Cheech Marin: Everything You Need to Know About the Changing Face of America Can Be Seen on a Baseball Diamond
There is something strange happening to our national pastime. At first, I couldn't put my finger on it. Everything seemed normal. I was sitting around on a Sunday afternoon, drinking a beer, watching my team, the L.A. Dodgers, playing their longtime rivals, the San Francisco Giants. I hadn't really followed baseball as of late; too many other things to do, I guess. I was alone and decided to luxuriate in the wonders of my new big screen "high-definition" TV. Man, the picture was good. You could count the pores in each player's face. The grass was so green, it looked like the teams were playing in Ireland. I love technology ... when it works. I settled back and eased into my massage chair. Life is fucking lovely.
As I was knocking back my second beer, my mind drifted back to the great games of 1950s and 1960s between these two traditional foes. I was about 12 years old and in Little League - for me, the fate of the Western world hinged on who won the National League pennant. I had been a Dodger fan since they were in Brooklyn. My grandfather (Nono) and I would listen to Dodger games every night to a station on the Mexican end of the radio dial. We would live and die with every pitch when the games got close and curse at the radio as if it could hear us when the signal faded. Major league games were just starting to be televised on Saturdays in black and white, which was an apt metaphor because the color line had just been broken in baseball. The TV networks knew what they had right away, so they televised as many Brooklyn Dodgers games as possible.
I guess what really made me a Dodgers fan from the beginning was that the team had Jackie Robinson, the first "Negro" in the major leagues. I must've been too young to fully understand the world-shaking implications of that, because by the time I started watching the Dodgers, they also had Roy Campanella, Junior Gilliam, and Don Newcombe. Besides, at the time, everyone in my neighborhood was "Negro," so what was the big deal? It just seemed normal.
Years later, I remember one of the most surreal moments I ever had as an adult. At some charity event with a lot of sports figures in attendance, I was at the bar getting a drink. I turned around and there was this huge guy standing in front in me smiling. He stuck out his hand and said "Hi, Cheech. I'm Don Newcombe." I stood there for what seemed like a year with my mouth wide open. I was instantly 10 years old and all I could think of was "Don Newcombe knows my name?" I wanted to say, "I know every single statistic about you. I have four of your baseball cards, including your rookie one. I've seen or heard every inning you've pitched for the last three years of your career. I know your dog's name. You're a GOD!" But the only thing that came out of my mouth was "Yeah, nice to meet you." Don smiled a big smile and walked away, chuckling. I walked like a zombie back to my table where my wife was sitting and blurted out, "I just met Don Newcombe." She looked up at me with those beautiful blue eyes and said, "Great, Did you get my drink?"
I liked Jackie Robinson because he was cool to watch, not because he was black. Every time you turned around, he was hitting a triple or making a great play in the field or, best of all, stealing home. Of all the plays in baseball, stealing home is by far the most exciting. It combines speed, daring, timing, surprise and most of all ... balls. Man, you can get killed stealing home. Think of it. You have a guy running with his head down, as fast as he can towards home plate and a guy swinging a bat with his back to you. The pitcher is throwing the ball at 95 mph to the same spot you're going, and the plate is being guarded by a catcher wearing an iron mask and armor all over his body. "Banzai!" It's a suicide mission and Jackie used to do it all the time ... and survive! I couldn't wait for Saturday morning to see the new adventures of Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers. Life couldn't get any better ... and then it did.
In 1958, the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and my favorite team was now my home team. At the same time, the New York Giants moved to San Francisco and the rivalry continued, only on the West Coast. There was also an extra-added bonus to the Giants moving out west: the team had Willie Mays ... the greatest player to ever play the game. Let me say that again: "Willie Mays is the greatest player to ever play the game."
