Sport’s Reach Helped Unite a Community

Times Staff Writer

For Bobby Castillo, playing baseball in the streets of Lincoln Heights, with balding tennis balls and hubcaps for bases, helped blaze a path to dreams and away from trouble.

As a relief pitcher, he played on the World Series-winning Dodgers team of 1981. He also taught the screwball to a pudgy Mexican left-hander known for staring at the heavens when he delivered his loopy pitch.

“I was a little hoodlum growing up, you know, but my passion for baseball was too great,” said Castillo, 49, who taught Fernando Valenzuela his signature pitch. “Baseball makes you a better person overall. You learn how to deal with other people, you learn how to deal with other races. You become companions. You learn to rely on other people, because you’re a team.”


Castillo was the keynote speaker Saturday at Cal State Los Angeles, where officials announced a plan to create an exhibit on baseball’s significance in building community among the city’s Latinos.

“Mexican American Baseball in Los Angeles: From the Barrios to the Big Leagues” is expected to debut in time for the 2006 baseball season with oral histories, artworks, photos and other artifacts.

The exhibit is a joint project of Cal State L.A.’s John F. Kennedy Memorial Library, where it will be housed, and the Baseball Reliquary, a Pasadena-based nonprofit organization that studies baseball’s relationship to American culture.

Exhibits will explore a love affair between Mexican Americans and a sport that moved seamlessly across borders. It is a love that has persisted despite bitter watershed events such as the evicting of Latino families from Chavez Ravine to make room for Dodger Stadium.

“There was the drama of Chavez Ravine, but we’ve been the loyal fan base, and the fanaticos of Fernando,” said Tomas Benitez, 52, executive director of Self-Help Graphics in East L.A., who attended Saturday’s gathering and plans to be involved in the project. “Baseball, in our generation, made us American. With beisbol, you can be both Mexican and American. It’s a sport that transcends the border.”

Terry Cannon, the executive director of the Baseball Reliquary, said he began to think about the subject after reading an article by Stanislaus State professor Samuel Regalado.

Regalado described Sundays playing baseball on the Eastside during the 1950s as “more than a sporting event, it was a gathering.”

In parks where mattresses served as backstops and gopher holes dotted fields, tacos and tamales preempted hot dogs and bags of peanuts.

Local parish priests would occasionally bless fields and the players, and women would crochet in the audience.

In a city increasingly built up by new immigrants, “baseball in Los Angeles provided a sense of stability and permanence,” Cannon said.

Mel Almada, who debuted with the Boston Red Sox, became the first Mexican-born player in the major leagues in 1933.

Quite a few Chicanos and Mexicans have come after him, such as Nomar Garciaparra and Vinny Castilla, said Gabriel “Tito” Avila, founder and president of the Hispanic Heritage Museum in San Francisco.

But the first person to be inducted into the Hispanic Heritage Museum was Ted Williams, the Red Sox superstar in the 1940s and ‘50s. The “Splendid Splinter” was part Mexican, on his mother’s side, Avila said.

“He didn’t talk about it because of the racism of his time,” Avila said.

Francisco E. Balderrama, a Cal State L.A. professor of Chicano studies and history, said some American companies in Mexico promoted baseball to cultivate a spirit of cooperation.

“They thought if they could play baseball together, maybe they could work more effectively together on the line, or in the orchard,” Balderrama said.

Castillo said playing baseball since he was a child taught him to make the right choices. While some of the neighborhood teenagers partied late, he would go to bed early to rest for a game the next day, he said.

After being let go by the Kansas City Royals, Castillo decided to play ball in Mexico.

Then the Dodgers signed him in 1977.

“It was a huge deal. Everybody in the neighborhood bought T-shirts with Castillo in the back,” Castillo said. “My mom and dad became celebrities.”

He related a story about how going from playing beisbol to playing baseball caused him grief when he came back to Los Angeles and the big leagues.

Many people thought he grew up in Mexico and he didn’t know any English. “Everybody was talking to me in Spanish, so I needed an interpreter,” he said, drawing laughs from the audience.