Greenberg to Koufax to Valenzuela: Ethnicity, Identity, and Baseball in “Chasing Dreams”

Orange crate label by Ben Sakoguchi

Orange crate label by Ben Sakoguchi

The 1965 World Series would prove groundbreaking. It marked the first time that two professional baseball teams from west of the Mississippi – the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Minnesota Twins – competed for Major League Baseball’s title. More importantly, it was the stage upon which Sandy Koufax weaved the narrative of his greatness and by extension highlighted Jewish America’s connection to the national pastime. Having sat out Game 1 due to its falling on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur and then struggling through a less-than-stellar Game 2 outing, Koufax bounced back with magisterial performances in Game 5 and the now-famous Game 7 in which he pitched a complete game shutout, striking out ten.

Whether or not one still considers baseball the national game, for much of the 20th century it embodied the American identity. Our military exported it to imperial outposts in the Pacific and the Americas, believing it would inculcate the ideals of individualism, meritocracy, competition, and democracy.[1] Ethnic and racial communities domestically played the game as a means to celebrate their own cultures while also demonstrating their dedication to America and hopes for equality. African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Jewish-Americans all competed in the sport as it wove its way into their lives while stitching their struggles into American history. Like any good competition, whatever racial or ethnic biases that existed could only persist so much in the face of the sport.

The game both conveyed America’s ideals and enabled those who found these ideals not fully realized to assert their place and equal status in national life.  When Hank Greenberg swatted home runs and extra-base hits for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s, even anti-Semites had to admit he could play, though it didn’t stop them from lobbing racist insults at the Hall of Fame slugger. For each ethnic and racial group in the United States, the game carried different meanings. After all, historically discrimination manifests itself uniquely according to the reigning prejudices of the day and the social, political and economic circumstances of the time.

Hank Greenberg's military ID (from the "Chasing Dreams" exhibition)

Hank Greenberg’s military ID (from the “Chasing Dreams” exhibition)

For example, for Japanese-Americans in California and along the West Coast, it provided the glue for a growing diaspora in the first decades of the twentieth century and during World War II internment a means through which to express their identity and connection to the nation despite their unjustified incarceration.[2] For Mexican-Americans laboring in the fields of the Southern California fruit packing industry in the early 1900s, it fostered community, provided needed recreation, and served as an outlet for political action and labor organization.  Perhaps most famously, particularly in the case of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Jackie Robinson, for African-Americans it became a bright symbol of civil rights struggles.

Ever since C.L.R. James penned his classic work “Beyond Boundaries,” a memoir about cricket and its political meaning for participants and observers, historians, sociologists and others have sought to explain sport’s serpentine, contradictory, and complex social and political importance.  The last ten years especially have seen new works on the intersection of athletics, identity, and citizenship, points out Skirball Cultural Center curator Cate Thurston.[3] Hence the reason for bringing the exhibit by the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH), “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American”, to Los Angeles.

“Chasing Dreams” debuted in 2014 at Philadelphia’s NMAJH, the first such exhibit to explore acculturation, immigration, and citizenship through the lens of sport, NMAJH associate curator Ivy Weingram noted in a recent interview.[4] Through approximately 130 objects from public and private collections, the exhibition traces the intersection of Jewish American identity and baseball from the mid-1800s to today. Along the way, it juxtaposes the Jewish-American experience and icons like Greenberg and Koufax against others, such as Italian-American Joe DiMaggio, Puerto Rican Roberto Clemente, African-American Jackie Robinson, Nisei George Matsura, and Japanese Ichiro Suzuki.[5]

Greenberg and DiMaggio (photo courtesy of the "Chasing Dreams" exhibition)

Greenberg and DiMaggio (photo courtesy of the “Chasing Dreams” exhibition)

Having begun its road trip with a stop in Cleveland, “Chasing Dreams” now makes its way to Los Angeles. (I could not attend in person but prepared this preview after extensive interviews with key actors in the exhibition’s creation.) Though the Jewish-American experience remains of central importance to the exhibit, NMAJH curators Josh Perelman and Ivy Weingram along with Skirball coordinating curator Cate Thurston have sought to highlight how the histories of Los Angeles’ Mexican-American, Japanese-American, and Jewish-American communities, their sense of identity, and their struggle for equality can be examined through their mutual love of game. The exhibit refuses to ignore gender, either, highlighting the travails of athletes like Justine Siegal, the first woman to pitch major league batting practice.

