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La Habra Celebrates Baseball and a Talented Favorite Son

June 27, 2002|MICHAEL MILLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Take Me Out to the Ballgame," this summer's exhibit at the Children's Museum at La Habra, will touch all the bases of the national pastime, from batting practice to old radio broadcasts. But the most significant part of the show may be the display off to one side of the museum.

That's where the museum honors the underdogs of baseball history: players in the Negro Leagues who excelled even though they were denied the opportunity to play in the majors, and Hispanic immigrants who were ambitious enough to seek tryouts for teams that never would have scouted them.

"We want the kids to see that there was talent and recognition outside the major leagues as well," says April Baxter, the museum's curator. "But we're not going to dwell on the hardships so much as the fact that everybody can play baseball, and everybody can make it if they try hard enough."

Can modern-day kids from in and around La Habra, with their pressed uniforms and organized Little League, identify with these players from an earlier era? Possibly--since the player at the center of the exhibit, Jesse Flores, is a La Habra legend himself.

Flores, who made history as the first Mexican pitcher ever to appear in the majors, played for seven seasons in the 1940s. His photograph and biography will grace that wall of the museum about baseball's underdogs.

Born in Guadalajara in 1914, the youngest of six children, Flores emigrated to La Habra with his family when he was 9. Flores spoke no English when he came to California and dropped out of school after the eighth grade to work in the citrus fields with his father and brothers. He developed a knack for baseball, often playing at what is now Portola Park, the field next to the Children's Museum. "It was just a barren field by the train station back then," says Josie Anderson, Flores' second cousin and a longtime La Habra resident.

In 1938, when the Chicago Cubs held a tryout camp in L.A., Flores went and landed a minor-league contract. Four years later, he finally got a taste of the big leagues. He went on to play seven seasons for the Cubs, Philadelphia Athletics and Cleveland Indians, winning 44 games and hurling 11 shutouts.

Even after his pitching career was over, Flores stuck with baseball. He started a short-lived semipro team, the La Habra Tigers, in the late '40s, and from 1955 until his death in 1991, he worked as a major league talent scout, mostly for the Minnesota Twins. In 1987, he was inducted into the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame.

Last fall, the city of La Habra honored him with a special plaque at Portola Park. The park's three baseball diamonds--all much neater than the field where he played as a child--are now known as the Jesse Flores Sports Complex.

"Take Me Out to the Ballgame," which continues through Sept. 1, allows visitors to learn about baseball in many other ways. The museum's main room features a 12-by-12-foot baseball diamond with soft bats and balls and a listening station with recordings of historic baseball broadcasts and a video of the famed Abbott & Costello routine "Who's on First?" Even kids who aren't interested in swinging a bat can get into the action by trying on period spectator costumes.

Being central to such an exhibit is a legacy Flores would have appreciated. "He was instrumental in getting kids off the street and getting them to play ball," recalls a relative, Steve Anderson. "He'd throw them a ball and say, 'Let's get busy.' "

"Take Me Out to the Ballgame," Children's Museum at La Habra, 301 S. Euclid St. Mondays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays, 1-5 p.m. $4; $5 after July 1. Through Sept. 1. (562) 905-9793.

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