‘El Toro’ and beyond: The history of Latino baseball in L.A. that laid some groundwork for ‘Fernandomania’

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From the Latino Baseball History Project
The nine Pena brothers, with their father, back row in the Orioles jersey, who played for the East L.A. Carmelita Chorizero. Latino History Baseball Project spokesman Terry Cannon says he believes six of the Penas are still living. This was the photo that appeared of them in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not.”

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“No, never. They never mentioned or talked about what happened.”

== Fernando Valenzuela

A few minutes into a delicately delivered documentary that examines the impact that Fernando Valenzuela had on the pueblo of Los Angeles during the 1980s, that quote from the former Dodgers star left-hander hangs out over the plate like one of his deceptive screwballs.

For as much history as he made on the mound at Chavez Ravine, he seems to be saying that he really couldn’t speak to what happened more than a half-century ago when a generation of Mexican-American citizens before him, living in that rugged 170-acre terrain north of downtown where Dodger Stadium still stands, were displaced, some in very disturbing ways.

In Spanish, Fernando answers the question. In English, there are the subtitles. But there’s probably something lost in translation.

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“That really took me by surprise,” admitted Cruz Angeles, pictured left with Valenzuela, the independent filmmaker who directs “Fernando Nation,” which debuts Tuesday as part of ESPN’s “30 for 30″ series.

Angeles asks Valenzuela if he knew the story about how some of those 300 families, once promised in the early 1950s first shot at returning to a new housing project on that land, not only didn’t get it, but some were forcibly evicted so the stadium could be built after the land was then promised to Walter O’Malley.

“I don’t think he knew any real details about it,” Angeles said of Valenzuela, who seems to imply that no one from the Dodgers organization ever told him. “I tried to tell him a little more about it, but really didn’t have much time to explain it all.”

Instead, Angeles shows it. He invests about five minutes of the 50-minute documentary using the stock black-and-white footage of the sheriffs coming in, dragging some off their porches as their children watched. It’s a horribly regrettable moment, with blame to go around.

But it’s an incredibly poignant teaching moment for the documentary – Angeles deftly circles back to it at the end, to marvel at how remarkable a feat it was that Valenzuela’s Cinderella story united all cultures of the city on the same spot where historians still may misrepresent how those Mexican-American families were sacrificed for the good of a baseball team.

There’s some truth in all those stories you hear. And if you put your ear to the ground, there’s an even deeper, richer Hispanic cultural in Southern California, with baseball as a contextual starting point.

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Carmelita Chorizeros manager Manual “Shorty” Perez, left, about to receive a championship trophy from Saul Toledo, center. At right is Carmelita founder/owner Mario Lopez, Sr., who also played shortstop at one time. The Chorizeros are said to have won 19 city championships.

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Today, the Latino Baseball History Project has a display of rare photos and materials integrated as part of the Los Angeles Archives Bazaar celebration at the Doheny Library on the USC campus, a substantial annual gathering of important historical collections from the city.

Sunday in Alhambra, Richard Santillan, co-author of the upcoming book, “Mexican American Baseball in Los Angeles,” is hosting a party to thank many of the former amateur and semi-pro players for their help. Two or three of the famous Pena brothers may attend – at one point, there were nine Pena brothers playing for the East L.A. Carmelita Chorizeros, drawing the attention of “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.”

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Al Padilla, who played baseball at Roosevelt High and later for Ornelas Market, could be at Santillian’s gathering. He donated his glove to the Latino Baseball History Project. He went on to be a football coach of some renown — the first Latino football coach at a junior college in the state of California, at East L.A. College.

Starting Nov. 1 at the Cal State San Bernardino Library, the Project will host a “Legends of Mexican American Baseball” display. The focus is on Jim “Chayo” Rodriguez, founder and coach of a famed Inland Empire fast-pitch softball team called the Chicanos from 1973-’90.

The group recently got city approval for a plaque at East L.A.’s Belvedere Park, honoring Manuel “Shorty” Perez, who managed the Chorizeros, the so-called “New York Yankees of barrio baseball,” from 1947 until his death in 1981.

Also this past week, the organization mourned the passing of Saul Toledo, an important figure both as a player and a writer of the history of Mexican-American baseball in the city.

