Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

COLUMN ONE

The Glory of Their Times

The Chorizeros were the Yankees of East L.A. in the years after World War II. In the barrio, baseball wasn't just a game, it was an event.

April 06, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

On a Sunday morning washed bright and blue near the start of baseball season, only ghosts ramble around an empty diamond at Fourth and Evergreen streets. There is a puddle out by second base and kids playing soccer down the foul line. Hard to imagine how it used to be. You have to squint your eyes against the sunlight, look back a ways.

Back to the late 1940s, when baseball at Evergreen Park was a genuine social event in Boyle Heights. After church, whole neighborhoods congregated there, wives and friends, gossip and laughter, children hanging on the fence to watch.

The memories run hazy with smoke from carne asada on the grill, an old man selling nuts from a cart. The adults brought beer to drink as they sat on crude wooden bleachers and listened to mariachis. On special occasions, a local priest blessed the field.

They came by the hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- for the Carmelita Chorizeros, the New York Yankees of barrio baseball.

In the years after World War II, the Chorizeros ruled over a loose affiliation of Latino amateur and semi-professional teams that played every weekend throughout Southern California and across the border into Mexico.

"I mean, we had some players," recalls Armando Perez, who joined the Chorizeros after three seasons of minor league ball with the Baltimore Orioles. "This was our existence."

The man who ran the club -- he owned a chorizo factory down the road -- made sure the lineup was always well-stocked, his guys dressed in crisp uniforms. The Chorizeros won strings of games, claiming one city championship after another, but this wasn't about just hits and runs.

Fifty years later, as Los Angeles roils with demonstrations over proposed immigration changes, the legacy of the Chorizeros is entwined with the story of the Latino community. Frank Lopez, the owner's son, could see it in all of those faces at the games.

"There was a lot of prejudice in those days," Lopez says. "This was a way to do something. Something for us."

*

Old photographs of Mario Lopez Sr. show a fit man with jet black hair, an avid ballplayer as a kid growing up in Chihuahua, Mexico. Immigrating to the United States in the early 1920s, he eventually opened a gas station called Mario's Service, then tried another line of work.

At the time, despite a growing influx of Mexicans to Southern California, few grocery stores carried ethnic foods.

"You couldn't find chorizo anywhere," recalls Saul Toledo, a longtime friend of the Lopez family. "So Mario started making that and pickled pig's feet and chicharrones."

The original factory on Carmelita Avenue turned a healthy profit with its pork sausage, the kind that is crumbled into eggs for breakfast, and Lopez became known for his generosity. This trait extended to the ballclub he first organized at his service station, then continued with his new business.

The Chorizeros -- the "chorizo makers" -- had uniforms with the team name stitched in cursive across their chests, smart-looking ball caps and jackets. Lopez brought packages of chorizo to give away in the bleachers, and afterward invited everyone to a nearby restaurant, picking up the tab for tacos and cerveza.

"Oh, we'd run up a big bill," says Rich Pena, one of nine brothers who for many years formed the core of the Carmelita roster. "It was nothing but first class with him."

Lopez also arranged for a good manager, Manuel "Shorty" Perez, who guided the team for a quarter-century.

No one can recall Shorty yelling or acting gruff, but if a player had a bad game, chances are he would be out of the lineup the next week.

The Chorizeros inhabited a gray area somewhere between the top recreation leagues and the lower rungs of semi-pro ball. The infields were all dirt, so Shorty would arrive hours before the first pitch to drag the surface smooth. Pena recalls a particular Sunday, after a week of rain, when the ground was too soggy to play.

Shorty, who ran a gas station in Boyle Heights, showed up anyway.

"I was taking my wife to the movies and I saw him out there," Pena says. "He sprayed gasoline on the infield and lit it on fire. Flames shooting up. I swear to God. He was trying to make it dry."

Years later, the manager fell ill. Pena arrived at his house to find the family in tears and Shorty laid up in bed.

"Hey, Rich," Shorty whispered to him. "We're home team tomorrow, so you've got to get out there early and drag the field."

*

Evergreen wasn't the only home for the Chorizeros. They played at nearby Fresno and Belvedere parks. The major leagues had yet to land in Southern California, so championship games were held at the city's two largest ball fields, Wrigley and Gilmore, where the Los Angeles Angels and Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League played. But Evergreen is the place that players -- the ones still living -- recall most fondly.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|