For Mexican-Americans, baseball has never been just a game. For some, it has been a way of connecting their communities.
On a recent Sunday, authors and contributors of the 2013 book, “Mexican American Baseball in Orange County,” including Richard A. Santillan, Ron Gonzalez, Monica Ortez, and Angelina F. Veyna, shared stories from decades of studying and chronicling baseball history.
Editor’s note: This is an occasional series where Voice of OC works with local community photographers to offer residents a first-hand look at the local sites and scenes of Orange County.
“I discovered that you can really tell an interesting story about these old Mexican communities through sports,” said Gonzalez, a former editor at the Orange County Register and co-editor of “Mexican American Baseball in the South Bay.”
The rich history of local Mexican American baseball dates back to the 1920s, with pivotal arcs in the ‘30s and ‘40s, when Mexican-Americans faced discrimination, exclusion, and often a lack of voice. The sports teams were formed in barrios throughout Southern California and beyond, bringing the community closer together.
“It was [about] developing a political network,” said Santillan, who has co-written more than a dozen books on the subject. “When these teams would come together to play, they would talk about labor strikes, they would talk about forming unions, they would talk about collecting money to hire a lawyer to file a lawsuit against segregation and their children in public schools.”
Teams such as the Placentia Merchants, the Juveniles of La Habra, the Lionettes de Orange, the Toreros of Westminster, and the Road Kings of Colonia 17th and others organized in the workplace and through sandlot ball.
What astounded the authors was just how interconnected this history was. Today, these community ties are as strong as ever, making the book writing process all the more collaborative.
“I know a lot of you have been very important to the project by sharing so many wonderful pictures and stories over the years,” said Santillian, crediting the library crowd.
Members of the audience proudly stood and shared stories of their own family experiences surrounding baseball in their barrios.
Even those who don’t necessarily have personal ties to the game, by nature of being a descendent of a Mexican-American family in Orange County, the vibrant culture, photos and the powerful stories resonate deeply.
Veyna, a native of Anaheim, found connections from her own life as she worked with the other authors. “He was my next door neighbor. I never even knew he played baseball!” she said, pointing to a player in a photo who was from La Colonia Independencia, one of the oldest barrios in Anaheim.
The authors noted that the bonds made in the sport transcended. Today, that history paints a vivid portrait of Orange County life for Mexican Americans not often highlighted by the mainstream.
For Gonzalez, his love for baseball was instilled in him by watching Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers with his grandfather as a child.
That same spirited devotion for the sport is what inspired the Latino Baseball History Project at Cal State San Bernardino in 2006. It began as a library exhibit on Mexican American baseball history, giving way to oral history college courses, and eventually books by Santillan and other historians.
More than 15 years later, the project has led to 18 books with over 6,000 previously unpublished photos, vetted by historians and community members from California.
The project was the first of its kind to cover the subject with authority, depth and critical insights. During the library talk, Veyna and her colleagues offered their impressions as to why it’s taken so long for this history to be recorded.
“One reason is, of course, the history of exclusion that we’ve had,” said Veyna. “You open regular mainstream [baseball history] books, and it’s as if we never existed. So we need to document our stories.”
But it’s still an ongoing effort, as new stories and connections come to light for new audiences with the help of places such as the Anaheim Public Library’s Hispanic Heritage Month programming, encouraging the community to engage with their own family histories and personal knowledge.
“It’s been amazing seeing them come together and seeing them present their stories, their connections to the community, and all the knowledge that they have about baseball and the Mexican American experience,” said Ana Balen, a library assistant at the Haskett Branch in Anaheim.
Programs continue through October, featuring Latinx storytellers, community members, and a variety of events for all ages. A schedule of upcoming presentations can be found through the City of Anaheim’s calendar.
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