As much as I loved Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Junior Gilliam, and Don Newcombe, I loved watching Willie Mays play more than all of them combined even if he played for the "bad guys!" My worship for Willie Mays was cemented in 1954, the first World Series to be televised: New York Giants vs. Cleveland Indians; the first game in the cavernous Polo Grounds of New York. In one of the middle innings with the Indians threatening and two men on, Vic Wertz hit a screaming line drive to the deepest part of center field. Willie Mays took off at the crack of the bat (some say even before) on a dead run to the center field fence. With his back to home plate and without looking, he made an over-the-shoulder catch, then turned on a dime and threw the ball back to the infield, doubling off one of the runners. It is probably the single most famous play in baseball history.
In the ensuing years, I continued to play baseball in Little League and later, the Babe Ruth League, while following the Dodgers on radio and television. As often as possible, we would go with my grandfather and cousins to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to see them live. That was always my biggest joy. The stadium was in my grandfather's neighborhood, so we could walk to the games, getting there early to watch batting practice. As soon as Nono would let us, we would sprint down to the field and onto the grass behind the center field fence, right next to the players. We would join a crowd of 100 or more kids, yelling at the players to throw us a ball. Usually, I was the littlest kid, so my chances of getting one of those occasional balls thrown by the players over the fence were between slim and none. It was taking your life in your hands to mix it up in that crowd.
Mostly, I just liked to watch the players go through their motions up close. I was amazed at how far and fast they could throw the ball effortlessly on line while talking and joking with another player. Up close, these guys were big, strong, and older - best of all, they got paid to play. Of course, that's what I wanted to be when I grew up ... if I ever grew up.
I was watching the Giants in the field one July evening during batting practice when I noticed something that no other kid seemed to see. In the right field corner, a ball had rolled up to the fence and just lay there, lonely and unattended. Without trying to attract too much attention, I leisurely strolled over to where it lay snoozing. I got down on my hands and knees, and reached my little fingers through the chainlink fence and touched the ball. It felt different; it was a "major league" baseball.
Inch by inch, I started working the ball up the fence while glancing over to make sure the murderous gang of kids didn't notice. The work was slow and arduous. The ball almost fell from my grasp several times, but somehow, I managed to hang on. My fingers burned from fatigue. I stopped and rested three or four times, but I was determined. I would give the ball a good home. It would have its own special bed right next to my pillow. I would say goodnight to it every night right after I said my prayers. I got the ball up to eye level and stopped for a rest. Now would come the hard part: getting the ball over the fence. The top of the fence was over my head, but I could almost reach it if I stood on my toes. I summoned up all the concentration I could and started on the last leg. My eyes were solely focused on the ball, an inch away from my face. Eventually, I got it up over my head. I was exhausted and I stopped to catch my breath. I glanced over at the homicidal horde and they were occupied with beating each other up, so I was safe from them for a minute. I had to get the ball up and over the fence somehow ... and fast.
I couldn't even see the ball now. I was standing on my tiptoes and it was over my head. I was stuck and a ballplayer was coming my way. I did the only thing I could think of ... I tried to make myself invisible. I felt like I was going to black out, so I just shut my eyes as tight as I could. Maybe that would make me invisible. My vision began to get blurry and I started to to get dizzy. The ball was now at the top of the fence, just sitting there like a scoop of vanilla ice cream precariously perched on a brownie. The ballplayer was at the fence now and spoke, "Oh, there it is." I felt the ball leaving my fingertips. "Noooo!" I opened my eyes and saw Willie Mays six inches away from me on the other side of the fence with the ball in his hand. He turned towards the infield and yelled, "Heads up!" He made a big sweeping motion that I imagined would get any ball to home plate on the fly.
"Noooo!," I screamed again. Willie spun around like he did in the 1954 World Series and stared straight at me ... and then burst out laughing. He held up the ball, which he still had in his hand. He trotted back to the fence to the little kid with tears in his eyes.
"Here you go, buddy" and he dropped the ball over the fence into my hands. He was still laughing as he turned and jogged back to the dugout. I was now the luckiest kid in the world. I held in my hands a major league baseball touched by Willie Mays. I vowed then and there that I would keep it for the rest of my life.
