Pride and prowess

From the Great Depression to the Chicano movement, Sacramento produced Mexican-American athletes who weren’t always recognized

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the April 4, 2019 issue.

In 1973, a small group of Latino athletes in Sacramento started their own hall of fame to celebrate what the media was overlooking. More than four decades later, as it held its annual awards dinner to a packed house Saturday night, the Mexican-American Hall of Fame Sports Association is seeing a surge in interest.

The organization was founded by 13 men, most of whom were well-known baseball players in Sacramento. One of the original members was Ernie Cervantes Sr. His son, Eddie Cervantes, is now president of the organization.

“What was happening back in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s was that Mexican-American athletes were playing in the semi-pro baseball leagues, but when it came time for the postseason awards nights, after the leagues were over, they felt like they were being overlooked and not being recognized,” Cervantes recalled. “They decided to band together and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do our own thing. With the Mexican-American community being very tight-knit, the crowds that gathered for those events were huge.’”

At the March 30 ceremony, held at the VFW Hall on Stockton Boulevard, the inductees to the 2019 Hall of Fame were former wrestler Antonio Lopez, former competitive martial artist Rosaile Gonzales-Deane, former bowling champion Aurora Leon, former California State Boxing champion Richard “Mr. K.O.” Savala and the fighter’s late father, the one-time Sacramento boxing sensation Trino Savala. The organization also awarded seven scholarships to college-bound students of Mexican descent from around the region.

The event’s servers, bartenders and attendants were all volunteers, members of Sacramento Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 67, which also donated its spacious hall.

“The Mexican-American Hall of Fame Sports Association was founded by World War II veterans, so this is just a natural kind of involvement for us,” said Post Commander Norma Briones-Christensen.

Also on hand was Sacramento State University assistant history professor Mark A. Ocegueda, whose book Mexican American Baseball in Sacramento was published last year. Ocegueda said that local baseball culture was integral in shaping Mexican-American leaders and getting the community engaged in broader initiatives such as the Chicano movement.

“The book is about documenting a history that is under-recognized in general within U.S. and California history,” he said. “It’s about bringing that story out of the shadows. … Really, it’s using baseball to tell a wider history.”

From Cervantes’ point of view, pride in that history is at a high point, which can be seen in the fact that people are once again flocking to events as the hall of fame nears its 50th anniversary.

“It had its lean years,” Cervantes acknowledged. “But it’s kind of evolved and now we’re on an upswing again.”