Published September 3rd, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Inside a quaint stone building along the railroad tracks in Kansas City, Kansas, a group of men sipping Coca-Cola and their alcohol of choice burst out in laughter.
They were gathered at The American Legion Post #213, aka The Eagles Nest. The Nest’s backyard also happens to be a ballpark, an historic ballpark for Latinos in Kansas City, Kansas.
Many of the people inside are former Latino baseball players or family members of those who played and paved the way for them. Mario Escobar, Paulie Hernandez and Anthony Scott Gomez are part of Kansas City’s Mexican baseball legacy.
Though they played in different leagues, in different towns in the Midwest, their identity brought them together. Now, they’re lifelong friends.
The Nest is where community members stop by to imbibe, but it’s also where U.S. veterans who were Latino – most of whom were Mexican Americans – came to relax when no other bar in Kansas City would let them in.
It’s also a space that nurtured the baseball and softball tradition.
As Escobar, Hernandez and Gomez reminisced, they echoed similar experiences, bursting out in cackles and interrupting one another with memories spurred by whatever others were sharing.
Their camaraderie was cemented because of the widespread discrimination against Mexicans and Black people from playing in all-white leagues.
But their impact on the field and in the game far exceeded the Kansas City metro area. This was a movement.
Before big-named players were lauded for breaking through the color barriers in places like New York or Los Angeles, these local players were pushing for a fair chance to play ball.
This, to some degree, also included gender barriers.
Midwest ballparks were a special place for these people and their community.
“People socialized and discussed community issues at the games, and strengthened their sense of racial and ethnic solidarity,” scholar Richard Santillan wrote in 2000.
Being part of a team or league also provided employment opportunities.
“Being an outstanding player was oftentimes a ticket to employment for Mexicans, because businesses wanted to have winning baseball teams,” Santillan wrote.
The scholar called the game a sort of “cultural survival.”
This narrative parallels the experience of Latinos and other people of color barred from playing in white Major League Baseball.
Los Locos, The Amigos and The Aztecas gave Latinos an exclusive, safe space to enjoy the sport they loved.
“Back then you had to be all Mexican,” said Anthony Scott Gomez, a former pitcher for the Kansas City team, The Amigos, who emphasized. “Teams had to be of Mexican descent.”
It could get messy, though.
Gomez said he was once called out during a game because the audience thought he was a guero – a white guy. Scott Gomez laughed as he remembered how his father, a well-known ballplayer in his own right, had to correct the spectators.
Gomez played because his dad played. And his kids play because he played. Now, he does his part by coaching.
He said this is part of the lasting legacy that he wants more people to understand.
Marcelino Fernandez, a coach who once played for the Azteca team from Kansas City, quoted in Santillan’s paper, said: “Sports definitely helped me become more outgoing, competitive, responsible, articulate, and to take charge. These types of critical skills for success in the real world were not taught to Mexican children in schools or other public places.”
This was also the case for Tony Moreno, 85, who says playing ball changed his life.
Moreno, a Marine veteran-turned-softball pitcher, smacks his right fist into his left hand and strikes the air as he recalls his days on the field.
“You know, we played from the heart,” Moreno said.
Moreno recounted his own experiences against a backdrop of clanging chimes that swayed with the wind on the front porch of his Northland home.
He was an East Side Kansas City kid, born in the area to a family from Leon, Guanajuato, who – like many immigrants – moved to the area for a job with the railroad companies.
“My grandpa (on mom’s side) went to work for the Burlington railroad, and grandpa on my dad’s side, he went to work for the Kansas City Southern,” he said. “My dad went to work for the Missouri Pacific railroad and then met my mom.”
Moreno was one of many who took up a mitt or a bat in search of belonging in a time when skin color and family heritage determined which space a person was allowed to occupy.
But tension also existed within the community, Moreno recalled. He knew. He experienced it.
“When you’re from the East Side of town you’re an outsider,” he said. “It’s a shame it’s that way.”
Despite those experiences, he sought to pave a path for himself. So he quit high school early to find a job.
Over the years, he wore many hats. He worked once as a milkman – earning him the nickname “El Lechero” – and another time as a cable guy. Both of these jobs gave him access to the underbelly of labor and poverty in the Kansas City metro. He recalled seeing Mexican families living in the back rooms of the restaurants he serviced. Restaurant owners would urge him to stay quiet.
