Part II of Americanization through Baseball
By Maria E. Garcia
Newspaper articles in the 1940s and later indicate that at times a girls softball game was played prior to the boys games. This was almost always done as a way of enticing more people to attend the game. It is unclear whether attendance was to the benefit of the girls playing prior to the boy’s game, or if the boys team attendance benefited by playing after the girls.
From time to time the girls team would play against the boys team to add to the enjoyment of the game and to increase attendance. In some ways the early girls teams were a novelty to the general public, and yet, taken very seriously by the girls playing the game.
In last week’s article, Concha Estrada was introduced to readers. She saw softball as an opportunity to get out of the house and do something fun. Another girl that played softball at Neighborhood House is Valentina “Tina” Hernandez. Tina is 91 years old and remembers her days as a softball player with great joy and excitement.
I interviewed Tina by telephone and she had a great deal of information to share. She was born on Valentines Day in 1924 and is one of 15 children. Her parents came to San Diego in 1903. Her older brother, Manuel “Nay” Hernandez, sadly has the distinction of being the only member of the Pacific Coast League Padres to be killed in WWII.
When I met with Tony Millian, he informed me that it was his father that drove Nay to the bus station the day he left for the service. On the way to the bus station, Nay informed Mr. Millian that he knew he was not coming back. Nay left San Diego in 1944 and was killed in 1945. He was buried in Germany. His family asked and was granted permission to have his body returned to San Diego three years after his death.
After finishing high school at San Diego High, Nay played for Neighborhood House. At the time Neighborhood House teams were considered semi pro. When the war started Nay was not initially drafted because he had a heart murmur. Once he had signed with the then Pacific Coast League, Uncle Sam decided he was healthy enough to be drafted.
Today, a tribute to Nay can be seen at Petco Park. This tribute was a result of many hours of hard work by Mr. Bill Swank, a leading authority on baseball in San Diego, as well as an author of books about baseball in San Diego.
Nay was Tina’s defender and supporter. Her mother did not consider softball a game that girls should play. She completely objected to her daughter playing softball. Her mother would tell her “beisbol no es para las mujer, necesitas aprender a hacer tortillas.” (Baseball is not for women, you need to learn to make tortillas.) Her brothers and her father would tell her mother to leave her alone.
Even though Tina’s mom worked at the aircraft plant, a nontraditional job, she did not support her daughter playing softball. Her sister Maggie also played softball. Tina is sure her mother never attended one of her games, but her father and other family members did watch her play. It is very interesting that the males in her family were all very supportive of her playing softball.
Tina grew up at 2641 Boston Ave and attended Logan Elementary, Memorial Jr. High and San Diego High School. She started playing kick ball at Logan Elementary and remembers kicking the ball over the fence. She said that she was very good and that boys wanted her on their team. Among her team sponsors were J.C. Penneys, Coronado Lime Cola, and Sears and Roebuck.
She recalled that they once went to Arizona to play against a Native American team. After the game the Native Americans asked for her autograph. She says that she was happy to give them her autograph and did so until it was time to get on the bus. The neighbors would attend her games to watch this young girl play. She believes they felt a certain pride in seeing the little girl they knew become such an outstanding ballplayer. Lupita Evers would tell her: “Come on Tina hit one for me.” Lupita was a neighborhood icon and her encouragement was especially welcomed.
Tina’s team played throughout California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Her gym teacher would go and watch her play. There was another teacher, Mrs. Arnold that took her bike riding to Balboa Park. She enjoyed these outings and especially enjoyed the opportunity to get out of the house and do something she considered fun.
At the age of fourteen or fifteen her team played a team from Oakland. She believed the team was called the Oakland Raiders. Whatever their name was, they were considered the best team in the state and her team won. This made them the champions. She said she was the best catcher in California and that girls were afraid to play against her. She wasn’t about to let anyone steal bases. Umpires would even encourage her as she played the game. Sadly, when she was offered a contract with a professional team, her mother would not allow her to go.
After her marriage, Emma Lopez who also grew up in Logan Heights remembered that baseball games were an important part of her social life. They would attend baseball games at Ocean View Park, North Park, Memorial Park and Recreation Center as well as games played at the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Park Boulevard.
In his book “Mexican American Baseball in the Pomona Valley” Richard Santillan states “Many of the ballparks in the Mexican American communities were “band boxes” size which made for a much more fan-friendly atmosphere, and consequently the noise level was more pronounced –so much so that it seemed like the more boisterous the crowd, the more dust rose over the ball field.”
The games were festive events, with music, food, and of course exciting baseball. Parents could make it a nice afternoon by walking their young children to the game, buying them treats and giving them the remarkable experience of watching players and teams with immense talent and skill. Socialization through baseball was used throughout various communities.
Today, the Latino community continues to show its interest in baseball. The San Diego Padres have drawn capacity audiences when games have been played in Mexico. Locally, the Latino community has a significant attendance at Padres games. It is impossible to say if baseball Americanized those kids or if it was those kids who thoroughly Americanized baseball.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.