How LA's Mexican American Baseball Teams Hit A Home Run
For more than 50 years, thousands of Mexican Americans across Southern California knew where they would be every Sunday. On fields stretching from White Sox Park in Compton to Evergreen Park in Boyle Heights, hundreds of amateur and semi-professional Latinx baseball and softball teams battled it out in front of devoted crowds. Mariachi bands performed, children frolicked and spectators parked their cars near the bases for a bird's eye view.
"They used to call it the beer league because people would get together on Sunday and just drink beer there all day and play ball," says professor Richard Santillán of the Latino Baseball History Project at California State University San Bernardino.
These Sunday games were more than casual fun. They were massive public assemblies where Mexican Americans could socialize, strategize and make personal and professional connections.
"You would have political speakers, you would have people talking about boycotts against certain stores that did not hire or serve Mexican Americans, you would have workers there collecting union cards to start a labor union," Santillán says. "It was disguised as just merely a recreational sport but it had a lot of political implications."
A Long-Term Love Affair
According to Santillán, baseball first came to Mexico in the 1840s and 1850s, when occupying American troops taught locals the game. The sport quickly caught on both in Mexico and in barrios throughout the American West, in part because of its accessibility.
"It was very easy to play baseball, it was not expensive. Mexican Americans lived in farming and agriculture communities, and they were often segregated into certain areas but there was some land there. They could very easily put out rocks as the bases. They could make their own gloves, they could make their own balls, they could carve out pieces of branches to make bats," Santillán says.
Due to racism, Mexican Americans were barred from almost all organized sports in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
"Los Angeles recreational leagues were, at best, during those years, unwelcome and also restrictive," says researcher Christopher Docter, co-author of three books on the subject, including Mexican American Baseball in the Westside of Los Angeles.
By the late 19th century, American railways, mines, steelworks, farms and factories all over the Western U.S. were sponsoring their own teams of Latinx workers. It was a way to build a workplace comradery and give employees who were barred from organized sports a space to play ball. These teams would play each other, as well as clubs from Mexico.
"In the late 1800s, Mexican teams would come barnstorming throughout the United States, primarily playing Mexican teams but also playing African American teams. Mexican Americans on this side [of the border] would be able to send food and clothing to Mexico — some money to build a ball field or to repair a church and so forth. Baseball was being used to bring communities together," Santillán says.
Players had additional incentives to participate. The best ones became local celebrities, celebrated by their community and reported on in local Spanish-language newspapers.
"If you were a good player, there was a lot of economic incentive. There were players that would work for companies that were paid as workers but really they were being paid as baseball players for the company. Players were often paid or rewarded with goods from the businesses they played for. A dry goods store may pay in cornmeal, a furniture store in a new dining room table," Santillan says.
Beyond the professional and public adulation, there was freedom, if only for an afternoon, to enjoy companionship.
"Baseball and softball were fun because it was a way for them to escape all of the oppression and their second-class citizenship. For two or three hours on a Saturday or Sunday, just like church, they could find peace, they could find equality, they could find justice, they could find acceptance," Santillán says.
Ponte Las Botas
According to José M. Alamillo's definitive Deportes: The Making of a Sporting Mexican Diaspora, by the 1920s, Mexican American amateur and semi-pro baseball teams across the U.S. had developed sophisticated modes of scheduling and scouting, organizing both multi-state leagues and tournaments.
Los Angeles area clubs were no exception. "One team, for instance, was the San Fernando Missions, based in the city of San Fernando, who had a whole Board of Directors," Docter says. They had a team treasurer, who handled the money. Someone else was in charge of transportation. Newspaper stories referenced how the team paid for busloads of San Fernando residents to travel to the main ballpark to watch them play.
The Zapateros were one of L.A.'s standout Mexican baseball teams during the 1920s and '30s. Alamillo says the team was founded in 1926 by Arturo and Rodrigo Castillo, owners of the El Paso Shoe Store at at 144 Main St. in downtown L.A. According to La Opinión, the Zapateros were "the most powerful team at the time … composed entirely of Mexican players."