“I guess the timeliness of all this, in connection with the Fernando documentary, is that a lot of people in Los Angeles think that Mexican baseball in the City of the Angels began with Fernando,” says Terry Cannon, the executive director of the Baseball Reliquary and a committee member of the Latino Baseball History Project.

“In fact, there was an incredibly rich Mexican American baseball culture throughout Southern California. They drew crowds in the hundreds and even thousands to ball fields on Sunday afternoons from the post-World War II era through the 1970s.

“We are trying to reclaim and reinvigorate that history.”

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Cannon says that, in recording the oral history for the Latino Baseball Project with the last families that were evicted just before construction of Dodger Stadium, it was revealed to him that those who moved out when the first notices were sent “were paid a pittance for their property in return for the promise that they would get the first crack at the new public housing development — which ever happened).

“A few of the families fought the evictions and stayed put for many years. One of those is the family you see being dragged out of their home in the famous television footage.”

Cannon adds, however, that the Nava family, which the Project interviewed, “were eventually paid around $100,000 for their property — not by the city, but by O’Malley. O’Malley did not like the ongoing television coverage of the families being dragged out and staying outside their property in tents. He knew this would be very upsetting to Mexican Americans throughout Los Angeles, and as a smart businessman, he knew this would eventually be a core part of his patronage.

“So he did what was right, which was to give the remaining families a decent payoff on their property. Of course, I’m sure this didn’t make all those families who left back in the early ’50s very happy, considering they were paid almost nothing for their property at the time.”

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From the Ry Cooder song, “3rd Base, Dodger Stadium”:

Mister, you’re a baseball man, as anyone can plainly see.
The straightest game in this great land. Take a little tip from me.
I work here nights, parking cars, underneath the moon and stars.
The same ones that we all knew back in 1952.
And if you want to know where a local boy like me is coming from:
3rd base, Dodger Stadium.

2nd base, right over there. I see grandma in her rocking chair.
Watching linens flapping in the breeze, and all the fellows choosing up their teams.
Hand over hand on that Louisville. Crowning the top, king of the hill.
Mound to home, sixty feet. Baseball been very good to me.
And if you want to know where a local boy like me is coming from:
3rd base, Dodger Stadium.

Back around the 76 ball, Johnny Greeneyes had his shoeshine stall.
In the middle of the 1st base line, got my first kiss, Florencia was kind.
Now, if the dozer hadn’t taken my yard, you’d see the tree with our initials carved.
So many moments in my memory. Sure was fun, ’cause the game was free.
It was free.

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Valenzuela’s transcending place in L.A. history will never be denied. You could argue that he’s Baseball Hall of Fame worthy for that legacy, both on and off the field.

This documentary definitely brings that out, pointing out that it wasn’t until Valenzuela’s arrival that many disillusioned Mexican-American citizens felt compelled to return to Dodger Stadium.

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“We were a sleeping giant until Fernando came along,” says Angeles, born in Mexico City and raised in the South Central L.A. but hardly looking old enough to have any first-hand remembrances of Valenzuela’s 1981 rookie season that ended with a Cy Young Award – much of it facilitated by teammate and East L.A. native Bobby Castillo, once part of the Chicano protest movement in his teens.

Sleeping, maybe. But now’s as good a time as any to reawaken the Hispanic baseball narrative that also laid the groundwork for Fernando’s arrival.

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There’s plenty more where thaty came from:

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== The Latino Baseball History Project (linked here)

== Ben Sakoguchi’s “Orange Crate Label Series: The Unauthorized History of Baseball,” all of which focus on the theme of Latinos in baseball and was inspired by the Latino Baseball History Project (linked here).

== The L.A. Times obituary on Saul Toledo (linked here)

== How the Carmelita Chorizeros helped make chorizo part of the L.A. food fair (linked here)

== A 2006 L.A. Times story by David Wharton on the Chorizeros (linked here)

== The background of “Fernando Nation” (linked here)

== A “Fernando Nation” documentary premier story from Jim Smiley at Los Angeles Examiner.com (linked here) and from Roberto Baly at VinScullyIsMyHomeboy.com (linked here), who also has info about Fernando appearing at a grocery store in Huntington Park today, and Fernando’s pending induction into the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame.

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