Mexican-American fast-pitch softball is a tradition that runs deep in Kansas and Missouri. For decades, families have passed on the tradition of playing baseball or softball, but the legacy has been poorly documented.
The game was originally introduced to Mexican immigrants in Kansas and Missouri in an attempt to shed them of their cultural identity. But, that didn’t happen. The sport did nothing but help define and unite a new community.
It’s a hot Tuesday evening in Kansas City, Kan., and a game of local fast-pitch softball is about to begin between two local Mexican-American teams: The Locos and The Angels.
Around 20 people are gathered on the bleachers and everyone seems to know everyone. Locos and Angels players exchange handshakes and laughs, first names are replaced with nicknames and the dugouts are never quiet.
The Angels wear carnelian red jerseys. The team has been around since the 1960s, back when the game drew a larger crowd and younger players were more common. The Angels are made up of several amateur athletes. Some have years of college-level experience. A few have even made minor league baseball teams.
As the game begins, it’s clear that this is a quick sport. The infield is closer in than baseball, the base paths are shorter and infielders have much less time to get a runner out. The result is a fast-paced game where balls zip around the infield.
The Angels have seen their share of success in fast-pitch softball. In 2009, they won a national fast-pitch tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D. They were the first Hispanic team to win that tournament as part of the North American Fast-Pitch Association.
But for the Angels, one tournament in Newton, Kan. means a little more than the rest.
A historic tournament
“It’s basically like our own little world series,” says Angels' pitcher Louis Vaca, referring to the Newton Mexican-American Fast-Pitch Softball Tournament.
For 65 years, the Newton tournament has brought in Mexican-American fast-pitch teams from around the country. It is the oldest Mexican-American tournament in the country, and Vaca says there’s some added motivation.
“It’s basically pride; everybody down there is Mexican-American,” Vaca says. “You’re playing for pride amongst your peers.”
The event involves Mariachi bands, festive dancers and commemorative t-shirts. It’s traditionally held every year during the weekend after Independence Day.
The Newton tournament is one that many Mexican-American families have been playing in for several generations. Daniel Fales is a third-generation fast-pitch player who’s been with the Angels for 18 years. He’s watched his father and grandfather play before him, and even at 37 years old, he still swells with pride during the tournament.
“I go there representing my last name,” Fales says.
A family game
One thing that jumps out during a Mexican-American fast-pitch game is the number of jerseys with the same last name on the back. It is very common for teams to have several family members playing together.
“We’re probably not your average dugout,” says Angels’ third baseman Patrick Hernandez. “I can’t say some of the things that go on in there.”
Hernandez talks about the joy he gets from seeing relatives wearing the same team jersey. He and his brother used to follow his father Manuel around the fields when they were younger. They were called “cubbies” by onlookers for never leaving their father’s side. Now their dad is the coach, and the brothers play for their dad on a team with family history.
From assimilation to fortified identities
The family aspect of Mexican-American fast-pitch softball did not happen by accident. During the early 20th Century, Mexican Americans began migrating heavily into the Midwest, especially Kansas and parts of Missouri because of work on railroads like the Santa Fe. Projects were created to assimilate Mexican Americans to the United States’ culture, and a key component was baseball.
It was a process that intrigued Kansas University professor Ben Chappell. He says the projects were intended to strip Mexican Americans of their “distinctive ethnic identities.” But that’s not what happened.
“The sport became a community institution that people could invest with their own local identities,” says Chappell. “They were playing for the neighborhoods sometimes. So it really became their own institution.”
Even though Mexican Americans taught baseball, they often weren’t allowed to play with whites or participate in tournaments.
Softball began to catch on because it appealed to more skill levels and required less field space. And the community created their own tournaments, like the one in Newton, Kan.
“There are Mexican-American communities in these places that were very tight-knit,” Chappell says. “One thing that people have told me in the research is that the tradition of softball tournaments gave them a great opportunity to go meet people with similar backgrounds in other parts of states.”
An oral history
The tradition of fast-pitch softball is contained mostly by word-of-mouth. Official histories of Mexican-American softball are hard to find.
“When I go to a tournament anywhere, whether it’s in Houston, San Antonio, Newton or Topeka, on some level it is like a little museum,” Chappell says. “People will bring out photographs and old programs or posters. Or they will just tell stories. So this is a history that is very well remembered, but it’s not well documented in the official archives.”
The lack of documented history can be attributed back to the goals of assimilation projects, since the idea was to gradually extinguish that which made Mexican-Americans culturally different.
Today softball tournaments continue to be community events. And the pride from representing one’s family is just as fulfilling. But, there are less and less young people playing. The sport has become a fallback for those who’ve already tried their hand at baseball. Although, for the Mexican Americans who enjoy the game, time spent with family and friends is reason enough to continue tradition.