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Hank Aguirre: an Even Bigger Hero Off the Diamond

GEORGE RAMOS

September 26, 1994|GEORGE RAMOS

Despite all the bums in baseball--the players who went on strike and the owners who canceled the World Series--there really are some heroes of the game.

Hank Aguirre was one of them.

He was a decent pitcher, spending 10 of his 16 years in the majors with the Detroit Tigers. He was selected to the American League All-Star team three times despite having the reputation as one of the worst hitters in the game. He pitched for the Dodgers for a year before retiring after the 1970 season.

He's remembered as a lanky southpaw with a blazing fastball. As a rookie for the Cleveland Indians, he struck out Ted Williams the first time he faced him. After the game, he sought out Williams and asked the future Hall of Famer to autograph a baseball. Williams obliged.

Later in that season of 1955, the Splendid Splinter faced Aguirre again and whacked the ball out of the park. As the Boston Red Sox slugger rounded the bases, Williams yelled out to Aguirre, "Hey kid, if you get \o7 that \f7 ball, I'll sign it for you, too."

But for the ballplayer who was born into a Mexican immigrant family and reared in San Gabriel, his greatest fame came after his playing days were over. His fame and good deeds were such that he was called a "Mexican god."

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After he quit playing, Aguirre wanted to help Mexican Americans and other minorities. "I'm grateful for what I had been able to acquire," he said. "The least I could do is give something back."

A distant relative, East L.A. priest Arnold Gonzalez, said Aguirre had a fierce pride in being Mexican, a trait instilled by his parents, who were from Jalisco. "He wanted others to climb up the ladder of life," the priest said.

In 1979, Aguirre mortgaged his home to borrow $350,000 to start up a manufacturing business in southwest Detroit. He called it Mexican Industries. He figured he could provide jobs by breaking into the auto industry as a parts supplier for the Big Three. His factory produced headrests, steering wheels and air bags.

He started with eight employees, all of them minorities. Today, more than 1,000 people--85% of them Latinos--work there. Revenues total more than $100 million annually.

In Mexican Village--Detroit's version of East L.A.--Aguirre became a god, plant officials said. He was a constant presence in the barrio, offering an encouraging word. He pushed city government to pay more attention to Latinos and other minorities.

He established a scholarship fund for local schools, doling out an estimated $50,000 each year to deserving students. He helped pay for after-hours recreational programs for inner city kids. He even pushed major league baseball to bring more minorities into management.

In his own plant, he did things that few others dared to do. He offered English classes for his Spanish-speaking workers and Spanish classes for non-Latinos who were interested. On occasion, he sat with his workers and ate \o7 nopales--\f7 cactus salad--in the lunchroom.

"He always pooh-poohed what he did," recalls friend Bob Copley, "but he did it so often that his reputation for doing things became well-known."

His contributions were recognized last year when Mayor Dennis Archer showed up for the groundbreaking of Mexican Industries' new plant on Howard Street in Mexican Village. Aguirre's name, the mayor said, "is like magic and gold wherever I go and wherever I've been."

Ironically, this god's work was virtually unknown back home in L.A. But he never forgot about the San Gabriel Mission, where he worshiped as a boy.

He was so devoted to the mission that he used to wish it had a high school so he could continue going to classes there. Instead, he went to Mark Keppel High in Alhambra and later to East L.A. College, where he was discovered by baseball scouts.

He was horrified to see the damage the historic mission sustained in the 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake. Helen Nelson, director of the mission's restoration effort, asked Aguirre if he wanted to help the $1.2-million rehabilitation project.

"Who do I make out the check to?" he replied. He gave more than $20,000.

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It was big news in Detroit three weeks ago when Aguirre died of prostate cancer. He was 62. But in L.A., his passing got scant mention in The Times and virtually none on local TV and radio.

That didn't matter to Father Gonzalez, Nelson or the more than 500 who jammed the San Gabriel Mission for services and his burial there. Two planeloads of Mexican Industries employees flew in to pay their respects.

Aguirre, Father Gonzalez said, was more than a Mexican god. "His name will go down in history but not as a star," the priest said. "He was a genuine hero."

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