Los Angeles Times
April 6, 2006

The Glory of Their Times


 


The Chorizeros were the Yankees of East L.A. in the years after World War II. In the barrio, baseball wasn't just a game, it was an event.

By David Wharton
Times Staff Writer

On a Sunday morning washed bright and blue near the start of baseball season, only ghosts ramble around an empty diamond at Fourth and Evergreen streets. There is a puddle out by second base and kids playing soccer down the foul line. Hard to imagine how it used to be. You have to squint your eyes against the sunlight, look back a ways.

Back to the late 1940s, when baseball at Evergreen Park was a genuine social event in Boyle Heights. After church, whole neighborhoods congregated there, wives and friends, gossip and laughter, children hanging on the fence to watch.

The memories run hazy with smoke from carne asada on the grill, an old man selling nuts from a cart. The adults brought beer to drink as they sat on crude wooden bleachers and listened to mariachis. On special occasions, a local priest blessed the field.

They came by the hundreds sometimes thousands for the Carmelita Chorizeros, the New York Yankees of barrio baseball.

In the years after World War II, the Chorizeros ruled over a loose affiliation of Latino amateur and semi-professional teams that played every weekend throughout Southern California and across the border into Mexico.

"I mean, we had some players," recalls Armando Perez, who joined the Chorizeros after three seasons of minor league ball with the Baltimore Orioles. "This was our existence."

The man who ran the club he owned a chorizo factory down the road made sure the lineup was always well-stocked, his guys dressed in crisp uniforms. The Chorizeros won strings of games, claiming one city championship after another, but this wasn't about just hits and runs.

Fifty years later, as Los Angeles roils with demonstrations over proposed immigration changes, the legacy of the Chorizeros is entwined with the story of the Latino community. Frank Lopez, the owner's son, could see it in all of those faces at the games.

"There was a lot of prejudice in those days," Lopez says. "This was a way to do something. Something for us."

Old photographs of Mario Lopez Sr. show a fit man with jet black hair, an avid ballplayer as a kid growing up in Chihuahua, Mexico. Immigrating to the United States in the early 1920s, he eventually opened a gas station called Mario's Service, then tried another line of work.

At the time, despite a growing influx of Mexicans to Southern California, few grocery stores carried ethnic foods.

"You couldn't find chorizo anywhere," recalls Saul Toledo, a longtime friend of the Lopez family. "So Mario started making that and pickled pig's feet and chicharrones."

The original factory on Carmelita Avenue turned a healthy profit with its pork sausage, the kind that is crumbled into eggs for breakfast, and Lopez became known for his generosity. This trait extended to the ballclub he first organized at his service station, then continued with his new business.

The Chorizeros the "chorizo makers" had uniforms with the team name stitched in cursive across their chests, smart-looking ball caps and jackets. Lopez brought packages of chorizo to give away in the bleachers, and afterward invited everyone to a nearby restaurant, picking up the tab for tacos and cerveza.

"Oh, we'd run up a big bill," says Rich Pena, one of nine brothers who for many years formed the core of the Carmelita roster. "It was nothing but first class with him."

Lopez also arranged for a good manager, Manuel "Shorty" Perez, who guided the team for a quarter-century.

No one can recall Shorty yelling or acting gruff, but if a player had a bad game, chances are he would be out of the lineup the next week.

The Chorizeros inhabited a gray area somewhere between the top recreation leagues and the lower rungs of semi-pro ball. The infields were all dirt, so Shorty would arrive hours before the first pitch to drag the surface smooth. Pena recalls a particular Sunday, after a week of rain, when the ground was too soggy to play.

Shorty, who ran a gas station in Boyle Heights, showed up anyway.

"I was taking my wife to the movies and I saw him out there," Pena says. "He sprayed gasoline on the infield and lit it on fire. Flames shooting up. I swear to God. He was trying to make it dry."

Years later, the manager fell ill. Pena arrived at his house to find the family in tears and Shorty laid up in bed.

"Hey, Rich," Shorty whispered to him. "We're home team tomorrow, so you've got to get out there early and drag the field."

Evergreen wasn't the only home for the Chorizeros. They played at nearby Fresno and Belvedere parks. The major leagues had yet to land in Southern California, so championship games were held at the city's two largest ball fields, Wrigley and Gilmore, where the Los Angeles Angels and Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League played. But Evergreen is the place that players the ones still living recall most fondly.

The park sits in the middle of Boyle Heights, with shade trees at the edges and a recreation center in back. The way it was configured then, left field ran short, so anything over the wall was a ground-rule double. To earn a homer, batters had to hit the ball farther out, past a chain-link fence and into the community pool.

"Each team brought one new ball to the game you could call it a two-ball league and the winning team got to keep both balls," says Al Padilla, who rooted for Carmelita as a boy. "There was a guy who jumped in the pool to retrieve the ball and throw it back."