Whatever was happening in America was happening on the baseball field. Whether it was more and more Negroes or long hair and long sideburns and mustaches, baseball was there, reflecting the changes in America. I distinctly remember the day I went to see the Dodgers play the Oakland A's and everybody on the field was black. At first, I didn't notice it. It was just the Dodgers vs. the A's, until I heard a guy in back of me say, "Man, it's the Blacks vs. the Blacks." I looked out into the field and he was right -- everybody from the pitcher to the catcher, from the infield to the outfield... everybody was black. They were no longer even Negroes; they were black or Afro-Americans, I guess, because most of them wore Afros, which stuck out in big clumps on either side of their head, under their caps. I still don't know which looks funnier; ponytails or Afro clumps.
What a long way we had come. There were no longer "Negro Leagues" where only "Negroes" played to "Negro" crowds. There was parity on the field now. The best players played regardless of color. It reflected America where African Americans had worked their way upward into the middle- and upper-classes by their ability and they were entitled to be as good or bad or crazy or sane as anyone else... and most of them are.
So I guess what I was noticing as I sat in my massage chair, knocking back a cold one, watching the Dodgers and the Giants, was that, yes there were still plenty of blacks playing major league baseball, but now, most of them spoke Spanish. From what I understand, there are fewer and fewer African-American players and more and more Latino players. The African-American athletic pool does not seem to solely depend on baseball as their professional sports conduit to a better life. There is a huge amount of black pro football players and the NBA is dominated by black players, but baseball -- America's national pastime -- now seems to be the proving ground for Latino players... and increasingly Asian players. Baseball is, and for a long time, has been global, but the "Big Show" is still in the U.S. Just as the demographics of America are shifting, so is the percentage of Latino ballplayers. There is one interesting question that hangs in the air, though. Are the new players going to be counted as Latino or black? What box did Manny Ramirez check on his census form?
Just about every Latin American country has sent players to the big leagues: from the Dominican Republic to Costa Rica. They are among the biggest stars in the league... if not the biggest. It is triple hard for Cubans because they usually come here through political channels and have to renounce their country and leave their families behind ($50 million contracts seem to ease the pain a little, though, a far cry from earlier days when Latino players were segregated to separate hotels in each city they visited). Coaches expected them to automatically understand English as soon as they put on the uniform and were often treated like children no matter how much they were paid. The teams that developed a great relationship with Latino players are teams like the Dodgers with managers or coaches like Tommy Lasorda who actually spoke Spanish from having coached in the winter leagues in Mexico and Venezuela. One time, I was visiting the Dodgers clubhouse before a game, and Lasorda had me take a picture with several Latino players and fans and gave directions to everybody in perfect Spanish. The Dodgers usually lead the league in attendance every year in a city whose population is almost 70 percent Latino. First place or last place, they come in league-leading numbers every year. Loyalty and communication are always rewarded in sports. Ozzie Guillén, former-manager of the Chicago White Sox, once complained that new Asian players were given translators while Spanish-speaking players were left to cope on their own. I often wonder how attendance is in Chicago, even when the "Sox" lead their division.
New Yorkers don't even think twice when they hear someone refer to their team as "Los Mets." "Los Jankees" is the favorite team of most Puerto Ricans. Just the other day, I saw a guy with a t-shirt, proclaiming that he was for "Los Doyers." (As a side note, his shirt had an image of Cheech and Chong on it, too, I guess from the day we read the park rules shown on the big screen at every home game.)
What I think it all is the increasing globalization of all sports. Basketball is without doubt totally global. Numerous NBA players -- some of the best in the league -- are from Europe, South America, Australia, and China. Soccer has been popular worldwide except for America until recent years. Now there are as many soccer leagues in the U.S. as there are Little Leagues for baseball (and of course, the U.S. women's national soccer team won the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics and won the World Cup several years ago). While there can be a case made for pro football being the new America's national pastime, for me, as long as Los Angeles doesn't have a team, it can't be a national anything... if you know what I mean.
In the end, the great leveler in any sport is performance on the field or on the court. Kids don't care what language players speak or if they eat tacos, rice, or sauerkraut. They don't care if they're white, black, or brown. They develop lifelong devotion, loyalty, and admiration for players who leave everything they have out on the field... or just throw them a ball over the fence.