Dead Imitates Art: The Cultural Imagery of Fernando Valenzuela and his 1984 Topps Card

A number of years ago, my father gave me an 8”x 10” painting of Fernando Valenzuela’s 1984 Topps card.  The subject of the painting, however, was depicted as a calavera, a Mexican iconography image celebrating Dia de los Muertos, playing for the “Deaders.”  At the time he presented me with the painting, I was thrilled, of course, but also overwhelmed with other things going on around me.  I placed the painting on one of my shelves housing numerous baseball books and artifacts, and never paid much attention to it over the years.

Recently, among my random baseball card buying sprees, I came across the ’84 Fernando card and remembered, “Oh yeah, the painting.”  So, I went back to the piece and really started to look at it in a new light.  I found a new appreciation for the work not only in the sentiment that this was a gift from my father, who would pass away two years later, but in thinking about the painting as a reflection of my own culture and its place in the history of Chicano pop culture.

What we find is the intersectionality of baseball as art in the form of a baseball card, and the traditional and celebratory imagery of one of the greatest baseball heroes in the Mexican and Chicano community.

In Mexican culture, “calaveras” or skeletons, are ubiquitously depicted in “Dia de los Muertos” or Day of the Dead celebrations, in usually fun and happy scenes.  Dia de los Muertos, celebrated on November 2nd, is a time when we remember our friends and family who has passed on.  We build little altars, and make bits of food and desserts as an offering.  It’s a sacred time in our communities.  Calavera scenes in art portray normal life and everyday activities, just in skeleton form.  It might seem weird, but it’s home to me.

By the time the 1984 season rolled around, Fernando was having a pretty good start to his career.  He was 49-30 with an ERA of 2.55 in 97 starts over three years as a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  No one had ever quite seen a pitcher like Valenzuela before.  He was a baby-faced, pudgy kid with a wide smile, who could light up a room and galvanize a community.  As he looked to the heavens before releasing a killer screwball or a commanding curveball you wondered how in the hell he did that.  He just did.  He was Fernando!

In 1981, his first full season, the 20-year-old led the National League in games pitched (25), complete games (11), innings pitched (192.1) and strikeouts (180).  Remarkably, he won Rookie of the Year, the Cy Young Award, the Silver Slugger Award (.250 batting average with 16 hits), and was 5th in MVP voting.  Not to mention, he was an All-Star.  Over the next two years, the Mexican native’s star would continue to rise, as did his popularity.

For kids and families in East Los Angeles, Fernando had reached cult hero status.  There was an incredible sense of pride when he pitched.  It was as if he was pitching on behalf of all Mexicanos and Chicanos in southern California!  That affinity translated into repeated sold out crowds when Valenzuela took the mound at Dodger Stadium in those years.  As with most cult heroes, we must find a way to uniquely capture their essence in a visual medium.  Among the shops on Brooklyn Avenue and Whittier Boulevard in the barrio, Valenzuela’s image was everywhere!  This was pride.  Pride in him, pride in our community, and pride in the Dodgers.

Years later, the calavera representation of one of my baseball heroes came into my possession, thanks to my dad who knew what it would mean to me.  I honor his memory, and the painting created by Joaquin Newman, here in these words.  I hope to continue this discussion in a presentation at SABR47.  Mr. Newman has created similar works with several other ballplayers that I will also showcase this summer.

 

“Chico” means little boy, not ballplayer!

Several days ago I received, much to my surprise, a package in the mail from a good friend and fellow baseball aficionado, a number of Topps baseball cards.  They were all Latino players – my favorites – ranging from 1957 to 1967.  Of the 39 cards, I made note of one specific thing that always bothered me about Latino players of the era.  Or rather, something about them.

A number of the ballplayers sported the nickname “Chico.”   I always hated that.  Not that anyone ever called me “Chico.”  Maybe pain-in-the-ass, but never Chico.  When I was a kid, NBC’s “Chico and the Man” was pretty popular.  Freddie Prinze’s character, “Chico,” was a grown man.  He was a New York Puerto Rican portraying a Chicano in East LA, and that bothered me, too.

