Mexican American Baseball in Los Angeles: From the Barrios to the Big Leagues, a project of the Baseball Reliquary, a small community-based archive and collection dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of America’s favorite pastime, sought to explore the impact of Mexican Americans on the development of baseball in America. It also focused on the ways in which the sport became an integral aspect of Mexican American life and identity in 20th century Los Angeles. The project was conceived by Terry Cannon, a historian and archivist with a lifelong passion both for baseball and LA history. With Mexican Americans now the majority ethnic group in the city, Cannon felt the time was right for an exhibit that would reveal this rich but largely unknown story to raise public awareness.
With a small grant from the council in hand, Terry quickly formed a partnership with noted Chicano historian Francisco Balderrama of California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), who was so enthusiastic about the idea he created a special course, Mexican American Baseball: An Oral History Approach, which engaged students in collecting oral histories from local amateur and professional baseball players. With the support of CSULA Librarian Cesar Caballero, the project team curated and installed a physical exhibit to share oral histories, memorabilia, ephemera, historic photographs, and other materials they collected with the campus and community, which the university library also offered to archive and preserve.
The long-term impact of the project had as much to do with its production as with its presentation. “Wherever we took this exhibit, it transformed the places that it went,” Cannon recalls, referring to the scores of community venues that hosted the exhibit over the next few years. The exhibit itself introduced the historical importance of baseball in the Chicano community to the uninitiated Angelenos and offered baseball fans an in-depth look into the significant role the sport has played in building ethnic pride, improving labor conditions (industry-sponsored amateur teams were common), and supporting the struggle for equal rights for Mexican Americans. For Cannon, “Baseball is a prism in which to view any issue—gender issues, economic issues, race issues—it’s all there. It’s all in baseball.”
The project received wide recognition and helped launch the Latino Baseball History Project, a national scholarly effort dedicated to the production and dissemination of academic knowledge about Latinos and baseball, and stimulated a variety of research programs. Several students who participated in Professor Balderrama’s class went on to pursue graduate studies in history, and the Reliquary eventually became an academic research center in its own right—the Institute of Baseball Studies is now based at Whittier College. In 2007, the project was awarded a national prize from the Federation of State Humanities Councils for excellence in public humanities programming. This unique collaboration between a grassroots organization and a larger institution, on the one hand, and between students and the community, on the other hand, proved extraordinarily fruitful and produced important new knowledge that transformed our understanding of the history of the sport, the city, and the important contributions of Mexican Americans.