By Maria E. Garcia
Once a month the Logan Heights Old Timers meet for breakfast at the IHOP in National City. At one of those meetings I asked them to share their memories about Coach Merlin Pinkerton. Coach Pinkerton came to Neighborhood House in 1943.
The people quoted in this article are between the ages of 65 and 95 and yet their memories of Coach Pinkerton are clear and reflect the love they felt for him. The question becomes how did this man become the most loved and respected coach in the history of Neighborhood House? What did he do and how did he do it?
Macario “Mac” Colmenero refers to Coach Pinkerton as “the best thing that happened to Neighborhood House.” Oscar Torres described him as “one of a kind,” adding “they didn’t come any better than him.” Coach Pinkerton’s impact on “his boys” and the community around Neighborhood House is still felt today by these men.
News articles announced his arrival as the person hired to find a cure for crime and delinquency. He was described as coming to Neighborhood House to work with “delinquent boys.” At the time that Coach Pinkerton came to San Diego many of the Logan Heights families saw their fathers go off to war. Others worked long hours at the aircraft factories. Many of the mothers were also working in the aircraft plants or at the cannery. That left many of the boys unsupervised after school or during the long days of summer. Remember, the girls were expected to stay home and help with house work and cooking, and the boys were allowed to roam free.
Some of the families had been divided when one or both parents were sent back to Mexico during the devastating repatriation of the 1930s. Sometimes these kids were left behind in San Diego with family members and at other times with friends of the family. For a variety of reasons, the Great Depression and war years were a time of great upheaval for families in Logan Heights. Juvenile delinquency had its roots in the poverty and social upheaval of those years.
Prior to Coach Pinkerton’s arrival at Neighborhood House there had been a Mexican coach, Frank Gallindo, who spoke Spanish. Mr. Gallindo left to become a teacher at Memorial Junior High. The boys were suspicious at first of the Anglo from the Midwest who replaced him. Coach Pinkerton did not speak Spanish and came to this largely Mexican community with little or no knowledge of the culture.
Eighty three year old Joe Lopez remembered that at first it was “a little different.” According to Mr. Lopez “We accepted him because he was so nice.” As time passed, Coach Pinkerton became a father figure, a mentor and a confidant. Soon any doubts about his sincerity or concerns about any differences were forgotten as he earned their love and respect.
The boys were suspicious at first of the Anglo from the Midwest who replaced him.
In a 1972 interview printed in the San Diego Union, Coach Pinkerton is quoted as saying he never felt that not speaking Spanish was a problem. He felt that many of the boys liked the idea of speaking English. By this time most of the boys attending Neighborhood House activities were born in the United States and thus first generation Mexican Americans. In addition to the Mexican American community there were many other ethnic groups such as Filipino and German residents who worked and played together in the Logan Heights community.
Coach Pinkerton played a big part in the lives of the boys from Neighborhood House. Virginia Sanchez, whose husband Neno was a regular at Neighborhood House, believes that if it had not been for Coach Pinkerton a lot of the boys would have ended up in juvenile hall.
Coach Pinkerton’s respect and affection for his boys were most obvious in the way he directed sports activities at Neighborhood House. Sports were the popular and effective vehicle he used to promote personal responsibility, excellence, leadership, team spirit and pride.
One of Coach Pinkerton’s first steps was to implement a letter for good sportsmanship on the playing field. A participant couldn’t qualify for this letter if he had spent a year at Anthony Home. Coach Pinkerton himself was quoted as saying that there was quite a bit of delinquency among “our boys.” While many of the boys’ activities were mischievous type behavior rather than delinquent, they could result in a stint at Anthony Home, a juvenile facility in San Diego. Several of the boys had experienced being sent to Anthony Home for minor infractions.
Coach Pinkerton also established a celebration banquet where the boys would be given their letter. The first year only twelve boys earned a letter. In 1945, fifty-four Neighborhood House boys were honored at the athlete’s banquet. Later records indicate that as many as 175 boys earned their letter. At one point banquets had to be discontinued because they had gotten so big.
Coach Pinkerton would personally write on the back of each of the ribbons the reason each boy had received the recognition. Paulie Torres, says he remembers thinking that Coach Pinkerton had the best penmanship. George Vasquez says that even when you made a mistake or you didn’t win a game he would throw his arm around your shoulder and say something encouraging because you had done your best. George describes Coach Pinkerton as the “kindest man,” adding that he never heard him raise his voice.