Having just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1965 World Series and with the 35th anniversary of Fernandomania and the Dodgers’ 1981 world championship upon us, one could argue that “Chasing Dreams” could not have arrived at a better time. However, as Thurston recently noted, the exhibition is not just about “big ticket memorabilia.” It also looks at how we all connect to the sport in simpler ways. Playing catch with one’s father as thousands of kids have – including Thurston as a child in Van Nuys – or how Mexican-Americans would gather together festively to watch local teams play under the auspices of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, celebrating the game while talking politics, family, and culture.

Los Angeles Baseball 1900 – 1958 

Though we often think of New York City as the epicenter of Jewish-American and by extension immigrant life, Los Angeles has a long history of the same. In the 1920s and  ’30s, communities like Boyle Heights and Watts retained an ethnic and racial polyglot identity as populations of Japanese, Mexican, black, Jewish, and ethnic white Americans made their homes in Los Angeles.

For Jewish-Americans on the East Coast in the first decades of the 20th century, baseball became a lifeline for their own communities and a way into mainstream American life. Jewish newspaper editor and novelist Abraham Cahan endorsed the sport heartily as both a safe and healthy outlet for Jewish young men and a means toward embracing American customs.[6]From the late 19th century on, central and eastern European immigrants, the Irish, Jews, and African-Americans utilized the sport for both ends.

“Chasing Dreams” highlights iconic stars in the process, but the game’s rhythms and more mundane moments count as equally important. Moreover, journalists, managers, bookies, and fans all occupy a place in the story. In its attempt to illuminate all these aspects, the exhibit flows through three chronologically organized stages: Shaping Identity, Overcoming Adversity, and Family and Community.

Jeff Flannery at the Library of Congress (photo by Ryan Reft)

Jeff Flannery at the Library of Congress (photo by Ryan Reft)

As Jewish-Americans engaged the game and shaped their identities through the sport, Japanese and Mexican-American Angelenos, particularly on the West Coast, used the game for nearly identical purposes. During the 1920s and ’30s, the Los Angeles Japanese newspaper Rafu Shimpo promoted the sport and carried the scores of prominent teams composed of Japanese and Japanese American players like the San Fernando Nippons (later Aces) and the San Pedro Skippers. In the face of discriminatory state laws that barred Asians and other new arrivals from land ownership and national legislation like the 1924 Johnson and Reed Act which basically barred Asian immigrants from citizenship, baseball enabled Japanese-Americans to demonstrate their own claim to American customs, ideals, and civil rights while also providing competition and bonding experiences for their communities.

Mexican-Americans deployed baseball for similar purposes. Though organizations like the California Fruit Growers Exchange (better known as Sunkist) endorsed baseball as a means to influence worker habits and encourage docility among their labor force, Mexican-American workers utilized it for radically different ends. Games between teams like the Corona Athletics, the El Paso Shoe Store Zapateros, and the La Habra Juveniles, for example, did more than provide for festive family atmospheres. They also functioned as a means to organize labor. More than a few peloteros (Spanish for baseball players) emerged as prominent labor leaders, and the games themselves provided the opportunity to let workers know how they could organize for better wages and work conditions. Moreover, during a time when restrictionists sought to limit or restrict Mexican immigration, the sport boosted morale and advocated equality.

As Skirball curator Thurston pointed out, local additions to “Chasing Dreams” document these developments in the first half of the century through broad strokes, using a large graphic mural of the Los Hermanos Peloteros team, “Alianza Mexicana,” as an organizing principle.[7] Going beyond the average story and exploring mid-century American baseball and Mexican-American life occupies a central aspect of the Los Angeles narrative.

