A new exhibit in the University Library recognizes Mexican American veterans who entertained their comrades in the military by playing baseball.
“From the Battlefields to the Baseball Fields” features photos of the veterans — many of who grew up or now live in Southern California — in individual portraits, game and team photos from their time in military service. The display tells the individual veterans’ stories.
Most baseball histories overlook the contributions of Mexican American ball players, says Richard Santillan, a professor emeritus of ethnic and women’s studies who has written three books on the subject and has a fourth due out in December.
“There were Mexican Americans who played in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s who were very good,” he says. “They were pioneers. They were trailblazers.”
These servicemen sometimes faced racial discrimination in the military, but playing baseball affirmed their sense of being “American,” Santillan says. The military organized baseball teams to entertain troops and keep up morale, he says.
More than 20 veterans were honored and shared their memories of playing baseball in the military at a ceremony and special panel discussion on Wednesday. Many of the veterans had played baseball or softball prior to enlisting in the military — in high school, college, community and church teams, for merchants, in Mexico and professionally. In addition, 16 other families represented other players who were deceased or too ill to attend.
Rudy Martinez, a Lompoc native who joined the Marines and played baseball on a goodwill tour in Australia during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, calls the exhibit humbling.
“A lot of guys who go into the military — during World War II, Korea and Vietnam — those really are the ones who deserve all the recognition,” he says. “I hope this will give the military a little more credibility and respect.”
For Rosemarie Olmos, the exhibit brought back memories of her brother, Alfonso, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War.
Alfonso grew up in Compton and attended Huntington Park High School and East Los Angeles College. Around the same time he was drafted into the military, the San Francisco Giants offered a contract to the pitcher/second baseman.
Alfonso joined the Army, but he carried that contract around with him in his helmet during his tour of duty in Vietnam, Rosemarie recalls. He constantly wrote asking her to send baseballs to him, she says.
Two months before he was slated to return home, Alfonso was killed in action. The family was sent his personal effects, with one exception.
“Everything came back except that contract,” Rosemarie says.
Still, Rosemarie is gratified with the exhibit.
“It sort of has a closure for me to know that people remember him — not only for what he did for the country, but … [for the] passion that he had for baseball,” she says.
The exhibit is sponsored by the Department of Ethnic and Women’s Studies, the Cesar E. Chavez Center for Higher Education, Veterans Resource Center, the president’s office, University Library and the Latino Baseball History Project at Cal State San Bernardino.
It is on display in the southeast corner of the library’s third floor until Tuesday, Sept. 10, after which it will move to Cal State San Bernardino.
(Top photo: John Hernandez signs a bat at an event in the University Library honoring Mexican American veterans who played baseball during their military service.)
(Bottom photo: Veteran Rudy Martinez speaks about playing baseball while serving with the Marines during the 1950s.)