With their distinctive, company-issued sneakers, the Zapateros played at 7,000-seat White Sox Park, the center of non-white baseball in pre-WWII Los Angeles. Winners of three Spanish American League titles in the late '20s, they broke the color barrier when they were invited by the Southern California Baseball Association to play in the all-white Summer League. According to Alamillo, in one particularly tough match, the Zapateros faced the all-white Cudahy Puritans. Alamillo writes in Deportes: The Making of a Sporting Mexican Diaspora:
"Despite the 3 to 2 odds against the Zapateros, they beat the Puritans 3 - 1 in a hard-fought match. La Opinión reported that an 'infinity of fans stormed the field to hug the ballplayers, some almost kissing them… It was a victory that was shared with frenzy while American players and their supporters slipped out the back door.' The Puritans' captain blamed their 'first loss to a Mexican team' on 'bad luck' and refused to leave the ballpark until he scheduled a rematch the following week."
No word on how the rematch went.
Politicians and local officials frequented Mexican American ballgames to kiss babies and make speeches. "Mexican film star Raquel Torres made a surprise appearance as the newly appointed 'godmother' of the Spanish American League. Occasionally, baseball promoters recruited Hollywood celebrities to drum up publicity for big games and take part in the first pitch ceremony," Alamillo writes.
Although the glamour of playing on the Zapateros was exciting, for many Mexican American players, it wasn't enough. Barred from American Major League Baseball, they left to play in the professional Mexican Baseball Leagues during the 1920s and '30s. There, in Mexico, they could make a living wage playing the sport, help their families, increase their fame and escape the daily discrimination they faced in the U.S.
Leagues Of Their Own
For every powerhouse team like the Zapateros, which spawned dozens of semi-pro players, there were thousands of ordinary fans who just loved to play and watch the game. Tony Servera was a North Hollywood kid who grew up playing baseball. In the 1940s, he lobbied the city to build a baseball diamond in the Orcasitas barrio in North Hollywood. After officials declined repeated requests, he took matters into his own hands.
"Servera constructed the field from a vacant lot on the corner of Stagg Street and Irvine Avenue in North Hollywood," Doctor writes in Mexican American Baseball in the San Fernando Valley. "Every Saturday, he watered and dragged the field in preparation for Sunday games."
Today, the site is home to the East Valley Baseball League. "He literally carved out his own recreational space. He built the backboard, the fence, the bleachers and the wall," Docter says.
During the 1940s, as baseball's popularity soared in the U.S., sporting families became celebrities in their communities. In Boyle Heights, the fame of the nine Peña brothers — Gabriel, Ray, John, George, Victor, Pete, Richie, Eddie and Albert — endures to this day.
"All my life, people have said. 'You must be related to the Peñas. Which Peña are you related to?'" says Diane Gonzales, John's daughter.
The Peña brothers played for several teams, most notably the one sponsored by the Carmelita Provision Company. Located on the border of East L.A. and what is now Monterey Park, it sold chicharrones, chorizo, pig's feet and other Mexican specialities. The team was nicknamed "Los Chorizeros" (the sausage makers) and the "New York Yankees of East L.A." Their origins stretch back to 1942, when former player Mario Lopez, the owner of Mario's Service Station in East L.A., started a baseball team.
"Every time [the team] won, whoever was the star player would fill up their tank with gas. So everybody wanted to play for Mario's," Santillán says.
In 1948, Lopez sold the gas station and opened the Carmelita Provision Company. "You'd get standing room only when Carmelita was playing," former player Conrad Munatones told the Los Angeles Times in 2020. "They were just something else."
During the 1940s, the team, which would play until the 1970s and win 19 championships, was propelled by the Peña brothers. Their parents, William and Victoria, had moved to Los Angeles in 1918. William was a gifted athlete who had played baseball in New Mexico before settling in L.A. with his 11 children.
"He guided them and they were all talented," Gonzales says.
Johnnie Peña may have had the most raw skill. He played in the minor leagues for the Anaheim Valencias in the late 1940s. "They all played in Boyle Heights. It's extraordinary. Each of them played baseball, their children played baseball, their grandchildren play baseball," Santillán says.
The Peñas also welcomed other players into their family, including Wally Poon, a "Chorizeros" teammate from Boyle Heights who was the only Chinese American member of the team. Wally's daughter, Mimi Poon Fear, says that when she met the Peñas, she was inspired by the family's "love of life, their love for each other and their love of the game."