Having a uniform and the proper equipment for whichever sport you played was important. There was little money available at the time to buy what was needed. The players often had to wash old baseballs in order to use them over and over again at their games. At times the other teams felt sorry for the boys and their lack of equipment and would give them new baseballs. Roger Talamantez remembers that once Coach Pinkerton had stored some new baseballs and the boys found them. He says they “raided” the closet for the new baseballs.
Coach Pinkerton would search the city looking for someone to sponsor the cost of the uniforms or equipment. One year Fred Adamo Ayap remembers Coach Pinkerton announcing “These are new uniforms. We should thank our district attorney for buying them.” It seemed as though District Attorney Keller had sponsored the uniforms that particular year.
Coach Pinkerton provided support and opportunities to his players and he also maintained clear expectations of their behavior. Fred remembers that Chickie Rodriquez was an outstanding athlete. Several of those interviewed have spoken about Chickie’s tennis ability as well as ability in baseball. Chickie’s picture is seen in several of the pictures of the baseball teams.
Unfortunately some of his choices prevented him from achieving this recognition in the United States. Fred remembered that Coach Pinkerton arranged for Chickie Rodriquez to be interviewed by a minor league baseball team. Chickie failed to keep the appointment and hence he closed the door to the opportunity of playing minor league baseball. Chickie did play professional ball in Mexico.
Coach Pinkerton’s commitment to his boys did not end on the playing field or at the end of his work day. Neno Sanchez himself told me how he and a few of the boys would catch a bus and go visit Mr. and Mrs. Pinkerton at their home. These were not planned visits. It was simply Coach Pinkerton’s boys feeling perfectly comfortable dropping by. He says that Mrs. Pinkerton was always very nice to them. It speaks volumes about the Pinkertons accepting these boys from Logan Heights into their home unannounced on a regular basis.
Sports victories were often celebrated with a weenie roast at the Pinkerton home. This involved taking the bus from Neighborhood House to North Park. Tati Piña remembered that it took two buses to get there.
Coach Pinkerton lived at 4164 Cherokee Avenue in North Park. He was known for taking the street car or the bus to Neighborhood House. He also carried a black lunch pail like many of the other blue collar workers who lived near Neighborhood House. Marcos and Ruben Carriedo remember Coach Pinkerton eating his lunch while sitting at his desk.
He also was known to give the boys nicknames. Richard Romio says Coach Pinkerton gave him the nickname of Smiley, saying something like—”You’re always smiling, so I am going to call you Smiley.” As every Latino can attest, nicknames are often a part of our culture. In Logan Heights nicknames were as common as breathing.
The boys from Neighborhood House would walk to the Memorial Park and Recreation Center. Chayo Colmenero, Mac’s cousin, remembered that Coach Pinkerton would allow him to carry the ball and bat on their walk to the game at Memorial. On the return trip Coach Pinkerton would buy him an ice cream as a reward for being so helpful. The ice cream parlor was located on Logan Avenue and the ice cream cone cost all of five cents.
Chayo admits he couldn’t wait for the game to end so that he could have his ice cream cone. Later when Mac was older and drove his own car, if he saw Coach Pinkerton walking with his boys to a game at Memorial he would stop and give them a ride.
Coach Pinkerton was the strongest of supporters of the boys from Logan Heights. Ruben Camacho remembered that if boys got in trouble Coach Pinkerton would often appear in court to testify about the character of that boy. One time his boys had gone to the Fox theater downtown. For whatever reason the boys were not allowed into the theater. Coach Pinkerton went to the theater and, as one person puts it, raised hell because they had not been allowed in. Actions such as this one added to the trust the boys felt for him.
Coach Pinkerton also had a contact at Solar and many of his boys ended up working there. He used his contacts to help his boys succeed. Throughout his three decade career at Neighborhood House, he was an important figure in the lives of the boys both on and off the field. He “appealed to the boys’ better natures” and set them on the path of becoming good men as well as good athletes.
Coach Pinkerton’s story will continue next week with an in depth look at the sport programs he coached at Neighborhood House.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.