those not familiar with the game of baseball, you need at least nine players on each side. But we took what players we got.

After fleeing the loud command of my mom’s “vayan afuera!” Lenny and I would see who else had been kicked out of their house. Either they were already outside, or we’d knock on everyone’s doors to ask if anyone wanted to play ball. We became door-to-door solicitors, asking for kids instead of money: “Do you have any children that want to play baseball now, or in the near future?”

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Looking back, I realize that every family around us had two kids in it. My brother Lenny and I. Abel and his brother Mario across the street, who looked like Russian nesting dolls, little Mario a shrink-ray version of his identical big brother Abel.

There was stoic Walther and his sister Dea, as good a player as any of the boys. Hugo and his brother Robert, the chatty play-by-play and color analysts of the neighborhood. Danny Boy (his dad was also named Danny) and his sister Esmeralda. Ray Ray (his dad was also named Ray) and his older sister, who was too old to play ball with us.

If a crew like that doesn’t scream American suburbia, I don’t know what does.

Once we had enough people, it was time to start.

The Perfect Asphalt Diamond

On our narrow street, we made the perfect diamond. It was more like a long rectangle, but you get the idea. The curbs and front yard fences became the foul lines. The concrete water meter covers in the parkway became first and third base. Second base was drawn with chalk. And in a true genius moment, one of the kids took aluminum foil and shaped it into home plate, and then spent 30 minutes smashing it into the asphalt with a bat.

With only a pitcher, a first baseman and two outfielders (one playing close to second base) on each team, we were ready to play ball!

A graphic of Jose Cabrera at around 10 or 11 years old in Maywood, wearing his Little League uniform.
(LAist / Jose Cabrera)

Usually we had enough for two teams of four, but if we didn’t, then the pitcher on your team had to pitch when your team came up so the other team could field its full cohort of three fielders. And in case of an extreme shortage of players, we would toss the ball straight up to ourselves and hit it.

With so few players on each team, we would play using “ghost runners” on the bases. If you hit the ball beyond the fielders but short of the home run line, it counted as a ground-rule double.

I don't remember anyone ever hitting it over the home run line. I’m sure we tried, but our flat tennis ball refused to cooperate.

We tried to even out the teams by putting big kids with smaller kids, but we were also very competitive, and we definitely stretched the rules at times.

We used the honor system to umpire the game, resulting in many screams of “tie goes to the runner!” Each game was as exciting as a big league playoff game, with the outcome hanging on one more hit, or one last out.

Occasionally, a parent who was home would come out to watch and ask who was winning and cheer for their kid. Other parents would usually drive by and interrupt our game when they arrived home from work. I definitely remember a few parents threatening to run one of us over with their car if the game was very close and their kid’s team was losing.

Every Day A Chance To Be A Hero

On occasion we played a best-out-of-three series, with the champions getting a Pepski or Coka or ice cream sandwich from the other team. Lenny and I were extra motivated to win these, because we weren’t allowed to have soda except on special occasions. Kids will go to great lengths to get their lips on forbidden sugar.

I remember one time being at bat when I was around 12, and needing a hit to score the ghost runner on third and win the game. Everyone wants to be the hero, so I was ready. Walther threw the tennis ball, and I hit it right over his head. I was sure it was a hit.

Jose (inside the soapbox car), with (left to right) his brother Lenny (in striped shirt), and friends Mario and Abel.
Jose (inside the soapbox car), with (left to right) his brother Lenny, and friends Mario and Abel.
(Courtesy Jose Cabrera)

Then, like a magician, Abel appeared out of nowhere to catch the ball and end the game, denying me of that precious high fructose corn syrup reward on a hot day.

That was pretty much how every game went. Every afternoon was another chance to be a hero. We felt like Kirk Gibson and Pedro Guerrero, although we played more like Mickey Hatcher — with reckless abandon.

On those perfect summer days, when we had all the time in the world, we would play until the sun went down and we couldn’t see the ball anymore.

That Foil Home Plate

Most times, though, the reason we stopped was the same reason we started: my mom.

To bring us back inside, she used her distinctive whistle: three tones, each one rising in pitch. I’ve heard that whistle my whole life and I’ll remember it until the day I die. We would hear it if we were in someone’s driveway or backyard, even inside their house. We heard it at the market and in department stores — anytime we were being summoned.

Jose (center) and Lenny (right) at home circa 1984 with their mother Gladys (left).
Jose (center) and Lenny (right) at home circa 1984 with their mother Gladys (left).
(Courtesy Jose Cabrera)

And when we heard that whistle, we knew it was time to stop playing and come in for dinner.

We’d built up quite the appetite by then, so dinner was a welcome sight.

I’m not sure if all Ecuadorian families eat the same thing, but we always started with soup, no matter how hot it was. And then something with rice. Chicken, beef, pork, spaghetti — all with rice. So many carbs at those dinners. Then some TV before bed, and we’d do it all again the next day.

Aside from my brother Lenny, I don’t know what any of the neighborhood kids are up to these days. I went to high school in Downey and eventually moved out in 1996, and my parents sold the house in 1999. I don’t even know if any of those families still live on that block.

But I do know that I had a lot of fun on that Maywood street, and that’s something that will never fade.

And even though the street was long ago repaved, maybe in some strange future there will be an archaeologist who uncovers that aluminum foil home plate.

About This Series
  • This story is part of a new LAist series called Being American. It’s inspired by the success of our year-long Race In LA series, in which Angelenos shared personal stories about how our race and/or ethnicity shapes our lived experience.

  • Jose Cabrera is an associate producer on TV shows. He moved to L.A. at the age of 8 and never left. A graduate of Cal State Long Beach, he lives in the View Heights neighborhood with his wife and two dogs.