At any rate, the set I was so generously gifted, here’s what I found (real name and country of birth is included):

1957 Chico Carrasquel           Alfonso (Venezuela)

1959 Chico Fernández            Humberto (Cuba)

1967 Chico Salmon                 Ruthford (Panama)

1967 Chico Ruiz                      Giraldo (Cuba)

In doing a quick search, I found that of all the ballplayers, there were 10 with the name, “Chico.”  Aside from the four listed above, there was Chico Walker, who played a number of years with the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs, in the 1980s and 1990s as an outfielder and third baseman.  Curiously, he was born in Mississippi as Cleotha Walker.  Somewhere along the way, he picked up “Chico” as a nickname.  I’m sure there’s a story there.

Chico Escarrega, born Ernesto, in Mexico, played a solo year with the Chicago White Sox as pitcher, going 1-3 and one save with an ERA of 3.67 over 38 games.  Cuban Chico Hernández, who was born as Salvador, played a couple of seasons with the Cubs during World War II, as a catcher playing 90 games over the 1942 and 1943 seasons.  His career in organized baseball was pretty unremarkable.

Chico García, a Mexican born Vinicio, played for only 39 games as a second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles during the 1954 season.  He had been drafted by the Orioles from Shreveport, in the 1953 rule 5 draft, according to baseball-reference.com.  By the end of that season, he was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers, but appears to have left organized baseball.

 

Another Chico Fernández played during the 1968 season for the Orioles.  Cuban Lorenzo Fernandez was an infielder, playing both shortstop and second base for a measly 11 games. He appears to have spotty record, being signed by the Detroit Tigers in 1958, then sent to the Milwaukee Braves in 1962, then back to the Tigers in 1963, and then the White Sox several months later.  Prior to the start of the 1968 season, Fernandez was sent from the Southsiders to the Orioles.  The Atlanta Braves fielded another Chico Ruiz, this one born, Manuel Ruiz, was born in Puerto Rico, and played a couple of seasons (1978 and 1980) playing second base, shortstop and third base for a total of 43 games with a .292 batting average.

For whatever reason, these players allowed themselves to be denigrated by the term, “Chico.”  From my perspective, this rings as a means to keep Latino ballplayers in their place, by calling them “boy,” it minimizes their contributions and takes away from their given name, mocking their ethnicity along the way.

Speaking of which, you can’t utter “Chico” without thinking about the character, “Chico Escuela” played by Garrett Morris in NBC’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ in the mid-1970s.  While this is a parody of the perception of Latino players of the era, the character, as Adrian Burgos, Jr. points out in Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line (2007), “made comedic fodder of Latinos in the midst of as new wave of Latino players breaking into the major leagues.” Escuela’s catchphrase: “baysbol has been bery, bery good to me” has endured over the decades.  Even repeated by Dominican Chicago Cubs slugger, Sammy Sosa during his hey-day.

I’m glad that there are no Latino players going by the name of “Chico.”  Though, the era of baseball nicknames has seemed to have gone by the wayside, anyway.  And, for the past few days I’ve sorted through my new stack of baseball cards, looking at the photos, flipping through the tidbits of information on back, thinking about the friend who was kind enough to send these things my way.  ¡Mil gracias!

Latino Commons in a 1965 Topps Card Lot

The Topps 1965 series was a 598-card set, featuring the team logo within a pennant.  The 2 ½ by 3 ½ inch cards included rookies such as Joe Morgan, Steve Carlton, Jim Hunter and Tony Perez.  I would later become more interested in a group of cards that would lead to a presentation at the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)’s 46th annual convention in Miami, Fla.