If the first golden age of Mexican-American baseball in Los Angeles occurred roughly between 1920 and 1940, its second half revolved around a baseball team founded by Mario Lopez and Francisco “Pancho” Sornoso, the Carmelita Chorizeros – also known as the New York Yankees of East Los Angeles.[8] Founded in 1948, the team distinguished itself from numerous other squads composed of Mexican-American players, notes Thurston.[9]

During their existence from the late 1940s to 1970, the Chorizeros dominated the local amateur competition, winning many city, county, community, and tournament championships. In the 1961 L.A. City Final they defeated a Venice team featuring future Dodger pitcher Joe Moeller, 3-2. More importantly, however, like their 1920s and 1930s predecessors, they functioned as a key political and social institution. “Smart politicians attended the games because that was where the Mexican people were – at the church and ballpark,” noted former Chorizero Johnny Peña.”[10]

Ex-Chorizeros populated the city as educators, political activists, professors and community leaders. Several worked on Edward Roybal’s groundbreaking political campaigns, which made him in 1949 the first Mexican-American on the Los Angeles City Council and in 1961 California’s first Latino representative in Congress since the 19th century.

It is exactly this up-from-the-bottom social history that “Chasing Dreams” attempts to highlight in traditional and nontraditional ways. As Weingram noted, NMAJH encouraged the public to upload photographs and stories to a tumblr and then worked them into the exhibit. NMAJH curators also drew items from public and private collections to fully represent the Jewish-American experience.

Skirball has augmented the original exhibition in various ways. “Visitors will be able to engage this history through the series of paintings devoted to it, an audio tour, and an iPad station that explores the history behind the art,” Thurston explained. “The Unauthorized History of Baseball: The Art of Ben Sakoguchi in 100-Odd Paintings” provides an artistic complement to this historical narrative. Sakoguchi, a San Bernardino native who like other Japanese Americans of the time was incarcerated in an internment camp during WWII, explores baseball’s various forgotten, ignored, or obscured practitioners through the creation of “fantasy orange crate labels,” a colorful and uniquely meta expression of baseball, history, and its social and political implications, particularly in regard to the sport’s history among agricultural laborers.

Orange crate label by Ben Sakoguchi

Orange crate label by Ben Sakoguchi

Orange crate label by Ben Sakoguchi

Orange crate label by Ben Sakoguchi

Orange crate label by Ben Sakoguchi

Orange crate label by Ben Sakoguchi

Bridging Koufax

That said, “Chasing Dreams” does not ignore the importance of stars within baseball’s professional ranks.

“This fellow has so much stuff and such perfect control that I am almost compelled to believe that the way to beat him is to let everybody hit every cripple [3-0 or 2-0 pitch] even to the point our extra base hitters hit three and none,” wrote former Dodgers general manager scout Branch Rickey about Sandy Koufax in 1964, when Rickey was a scout with the St. Louis Cardinals organization. To swing at a 3-0 pitch, the Library of Congress’s Jeff Flannery punned in an interview, was a “cardinal violation” of batting’s unwritten rules; Rickey’s statement was thus a testament to Koufax’s dominance.[11] Flannery, a thirty-year veteran of the library, oversees the manuscript division’s Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson collections. Though Jewish-American baseball players faced racism in earlier decades, by the mid-1960s it had subsided to some extent. “Jewish ball players had been an accepted part of the game for many, many, years,” Flannery pointed out.[12]

Scouting notes on Sandy Koufax, April 2, 1964, Branch Rickey Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Scouting notes on Sandy Koufax, April 2, 1964, Branch Rickey Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

In this way and others, Koufax serves as a bridge for the Jewish-American experience in baseball, the professional sport’s expansion nationally, and the Mexican-American communities’ relationship to the Dodgers and major league baseball. Koufax’s most iconic moments came as a Dodger and his ascension to the heights of national fame, becoming not just a Jewish-American baseball star, but simply a star argues Thurston, occurred as the city’s Jewish-American community experienced demographic and economic advancement.

Though only eight percent were native to the city, by 1951, more than 300,000 Jews called Los Angeles home. Long denied open housing due to racially restrictive housing covenants, Jewish families had begun to crack the lily white Protestant façade of the suburbs; in 1950, 22,000 families had established roots in San Fernando Valley.[13] Politically, they had begun to exert an influence; Rosalind Wyman became the city’s first Jewish-American city council member in 1953 and would prove instrumental in drawing the Dodgers to the city; the Los Angeles Times named her Woman of the Year in 1958. The arrival of the Dodgers – and with them Koufax ­– intersected with these developments.

