Exploring the History of Latinos in U.S. Baseball
A doctoral student in history was inspired by his own family's past to examine the relationship between racial identity and sports in the United States.

By Lori Harwood, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
Oct. 6, 2021

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baseball players
Major League Baseball players before the 2018 All-Star Game. This image is featured in the "¡Pleibol! In the Barrios and the Big Leagues" exhibit. Courtesy of La Vida Baseball

ESPAÑOL

When Alex Nuñez was picking a research topic for his doctoral degree in history, he was inspired by his own family history. Nuñez grew up playing baseball, and his grandfather, Tommy Nuñez Sr., was the first Mexican American referee in the NBA. Nuñez said his grandfather often shared how sports impacted him, not only professionally but also socially and economically.

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Alex Nuñez
Alex Nuñez

Nuñez decided to examine the relationship between racial identity and sports in the United States, particularly among Mexican Americans.

In addition to being a doctoral student in the Department of History in the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Nuñez works as assistant director of recruitment and admissions for the Honors College.

He also is a virtual fellow with the Smithsonian's Latino Museum Studies Program and helps with the National Museum of American History exhibit "¡Pleibol! In the Barrios and the Big Leagues." The exhibit examines how generations of Latino players have changed baseball and transformed American culture. Nuñez is creating a collection of resources on the topic for K-12 educators, a task the former high school teacher is excited to work on.

The exhibit ties into Nuñez's research on how baseball presented an opportunity for Latino players and also mirrored their limited opportunities; how it served as a vehicle for identity formation; and how baseball and other sports can be a gateway to understanding larger issues in society.

Latino Players in the Major Leagues

More than 50 Latino players participated in Major League Baseball before Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play in the MLB, making his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Nuñez said.

"My research gets into how Latino players negotiated with the racial logic that baseball employed to decide who could play and who could not play, and oftentimes it was a case-by-case basis," Nuñez said.

Vincent Nava became the first Mexican American to play professional baseball in the United States in 1882. For most of his career, he claimed Spanish heritage. Nuñez said that ambiguity of Latino racial belonging allowed some individuals to circumnavigate color lines, but it came at a cost to other people of color.

"While the ability to participate in a white space is certainly a personal act of resistance and mobility, this claim to whiteness reinforces the standard for membership established by the dominant group," Nuñez said.

Identity Formation and Switch Hitting

Nuñez said Mexican American players used a paradox of strategies to negotiate their identities. On one hand, Nuñez says, baseball provided an opportunity for them to form networks and cultural connections with other Latino players. On the other hand, the players' success at "pursuing whiteness" required a shift away from their traditional Mexican identity, Nuñez said.

"Like a switch hitter in baseball, who is able to successfully hit from both the left and right sides of the plate, these two social strategies were both oppositional and complementary, and contributed to the creation of a new race- and class-based identity as Mexican Americans," Nuñez said.

The baseball field became an interesting laboratory of identity formation, Nuñez said.

"There's a common saying, ni de aquí, ni de allá – neither here nor there. A lot of Mexican Americans felt in the middle," Nuñez said. "They weren't fully Mexican anymore being in the United States, but also they were not accepted fully as Americans. It was in intermediate spaces like the baseball field where they were able to sort of hybridize those two feelings and create a sense of pride of being Mexican American."

Baseball and Labor Relations

Nuñez said one of the biggest surprises for him when researching baseball was how pivotal the sport was in labor relations in the beginning and middle of the 20th century – at least for Mexican American communities.

Many newly arrived Mexicans were relegated to manual labor jobs in the U.S. Oftentimes, baseball was introduced to workers as an incentive and a way of implementing control.

"The managers were saying essentially, 'If you do your job well, on Saturdays we'll have baseball games,'" Nuñez said. "It was also meant to be a way to inculcate American values, with the perception that people of color or immigrants did not possess the characteristics of being an American, and sports was a way to embed the ideals of teamwork and discipline."

But sometimes the goal of controlling workers got turned on its head, Nuñez said. When workers spent time together playing baseball or other sports, it often became an informal means of organizing.

"They recognized when they were together that there were some grievances they had with their conditions," Nuñez said. "So, they could use that time to organize and demand change."

The Rise of Latinos in Baseball

Over the years, Latino players – including those who grew up in the U.S. or came from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Cuba or the Dominican Republic – have had a large impact on baseball and American culture.  

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Fernando Valenzuela
Fernando Valenzuela practicing pitches in a bullpen during his time with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

One example is Fernando Valenzuela, a Mexican former professional baseball pitcher who played from 1980 to 1997, most famously with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"For a long time, Mexicans were averse to the Dodgers because of the history of the forced removal of the residents of Chavez Ravine to build Dodger Stadium," Nuñez said. "Fernando Valenzuela really won those fans over to the Dodgers. There's also been studies done about how Fernando as this iconic Mexican player more broadly impacted views on immigration in the '80s and '90s."

Formal baseball history is becoming more Latinized, with an increase in the number of Latino players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Nuñez said. 

That's not to say that discrimination has disappeared, Nuñez said. For example, some Latino players have a more animated style of play and bat flipping – done in celebration after a homerun – that is popular in Latin American baseball leagues. When bat flipping showed up in the MLB, some people criticized the practice as not following proper baseball etiquette.

"Discrimination has sort of shapeshifted. In the '40s and '50s, it was who could and couldn't play. Now it is more, 'Are they playing the right way?'" Nuñez said.

Today, Latino players are the fastest growing group of professional baseball players and they also represent a huge part of the fanbases, a fact the franchises are aware of, Nuñez said. For example, the Arizona Diamondbacks recently revealed their Serpientes jersey, stating that the uniform highlights the "state's Hispanic culture and the bond between the team and its fans."

"I think you're seeing this sort of Latinization of an American sport that was initially use to Americanize Latin America," Nuñez said. "I'm really interested to see how baseball develops as an international sport."

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Lori Harwood

College of Social and Behavioral Sciences