KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Baseball might be America’s favorite past time, but in Kansas City, Kansas, its history has ties to Mexico and Hispanic immigrants who came to work on the railroad, the ice houses, the stockyards and in the smelting foundry.
“Kansas City was sort of the gateway to the west, you know, because of the Santa Fe trail for example,” said Gene T. Chavez, a local historian. “The largest migration of Mexicans coming to United States was during the Mexican Revolution, a period between 1910 and 1921.”
Many immigrants from central Missouri settled in the Kansas City area, specifically the Argentine neighborhood in KCK.
Families often built tarpaper shanties or lived in boxcars in order to bring their families to the community.
“They came to communities that were not necessarily welcoming to immigrants,” Chavez said. “It was a segregated and discriminating environment, but they survived with their resilience and tenacity and hard work.”
Conditions were rough, but after a long day’s work, community members say they had something special they could turn to — baseball.
When Mexican immigrants came to America, they brought their love of baseball with them.
Mario Escobar, who played professionally for several teams in the Midwest, remembers growing up in the dugouts.
“Back then, even the fans were so involved in it there was a lot of betting going on in the stands,” Escobar said. “We didn’t let the bigotry affect us that much. We took more ownership into our playing the ball and everything. We took pride in developing these teams.”
Because of racial discrimination, Hispanic communities along the railroad formed their own leagues and built their own diamonds in the early 1900s.
It got so competitive that they would recruit talented players from Mexico just to come to the Midwest.
“You kind of adjust to those type of environment or whatever just to make life bearable just for yourself and the family,” Escobar said. “We had to do it a certain way, you know, in our way. And we made it work for us.”
Even after World War II, their love for the game continued throughout fast-pitch softball.
Over the years, four generations of Mexican Americans brought to the game their language, food, music and progress.
“When I say progress, there is girls softball now and they play it just as good as we do. And I love it. I love that progress,” said John Hernandez who has been playing since 16-years-old. “Some of our old timers now have passed, left their mark, and what we want to continue to do is lead our youth. We want our youth to continue.”
To honor the rich history and the contributions of the original players, the Kansas City Museum created the “Los Sabios Commemorative Games” every year.
It takes place at New Argentine Eagles Nest Post 213, an American Legion founded by WWII veterans who were not wanted anywhere else.
“I think it’s important for others to know that Mexican immigrants from the very earliest days wanted to participate fully in American society,” Chavez said. “They didn’t want to be marginalized and pushed aside and say, 'No you can’t join or you can’t be a part of.' When challenged, they would often say, 'Okay, we’ll start our own.'”
One of them was Catherine Salazar-Lopez’s father.
“They wouldn’t accept Black people and they wouldn’t accept brown people. And that’s what they said. So my father and about four to five guys that he grew up here in the vicinity of Argentine — they started their own,” Salazar-Lopez said. “It’s touching in our hearts knowing that our fathers who started this were Mexican Americans — fought for our country.”
Today, there are only four teams left in the Greater KC area that continue the tradition of Mexican-American fast-pitch softball. Their fear is that the traditions will die with them.
Their last hope is the new generation — players like Jaxsin Ridings who now fills in for his aging grandfather.
“I was glad that he asked me to cause I really wanted to," Ridings said. “I’m mostly looking to trying to make a good play to impress my grandpa."
In the coming years, no one really knows what Mexican-American fast-pitch softball will look like, but the people in the audience who cheer them on every game says they will do anything to keep it alive for those who paved the way.