Unfortunately, Chavez Ravine was the site upon which Dodger Stadium would be built. The neighborhood had been home to a tight-knit, largely Mexican-American community. In the early 1950s, Richard Neutra had produced plans for a public housing development on the site. With the exception of 20 or so families, most moved out, having been promised units in the new complex. However, Cold War, anti-communist hysteria derailed the project, leaving the area in development limbo. When O’Malley suggested that it would serve as the perfect site for a new stadium, the city in 1959 deployed eminent domain to evict the remaining families. Three years later, Dodger Stadium opened.

As the 2010 documentary “Fernando Nation” pointed out, the controversy engendered bad feelings among many Mexican-American Angelenos. The rising labor activism of the United Farm Workers, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, and the militancy of the Chicano Movement as symbolized by the 1970 Chicano Moratorium March only made the disconnect so much more evident. Through this example and others, “Chasing Baseball” does not shy away from such uncomfortable histories. Thurston credits MJANH for bravely facing what can sometimes be a difficult narrative. “It is hard to tell hard stories and it is not something [MJANH] has shied away from,” she said.[14]

Yet the arc of history is a long and complex one. In a talk at last year’s Society for American City and Regional Planning History conference, UCLA historian Eric Avila bemoaned the redevelopment of historic Bunker Hill as an “aggressive form of gentrification” that serviced only a “privileged elite,” a “habitat of the many for the past time of the few.” In contrast, he noted that despite its problematic origins, which should not be ignored, today Dodger Stadium caters to “all classes and occupations.” Though he made no mention of Fernando Valenzuela, the famed Mexican-born pitcher played a part in establishing the Dodgers as a team for the larger Los Angeles community.

Always the businessman, Walter O’Malley realized that a large portion of Los Angeles, namely its Mexican-American population, remained unconnected to the team. According to Dodgers announcer Jaime Jarrin, O’Malley used to tell Jarrin, “we need a Mexican Sandy Koufax.” Perhaps O’Malley understood how the Chavez Ravine controversy contributed to this aloofness, or perhaps not. Yet when Dodger scout Mike Brito discovered the 19-year-old prodigy on a scouting trip to Mexico in 1979, he immediately called management: “Hey chief, I think we found the Mexican pitcher we that need in L.A.…maybe another Sandy Koufax.” Koufax framed not only the Dodgers’ past but also its future.

Fernando Valenzuela's Dodgers jacket (from of the "Chasing Dreams" exhibition)

Fernando Valenzuela’s Dodgers jacket (from of the “Chasing Dreams” exhibition)

During the 1981 season, Valenzuela burst onto the scene, winning his first eight games (which tied a major league record) and carrying the Dodgers to the World Series. Much like the 1965 team, the Dodgers dropped their first two games, but with Valenzuela pitching in a decisive Game 3, they emerged victorious, 5-4. Valenzuela might not have had his best stuff, but he gutted out a complete game victory just when the team needed it. Longtime announcer Vin Scully remarked at the time that it was “not the best Fernando game, but it was his finest.” The Dodgers went on to win the series. Valenzuela won the National League’s 1981 Rookie of the Year award and its Cy Young Award; he remains the only player to claim both honors in the same year.

Just as Koufax helped redefine the popular image of Jewish-Americans through his accomplishments, so too did Valenzuela for Mexican-Americans. At a time when many Americans decried Mexican immigrants and by extension Mexican-Americans, Fernandomania, remarked Mexican-American poet Luis Rodriguez, proved that “a Mexican could be as good as anybody” and changed “the whole cultural spectrum of who we are.” Former KABC news producer Estela Lopez noted the irony of Valenzuela’s rise: “A Mexican hero comes to the mound of Chavez Ravine…on that same ground where so many Mexican families lost a dream, a Mexican came and placed a stake on a new dream.”