Poon-Fear discovered her father's close ties to the Mexican American baseball community long after his untimely death in 1979, at age 52. A decade ago, she decided to investigate a team photo her father had kept of the Chorizeros, signed by the Peña brothers. She was soon introduced to players from the golden age of Southern California Mexican American baseball.
"People would tell me, 'Your dad gave me my first baseball, my first glove.' Then some of the original Peñas were there. I remember one of them said, 'Your dad ruined my mom's plate of beans playing catch,'" Poon Fear says.
Through these men, she discovered the father she had never really known. "It has meant the world to me, because — I'm going to cry to talk about it — because they gave my dad to me. If I could have one superpower, it'd be to time travel and watch him play ball with his friends," she says.
Breaking The Mold
It wasn't only men who played America's favorite pastime. As early as the 1910s, Mexican American women in Southern California were organizing baseball and, later, softball teams.
"Sports for women was a way to begin to break the glass ceiling, to challenge the traditional norms, especially in the Mexican American community, where gender roles were very defined," Santillán says.
"My mom thought I was a tomboy," player Ramona Valenzuela told Alamillo. "She would tell me that I could play, only if I cleaned the house beforehand."
Although the women were usually chaperoned and coached by men, the field was a place where they could express themselves physically and emotionally. According to Santillán, there were many queer players on these teams, which provided a safe space for them to explore relationships with other women and be more physical with members of the same sex than society allowed.
It was also a space for women to be cocky and confident. Valenzuela, a multi-sport athlete, told Alamillo how she came up with her softball team's name, the North Hollywood Vixies: "I thought of Vixen, which is like a female fox, and because women can run like foxes."
By the 1930s, Mexican American softball teams like the Aztecas, sponsored by the San Fernando Valley Rotary Club, and the Glendale Senoritas, sponsored by the Spanish American Civic Group, were playing in front of hundreds of fans. But whatever press attention the female teams got was often laced with sexual innuendo. "The public is more attracted by the beauty and grace of the female players than the game itself... their uniforms look more like swimsuits than baseball uniforms," sports columnist José Hernandez Llergo wrote in La Opinión, according to Alamillo.
Despite the sexualization and discrimination they faced, female ballplayers persevered. The fiercely talented Marge Villa of Montebello started playing softball with East Los Angeles team the Garvey Stars in 1945. She became one of only two Mexican American women to play in the fabled All-American Girls Professional League (you might know it from A League Of Their Own) when she was signed by the Kenosha Comets in 1946. Villa played professionally until 1955 and was honored at the recent Smithsonian exhibition "¡Pleibol! In the Barrios and the Big Leagues."
In The Blood
In post-World War II Los Angeles, Mexican Americans had increasing opportunities to play on integrated teams at all levels, and all-Latinx teams slowly dissipated. Baseball's importance to the community, however, remained strong.
"'Tira la bola, Bárbula, tírala.' This was the animated exclamation that my older brother, Ruben, would frequently shout to his teammate in his dreams, revealing the degree to which playing baseball consumed him," San Fernando Valley native Everto Ruiz writes in the book Mexican American Baseball in the San Fernando Valley.
This is one of 17 books about Mexican American baseball in California released by Arcadia Publishing since 2011 — and the company has four more in the works. Researchers have spent countless hours interviewing players and their families, hoping to preserve Southern California's rich Mexican American baseball legacy.
"These players are in the ninth inning of their lives. There are some even in the tenth inning," Santillán says.
He notes the resurgence of Mexican American leagues in Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia, which have seen a large number of Latinx immigrants in the last decade or two. Many of these teams are composed of players from the same towns in Mexico, rather than employers or civic organizations.
Although Johnnie and Gabriel are the only two original Peña brothers who are still alive, the family is now producing its fifth generation of ball players. In January 2021, the family gathered for the funeral of George Peña Jr. Diane Gonzales recounted a conversation her father, Johnnie, shared with her.
Quizzing a teenage great-nephew on his extracurricular activities, nonagenarian Johnnie Peña said, "I heard you play soccer."
"Yeah, but I like baseball better," the younger Peña replied.
Gonzales wasn’t surprised by the teen's response. "Naturally," she said, "it's in the blood."