By Jorge Iber, PhD
Texas Tech University
In my first two posts for this blog, the intention was to introduce the readers to the significance of the role of Latinos/as in US sports history, and then, to provide but one example of an individual whose life and career (Coach E.C. Lerma from Duval County, Texas) highlighted some of the key issues/themes that can be examined through a systematic examination of Spanish-surnamed athletes. In this post, I would like to be a bit more theoretical than previously. By briefly discussing the life and career of a Mexican American major leaguer, Mike Torrez (who pitched for various teams in the late 1960s through the early 1980s), I hope to ask a not insignificant question: what makes some athletes heroes to a community, and others, not so much? In other words, what makes Latino fans cheer for a Latino athlete? Is he/she sufficiently Latino/a? The case/career of Mike Torrez, when compared to a pitcher with similar credentials, but with a great deal more notoriety, Fernando Valenzuela, offers insight into this question. This is a topic that I am researching/wrestling with as part of a book-length project on this former major league pitcher.
Mike Torrez’s family, on both sides, hailed from Mexico, and arrived in Topeka, Kansas, in the early part of the twentieth century. Both grandfathers were employees of the Santa Fe Railroad, as was his father, Juan. The family lived in the Oakland neighborhood of the Kansan capital, literally a stone’s throw from the tracks. Mike was a natural athlete, as were his two brothers (the family had a total of eight children), and he excelled at both baseball and basketball. Through hard work, and coaching from his father (who also played baseball for Mexican American teams that often toured through parts of the Midwest) and older brother John, Mike competed successfully at various levels (though not high school, because his alma mater, Topeka High, did not field a team), finishing up in American Legion ball. Through his successes, he drew the attention of team scouts, and eventually signed with the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization in 1964. From there, he played in the minors and eventually made it to the big club to stay starting in 1969 (his first call up was in late 1967, and he did spend the first weeks of 1968 with the Cardinals before being sent down for more “seasoning” in AAA).
Mike was successful with St. Louis, posting a 10-4 record in 1969, but then slipped to 8-10 and 1-2 before being traded to the Montreal Expos in 1971. He went on to have a good career north of the border with some poor teams (finishing 40-32) before being traded again to Baltimore, then Oakland, and finally, the New York Yankees early in the 1977 season. That year, he was part of the “Bronx Zoo” that featured Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson and other “complicated” individuals. While the ride was wild, the Bombers claimed the World Series, defeating the Dodgers in six games. Torrez parlayed his season (and two Series victories) into one of the first “big money” contracts (puny by today’s standards: $2.7 million over five years) with Boston. He then was part of the epic collapse of 1978 by the Red Sox, and is, regrettably, most remembered for having given up a home run to Bucky Dent in the one-game playoff on October 2nd. Mike lasted a few more years with the Sox, then was traded to the New York Mets, and finished his career with the Athletics, retiring in 1984.
During his time with the Mets, Mike defeated Valenzuela, 7-1 in a game on August 31, 1983. While putting together an overall record of 185-160 in the majors for a .536 winning percentage and winning one World Series title, Torrez never garnered the same attention and adulation of a Fernando Valenzuela, whose overall regular season mark was 173-153, for a .531 winning percentage and two World Series titles. Was Torrez, who was born in the United States, perceived differently from the Mexican-born Valenzuela, and if so, then why?
While he pitched in the majors, Mike was acknowledged as a hero by the Mexican American population in his hometown and the greater Midwest. There were many times when he graced covers of local “fiesta” brochures, and there were even caravans of barrio community dwellers that would travel to nearby Kansas City when he would pitch against the home-town Royals. His popularity was significant, but never reached Valenzuela-like heights. A key question to ask here is why did this phenomenon occur for a Mexicano, but not for a Mexican American? Obviously, the fact that Valenzuela was in Los Angeles, and Mike pitched in locales with much smaller Mexican/Mexican American populations, has an impact. But I think that there is more to this differentiation than mere geography and fan base.
In discussing this topic with colleagues in History and American Studies, some interesting questions have come up that have helped me to think more about the value of studying Latino participation in US sport. Were American sports fans, by the early 1980s more ready to accept a “foreign exotic” than a homegrown, racialized “other,” for example? What were the implications of such trends? What does this tell us about notions of identity among various generations? Now that the Dodgers have a “new” and “Mexican” star (Adrian Gonzalez), they are making no bones about using him to connect with this fan base (he was born in the US, but played in Mexico and his father is prominent in Mexican baseball circles). So, what “is” he? Will he be a draw for “Mexican” as well as “Mexican American” fans? What does this tell us about Latino life in the US at this moment in time? What are the implications for the future?
Further research into the life and career of players such as Mike Torrez will, hopefully, help shed light on such issues. Finally, what does the story of a Mexican American athlete from the Midwest, a region that is currently experiencing a dramatic growth in this (and other Latino) population (many small Midwestern towns now field teams that have significant numbers of Spanish-surnamed athletes) have to tell the current generation living in this region? It is through further exploration of this new area of sport history that we can gain answers that are of both historical and current-day social value.
Jorge Iber is Associate Dean in the Student Division and Professor of History at Texas Tech University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 For a further discussion on the career of Mike Torrez, please see: Jorge Iber, “An Overview of the Early Life and Career of Topeka’s Mike Torrez, 1946-1978: Sport as a Means for Studying Latino/a Life in Kansas,” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 37 (Autumn 2014): 160-175. In addition, please see: Mark Saxon, “Adrian Gonzalez Helps L.A. Reconnect,” March 6, 2013. See: http://espn.go.com/espn/print?id=9024724&type=story. Accessed on October 22, 2014.
 Discussions/Email correspondence between this author and Ben Chappell of the Department of American Studies, University of Kansas during October 2014.