To be fair, the narrative around Mexican-American love of baseball and Valenzuela might be a bit overstated. After all, the sport and the community share a long history. Yet this is exactly the point of  “Chasing Dreams”: to provide a broader context about the sport from its daily, regular local rhythms to the bright lights of professional stars like Valenzuela, Koufax, Greenberg, Clemente, Robinson, and others.

Today, though black participation has dropped to somewhere around eight percent, professional baseball is more diverse then ever. Jewish-American players are standardfare. Asian and Latino players, too, hardly raise eyebrows. The Dodgers have played a complicated role in all of this. Koufax’s exploits contributed to Jewish-American baseball traditions and bolstered their presence in American life. Dodger Stadium extinguished what remained of Chavez Ravine and alienated a generation of Mexican-Americans, and yet the same team reinvigorated the community and Los Angeles with its acquisition of Valenzuela. In 1994, they signed South Korea’s Chan Ho Park, the first Korean-born player in league history. One year later they signed Hideo Nomo, the first Japanese player since Masanori Murakami in 1964.

Ichiro Suzuki (photo courtesy of the "Chasing Dreams" exhibition)

Ichiro Suzuki (photo courtesy of the “Chasing Dreams” exhibition)

Sakoguchi’s artwork tackles these global aspects of the game, as well, bringing the exhibition full circle and rightly placing L.A.’s story in the middle of an international tale. Immigration, citizenship, community, and identity all flow through the daily, small-scale aspects of baseball as well as the stories of its famed professional icons. “Chasing Dreams” traverses the sport’s long history and its role in crafting and helping others to craft just what it means to be American, from the East Coast to the West.

Chasing Dreams opened April 7 and runs through October 30, 2016, at the Skirball Cultural Center.

 

 


[1] Ryan Reft, “From Perpetual Foreigner to Pacific Rim Entrepreneur: The U.S. Military, Asian Americans, and the Circuitous Path of Sport”, in Asian American Sporting Cultures, Eds. Stanley I. Thangaraj, Constancio Arnaldo, and Christina B. Chin, (New York: NYU Press, 2016).

[2] Samuel A. Regalado, Nikkei Baseball: Japanese American Baseball from Immigration to Internment to the Major Leagues, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2013)

[3] Cate Thurston, interview with author, March 21, 2016.

[4] Ivy Weingram, interview with author, March 28, 2016.

[5] Ivy Weingram, interview with author, March 28, 2016.

[6] Beth S. Wenger, “The Forverts Explains Baseball to Jewish Immigrants” in Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American, Ed. Josh Perelman, (Philadelphia: National Museum of American Jewish History, 2016) 40.

[7] Cate Thurston, interview with author, March 21, 2016

[8] Francisco E. Balderrama and Richard A. Santillan, “Los Chorizeros: The New York Yankees of East Los Angeles and the Reclaiming of Mexican American Baseball History,” Society for American Baseball Research, 2011, http://sabr.org/research/los-chorizeros-new-york-yankees-east-los-angeles-reclaiming-mexican-american-baseball; see also Jose M. Alamillo, “Peloteros in Paradise: Mexican American Baseball and Oppositional Politics in Southern California, 1930-1950”, Western Historical Quarterly 34 (Summer 2003);

[9] Cate Thurston, interview with author, March 21, 2016.

[10] Francisco E. Balderrama and Richard A. Santillan, “Los Chorizeros: The New York Yankees of East Los Angeles and the Reclaiming of Mexican American Baseball History,” Society for American Baseball Research, 2011, http://sabr.org/research/los-chorizeros-new-york-yankees-east-los-angeles-reclaiming-mexican-american-baseball

[11] Jeffrey Flannery, interview with author, March 24, 2016.

[12] Jeffrey Flannery, interview with author, March 24, 2016.

[13] Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003); George Sanchez, “‘What’s Good for Boyle Heights is Good for the Jews’: Creating Multiculturalism on the Eastside during the 1950s”, in American Quarterly, Vol. 56 No. 3 (September, 2004)

[14] Cate Thurston, interview with author, March 21, 2016.

Comments

  1. Excellent piece. Thank you for sharing.

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