By Maria E. Garcia
Settlement Houses across the United States, including Neighborhood House, stated that the Americanization of immigrant residents was one of their goals. Books and news article from the 1920s through the 1940s allude to the fact that baseball games and baseball teams were methods used in that Americanization.
Some articles go as far as to state that they were a way of replacing what was considered “Mexican interests.” Emory Bogarus from the University of Southern California (USC), in referring to the Mexicans in Los Angeles, states “Baseball clubs were used to counter the interest Mexicans had in bull fighting, gambling and cock fighting.”
Neighborhood House, the various canneries and some employers in San Diego formed baseball teams for their employees. This was done not only to Americanize them but to maintain loyalty to a particular employer. Involvement in this popular sport had consequences that broadened the meaning of Americanization in unanticipated ways.
Richard Santillan, lead author for Latino Baseball History Project, discusses how the baseball teams became an avenue to organize unions. The history of Latino baseball provides insight into political and labor rights, gender equality, and political struggles the border. I will discuss how baseball teams became avenues for social and political change in this two part article.
A KCET news story stated: “Sunkist and other growers encouraged baseball clubs among Mexican and Mexican-American workers to ensure workplace discipline and efficiency.” I am not sure how you “assure efficiency” through baseball except that employees may have felt more loyalty to a company because of the relationships formed on the baseball field.
In 1922 Neighborhood House formed its first male baseball team under the direction of Coach Bill Breitenstein. News articles refer to the changes he made in the manner in which the kids played the game. According to the news articles, Coach Breitenstein taught the kids to play by the rules.
My theory is that like kids of any and every race from all over this county and in Mexico, they made their own rules. I am sure this was done because they had never been taught the rules of baseball. Kids are very innovative when it comes to making rules for any game they are interested in.
The Neighborhood House team was called the Veterans. The team consisted of the following members: Jesus Salgado, Philip “Chino” Estrada, Alfonso Vida, Angel Salazar, Bog Killen, Alfred Vidal, Robert Allen, Eddie Springer and Manuel Castro. They played other area teams. As a side note, on the back of this picture Coach Breitenstein wrote: “Give to the Estrada Kid.” The “Estrada Kid” is Chino and he was quite the baseball player.
Chino Estrada played catcher for the Neighborhood House Veterans. Chino was rather dark and his daughter-in-law Concha Estrada is sure he experienced discrimination because he was not light skinned. The general agreement is that his skills were so good that he should have been on the pro team. As a member of the first baseball team from Neighborhood House he was seen as very talented. Concha shares this information with great pride.
Chino played catcher, as shown in this newspaper picture of him, as well as the rest of the members of the team. He went on to work as a cement finisher. Chino’s father-in-law, Joseph “Pinnie” Torresano owned a liquor store in the bottom floor of what is known as Jack’s Island.
Stereotypes of Mexicans and Mexican Americans were very prevalent. The stereotype of the uneducated, lazy Mexican was very much an accepted fact. As stated in an earlier article, the late Dr. John Bareño had been promised a scholarship to Berkley by his coach at San Diego High School. The powers that be did not grant him a scholarship, even though he was seen as an excellent player.
Dr. Bareño played in the Negro Leagues instead. Many of the players from Mexico or other Latin countries also played in the Negro Leagues. The Negro League accepted them for their skill and they did not face the discrimination they would have had to face in the white baseball leagues.
In my interview with Dr. Bareño, he was rather matter of fact about his situation. His comments seemed as if he was resigned to that situation, “That’s just the way it was.” He did mention that they paid rather well so it was an advantage to be on a Negro League team.
William ¨Babe” Cesena had signed a job offer from a minor league team. After a long train ride to begin his baseball career, he was denied the contract. When he arrived at his destination and they realized he was Mexican American, he was told to return to San Diego, minus a contract.
Discrimination was evident in many ways, yet these boys continued to see a future in baseball as part of their life story. In the time period between 1900 and 1930 doors began to open for Latino players in the major league. Since most young men from that era have now passed away, it is impossible to directly discuss their feelings or reactions to the level of discrimination they experienced.
A girls’ softball team was also formed. Girls were traditionally expected to stay home and as a rule were not allowed to “hang out” at Neighborhood House. The formation of a girls’ team was very innovative for that time period. A diamond was built behind the Neighborhood House with the specific plan that it was to be used by the girls.
Today, girls playing baseball or softball is taken for granted, but at that time it was somewhat of a novelty because of the attitude about baseball not being seen as “lady-like.” However, the most interesting fact is that this idea of women in baseball and softball grew and women’s teams were established throughout Southern California.
I did a great deal of research looking for information about Latinas playing baseball or softball. After reviewing several books, I have concluded that Mexican American girls were as a rule not included in books about women in baseball and softball. I found two exceptions, written by Latinos, Peloteros in Paradise: Mexican Americans Baseball and Oppositional Policies in Southern California and several books compiled by Latino Baseball History Project, California State University at San Bernardino. The Latino History Project has detailed records of women playing softball has far back as 1915. There is still little information however about San Diego Latinas.
Mrs. Concha Estrada took the “regular” girls classes at Neighborhood House. She was born in 1924 in Campo in East County. Her mother was the cook for the men that were building the California Southern Railroad stop there. Her birth name is Concepcion, however on her birth certificate her name was written as Guadalupe. She did not discover this fact until she went to work in the aircraft industry. She needed to provide a birth certificate for her employer so she went to the County Administration building to purchase a copy. This is when she discovered that the doctor had written her name as Guadalupe.
Her employment at the aircraft plant was also an example of silent discrimination. She went to apply for a job and was told to sit and wait for her interview. Two hours later she had still not been called to be interviewed. She went to the desk and asked the woman why she had not been called. The woman’s boss heard the conversation and also asked why she had not been interviewed yet. She remembered the women and the interviewer having a few words about why she had been made to wait. Mrs. Estrada believes that the woman did not feel a Mexican should be hired.
Mrs. Estrada attended preschool at Neighborhood House. She also took part in the cooking class and remembered baking cakes in the kitchen at Neighborhood House. Her sister, Mary, played the piano. Together they would sing on a stage at Neighborhood House. In school she got in trouble for speaking Spanish on the playground, which was the case with most of the kids in those days.
Unlike most of the girls at Neighborhood House, Mrs. Estrada became a member of the baseball team. She played third base. Her brother Mike was coaching the team. She says she wasn’t worried about the boys bothering her since they all knew Mike was her brother. They played against the girls Navy team, as well as other girls teams. She remembered that sometimes girls from the other team were mean. They would make a fist behind the gloved hand and hit you in the stomach or chest when they tagged you out.
She saw baseball as an opportunity to get out of the house and do something fun. Her parents did not know she was playing baseball. She would leave the house wearing shorts under her skirt or long pants. When she got to the game she would remove them and play the game in shorts.
Because she was only 17 years old, she was not allowed to play in games that were held out of town. In order to travel with the team, you had to be 18 years old. Some of the games were played against girls teams from Los Angeles and Orange County. She remembers that sometimes teams refused to play against Mexicans so the game was canceled, not forfeited.
Mrs. Estrada attended church at Our Lady of Guadalupe and was instructed not to speak to the priest. It was expected that the girls would speak to the nuns and then the nuns would convey whatever their concern was to the priest. Later as an adult she was married in the office at Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The story of Baseball and Neighborhood House will continue next week.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.