As I tell the story, I attribute the interest in the 1965 cards not only because it was the year of my birth, but also I offer thanks to fellow SABR chapter member, Mark Armour, who wrote a great series on Topps cards for a baseball blog.  At the time, I had only been collecting cards from 1970 to 1990.  As a kid, I starting collecting cards around 1973, throwing them into a box, where I was spent time sorting them first by team, in alphabetical order, then later by card number.  And then, maybe sort them once again by team.  Alas, like many a lad, my precious pieces of cardboard would fall victim to a mother’s cleaning and obtuse unawareness for her child’s treasures.  And like that, they were gone.

Later as an adult with some disposal income, I could reach back into my childhood, and begin my favorite passion, collecting the baseball cards I had lost.  I don’t know how else to explain it, but it was if I had found old friends, and enjoyed the time of catching up.  I think 1970 seemed like a good time to start my re-collecting.  But, along comes Mark and his fancy nostalgia for cards in the 1960s.  I looked again at the 1965 set, and thought they looked fun, and decided to start there.

On eBay, I found a 1965 medium grade 23-card lot for $30.  A week later, I made a pleasant discovery that out of the 23 cards, six of them were Latino players.  I am a Latino baseball enthusiast, so the find was awesome.  From there, I started wondering about these guys.  They weren’t the Latino superstars, just “common”, in the baseball card vernacular.

They were: Phil Ortega (pitcher, Washington Senators); José Santiago (pitcher, Kansas City Athletics); Juan Pizarro (pitcher, Chicago White Sox); Vic Davalillo (outfielder, Cleveland Indians); Camilo Carreón (catcher, Cleveland Indians); and Héctor Valle (catcher, Los Angeles Dodgers).  The cards were in decent shape: no bad creases, no rounded edges, and the photos still relatively sharp.  Overall, I was happy with the purchase, but still…who were these guys, and what impact did they have on their teams?

I think out of the six, I was most familiar with Davalillo and his days with the Dodgers in the 1970s.  I have his 1978 Topps card.  In researching their 1965 contributions, the most remarkable thing you can say is that their year was pretty unremarkable.  Save for Davalillo, that is, who had an All-Star year with a batting average of .301 over 142 games, collecting 152 hits along the way.

He was also one of eight Latinos playing the 1965 All-Star Game held in Minneapolis, where San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal was the MVP.  Marichal would go on to have a more eventful summer.

In flipping through these cards, you realize that in blindly buying a lot online, the cards are not always going to be Latino superstars, and that’s okay.  I think the common Latino player is just as interesting with his own story to tell.  Those guys deserve our attention as well, and I am going to enjoy collecting their cards just as much.

Hispanic Heroes: A Seattle Mariners promo card set

In 2005, the Seattle Mariners gave out a nine-card set featuring their Latino players as part of their annual “Salute to Hispanic Béisbol”.

The cards featured an action shot on the front with the player’s name and position listed in Spanish.  Cool, right?  The flip side showed a smaller player photo with bilingual information and the player’s home country’s flag.

When the set was released in mid-September 2005 commemorating Hispanic Heritage Month, I joked with the Mariners marketing manager about the Cuban and Puerto Rican flags.  You will note that the Cuban flag includes blue and white stripes with a white star in a triangular red field, while the Puerto Rican flag includes red and white strips with a white star in a triangular blue field.  I smiled and told him he got right.  He smiled back with a sigh of relief!

While the Mariners, of course, have given away cards sets in the past, this was the very first time that they released a set in Spanish featuring their Latino players.  A cultured observer, however, will note that two of the nine cards include the player’s last name correctly spelled with an “ñ”, while several of the cards are missing accent marks.  The set includes:

PLAYER POSICIÓN HOME COUNTRY
Adrián Beltré tercera base Dominican Republic
Yuniesky Betancourt campocorto Cuba
Eddie Guardado lanzador zurdo USA
Félix Hernández lanzador derecho Venezuela
Raúl Ibañez jardin izquierdo USA
José López segunda base Venezuela
José Mateo lanzador derecho Dominican Republic
Joel Piñeiro lanzador derecho Puerto Rico
Yorvit Torrealba receptor Venezuela

I’m hoping that the team will look to release a new bilingual set September 2017.  Felix would be the sole member left from that 2005 squad.