POMONA, Calif. — Although they served in the United States Armed Forces, the veterans who spoke at Cal Poly Pomona on Wednesday came to speak about their time wearing other uniforms.
About a dozen Mexican-American veterans who played baseball in the military are the focus of a new exhibit at the university library, “Mexican Americans in the Military, 1930s-1970s: From the Battle Fields to the Baseball Fields.” The exhibit is a project of Cal State San Bernardino’s Latino Baseball History Project.
“About six years ago, we established the Latino Baseball History Project,” said Richard Santillan, professor emeritus in the Ethnic and Women’s Studies Department at Cal Poly Pomona, who serves on the advisory board for the project. “A number of us who had a great deal of interest in Mexican-American history, as well as baseball, decided to promote the contributions Mexican-Americans have made in all facets of baseball — Major League Baseball, women in baseball — and we decided this year to salute Mexican-Americans who played baseball in the military.”
A half dozen Southern California veterans spoke at a panel discussion at Cal Poly on Wednesday.
Ruben Alvarez’s South Central Los Angeles family had already produced two professional baseball players by the time he got an offer from the St. Louis Cardinals, one that his father stopped him from taking. At the time, Major League Baseball only had a handful of Hispanics playing at the major league level, and Alvarez’s father believed prejudice would keep him in the minor leagues, where his two brothers remained.
Besides, Alvarez had been offered a full scholarship to UCLA. Out of spite, he refused to attend the university, choosing instead to attend Chapman University, which had also offered him a scholarship. His father, though, was unfazed, saying Chapman would also give his son a quality education and opportunities for the future.
First, though, came his Army service. Alvarez’s ability on the ball field got him attached to his division’s baseball team, touring the country, playing other military teams.
Coming from Los Angeles, he was shocked by the racism in the South: In some towns, it wasn’t safe for him to eat with whites, he ate on the bus alongside black players.
Alvarez returned from duty and went on to attend Chapman.
“College did pay off — I did retire as a (school) principal,” Alvarez said. “I still coach every chance I get.”
Another veteran at Cal Poly on Wednesday to tell his story was Rudy Martinez.
Baseball took Martinez from Lompoc to Melbourne, Australia.
Although he served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, his ability on the baseball field kept him from seeing the worst of enlisted life: “Being in the Marine Corps, the worst part was boot camp, and that was it, thank the Lord.”
The Marines, like other branches of the Armed Forces, used baseball as a morale builder for the troops. By 1956, he found himself on a goodwill tour of Asia and the South Pacific, promoting both the United States and baseball. The team often left behind equipment at each of their stops in an attempt to seed baseball play in the countries they’d visited.
He and his teammates played a demonstration game at the Melbourne Olympics.
“We won,” he said. “It was no big deal; Australians didn’t play a lot of baseball at that time.”
That game in Melbourne was before 109,000 spectators, the largest crowd ever at that point, according to Martinez.
The “Mexican Americans in the Military, 1930s-1970s: From the Battle Fields to the Baseball Fields” exhibit will be on display on the fourth floor at the Cal Poly Pomona library through Sept. 10 before moving to Cal State San Bernardino.
The project produces library exhibits, newsletters and special events. The Latino Baseball History Project has compiled three books of Latino baseball memorabilia, with a fourth on the way.
“So this is just one of many activities we do every year to bring the community (and) families together to salute these very special, extraordinary individuals,” Santillan said.
For more information on the Latino Baseball History Project, visit http://www.lib.csusb.edu/SpecialCollections/latino_baseball_history_project.html. The Latino Baseball History Project memorabilia books are available for $20, or $55 for the full set of three. Information: Ericka Saucedo at email@example.com.