Padilla later played for Ornelas Market, one of many rivals that included Manuel's All Stars and Jalisco Athletic Club. The Chorizeros also took on Mexican teams, either in Los Angeles or south of the border, and ventured outside barrio baseball to compete at the highest level of the municipal leagues.

"If we were playing the Watts Giants or one of the Caucasian teams from the other side of town, it was a machismo game," Frank Lopez says. "It was hard baseball."

That meant an occasional brush-back pitch or runners sliding into second with spikes high. Amid families who watched from the stands, the picnics and bilingual chatter, gamblers circulated.

These men would hang around the dugout, asking players how they felt, was anyone hurt, Armando Perez recalls. During games, a fair amount of cash changed hands.

"They'd get in fights," Perez, who was no relation to Shorty, says of the gamblers. "You got a feeling that baseball was sort of important, so you'd better play hard."

The recreation and parks department does not have records for its municipal leagues from the 1940s through the '60s, but the Lopez family claims that Carmelita won 19 city championships. Players recall several 20-game streaks, including one that was ended by a young pitcher named Joe Moeller, on his way to becoming a stalwart for the Dodgers. After the final out, with the team sitting around dejected, Mario Lopez Sr. stormed into the dugout to ask what happened.

"You can't win them all," Shorty told him.

Lopez was incredulous. "Why not?"

Looking at old Chorizero photographs, Perez points out a dozen men who played minor league ball at one point or another. Mario Lopez Sr. always watched for fresh talent, guys who had been stars in high school.

After Pena came back from the minors, the owner persuaded him to play centerfield by giving him a job at the factory. Armando Perez would get a $20 bill good money in those days slipped in his hand after a big win.

In this way, a talented 16-year-old might break into the lineup and a steady outfielder might hang around till his 30s, but skill wasn't always the deciding factor. Of the nine Pena brothers, perhaps six truly merited a spot, which left less room for others.

No matter, the team fulfilled a role that extended beyond numbers in a box score.

During the late 1940s and early '50s, the Mexican American community in East Los Angeles was struggling to forge a cultural identity, according to Samuel Regalado, a history professor at Cal State Stanislaus who has written extensively about Latinos and sports.

Some community leaders urged assimilation into American society while others held tight to their heritage. Youth gangs were gaining momentum in the aftermath of the Zoot Suit Riots. Amid such turmoil, Regalado says, baseball "was a magnet for everyone. It crossed over generations, political persuasions, bridging a lot of gaps. It was a language that everyone understood."

So the Sunday afternoon crowds at Evergreen included immigrants who had learned beisbol in Mexico and longed for a familiar sight in a strange new land. There were hard-core fans too. For them, neighborhood teams offered a chance to root for Mexican athletes at a time when baseball's color barrier had only recently been broken and the sport was far from integrated.

"If you're living in East L.A. and it's 1953 or '54, your heroes aren't coming out of the Brooklyn Dodgers," Regalado says. "Your heroes are guys playing at Belvedere Park. Those were the players who meant something to you."

One weekend, Mario Lopez Sr. stopped showing up for games and, Toledo says, "We knew something was wrong."

The owner died in October 1966, only 57 years old. Armando Perez figures the Chorizeros lost their leader and their soul: "He loved the game so much that his intensity carried over to us."

Not too much later, Shorty died and was buried in his uniform with a baseball signed by his players.

By the early 1970s, the glory days had ended for the Chorizeros and the rest of barrio baseball. All that was left was the team logo a pig with a bat on a sign at the new Carmelita factory beside the 710 Freeway.

There simply wasn't a hunger for the games, partly because Los Angeles could root for two big league teams, the Dodgers and Angels, and partly because soccer had become such a big draw.

"And there's television," Regalado says. "Sunday afternoons were spent watching the NFL or major league baseball or anything else."

The players drifted apart, some falling out of touch over the years, until they were summoned to a reunion last week at the library at Cal State Los Angeles.

The university, working with a local historical group called the Baseball Reliquary, had gathered mementos and oral histories of Mexican American baseball in Los Angeles, spanning from amateur teams to Fernando Valenzuela in the big leagues. One hundred or so people attended the exhibit's opening, which runs until June 9.

The half a dozen or so Chorizeros, in their 70s and 80s, hair graying and shoulders a little stooped, were easy to spot because Frank Lopez brought pale blue hats for them to wear. There were hugs and shouts of "Hey, vatos!" and stories to tell.

Their reminiscing underscored how times have changed. Evergreen can still draw a crowd, but for different reasons: Last week, young demonstrators filled the park to rally against proposed federal legislation that would make felons of illegal immigrants.

Even the diamond looks different now, switched around, no more swimming pool beyond the left-field fence. With the arrival of another spring, there were no teams playing baseball that Sunday afternoon, only memories.