“It used to get to me,” he said.
These people were part of his community, struggling to make ends meet in dingy quarters. He wanted better.
In the 1950s, Moreno enlisted in the Marine Corps where he found his love of pitching. For two years, he pitched in a small baseball league for the Marine Corps. Being a Marine afforded him opportunities he otherwise would never have had.
He even got to work as a crane operator on the set of a famed 1957 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific,” which so happened to be about prejudice.
That spoke to him because no matter where he was, he encountered racism. It was just a part of life in the ‘50s, whether stationed out in Hawaii for the Marines or in Kansas City diners.
But being a lone wolf only fueled his desire to find a team. That crystallized one particular day.
“Finally I went to a game, an all Latino game, and I got excited,” he explained. “I said, ‘Man, this is my people. I want to play with my people.’”
But the all-Latino teams didn’t have room for him. So he cobbled together a team of folks – some white and some Latinos. The owner of Johnny’s Barber Shop set up a game between the unnamed team and the well-known Los Aztecas de Kansas City. He wanted to prove he could play.
The no-name league beat the Aztecas 2-1. Afterward, Moreno was invited to join.
“I had to show them that it was about the heart,” he said. “It was about the love of the game.”
Even though he rode the bench for a few games, Moreno finally was given the chance to pitch. And throw hard he did.
Soon, Moreno became the starting pitcher. He pitched, they won and kept on winning, game after game.
This history and stories like Moreno’s are representative of many Latinos nationwide who wished to play ball and find community.
The former players at the Nest echoed Moreno’s story, in one way or another. Playing on the field taught them how to navigate life.
Now the impact of the sport and pieces of their stories will be on display in a national Smithsonian traveling exhibition entitled “¡Pleibol! In the Barrios and the Big Leagues / En los barrios y las grandes ligas.” From Aug. 21 through Nov. 14, visitors can see the exhibit inside the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s changing gallery space, to the right of the entrance.
Across the U.S. and in Puerto Rico, the exhibition includes carefully curated oral histories, photographs, jerseys, signed softballs and other media that cement these stories in U.S. history consciousness.
In Kansas City, one section features national relics, flags and memorabilia. The other section features Kansas City-specific memorabilia from the local Mexican American leagues.
This exhibit helps connect the dots of influence from the Caribbean to the states, said Raymond Doswell, curator and vice president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
“Culturally we have much more in common than we do apart,” Doswell said,
Doswell pointed to the similarities between the barriers Afro-Latinos faced and those U.S.-born Black folk faced.
“That brotherhood is long-lasting in this sport. There are issues that are fraught in this history, especially in terms of race, but that’s the kind of the story of our country in the Western hemisphere,” he said.
“So it is not divorced from any of that, but in spite of those issues. Baseball brings cultural groups together.”
Historically, the sport was introduced to Cuba in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Its popularity spread to neighboring islands and gained momentum in the 1910s, according to a project out of the University of Michigan. In the 1910s through 1930s, some of the first Latino ballplayers had limited notoriety in large part because Major League Baseball was segregated.
But, in the 1950s, things began to shift slightly. Players like Minnie Miñoso and Roberto Clemente became figureheads and some of the first Latino baseball stars. Their visibility made way for future Latino star players.
Kansas City Museum historian Gene Chávez said individual stories are important to memorialize not just for the sake of history books, but for the community at large.
In the book he co-authored with Richard Santillán, Rod Martinez, Raymond Olais and Ben Chappell, “Mexican American Baseball in Kansas City,” 125 pages showcase some of the people who built the community and left such a lasting legacy.
People like the proud Mexican American families who hang out at the Eagles Nest at The American Legion Post #213.
And exhibits keep alive stories like that of Tony Moreno, an 85-year-old man filled with passion for the game that changed his life. His eyes fluttered as he said his chapter is coming to a close. He has cancer.
But “it’s just one of those things,” he said. “It’s my time.”
His parting message to the next generation of ballplayers:
“Be proud of your heritage. That’s my whole message. And that’s what I learned in life, is how to be proud of who you are.
“Mexican, Mexican, Mexican. I will never forget saying that word because that’s what I am.”
Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said Gene Chavez is a historian at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. He is not and works at the Kansas City Museum.