Remembering Ismael Montalvo and Baseball on the Border

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My paternal grandfather was an umpire in the Mexican League and an avid baseball fan.

The Apaches were our hometown team, and I knew many of the players’ names, but I can only remember Ismael “El Oso” Montalvo.

My grandfather would take me to the games on Saturday afternoon to watch them play at the old Washington Park on San Bernardo Avenue, which was demolished in 1962 in order to construct the Laredo Civic Center. When I saw El Oso play, he was a first baseman. I understand from my grandfather that when he was younger, he was a very good pitcher.

I could not have known at the time that our paths would cross years later.

In 1997, Alan M. Klein, a cultural anthropologist, wrote a book called Baseball on the Border:  A Tale of Two Laredos. The book is dedicated to the memory of Ismael Montalvo (1913-1996). Dr. Klein interviewed Mr. Montalvo in 1993 and 1994. There is an interesting photo of him with the 1935 La Junta team. He was 22 years old.

He hired me to work after school as a bartender at the American Legion Post 59 on Zaragoza Street right next to our house. I was a junior at St. Augustine High School but I appeared much older.

We lived at the corner of Zaragoza and Santa Ursula in the Barrio del Azteca during the 1940s and 1950s, the first oldest, working class neighborhood in Laredo.

According to Klein’s book, Mr. Montalvo was 18 years old when he dropped out of school and went to Linares, Mexico to pitch for their team for about two months.

In the same year, he played with the Mexico City Aztecs, the number one semi-pro team in Mexico. The following year, in 1932, he played in San Antonio with the Mexican Nationals before moving to Laredo. Of the six pitchers that year, Mr. Montalvo had the best record at 13 wins, two losses, and no ties.  He also led the team with three shutouts. And both he and Fernando Dovalina pitched nine complete games. In 1939, Mr. Montalvo played for the Tampico team, along with Santos Amaro and Ramón Bragaña. After that, Mr. Montalvo played for the Laredo Apaches.

All the players in the Apaches team were Latinos, mostly from Laredo, Mexico, and Cuba, and many of them became stars in the Mexican League and in the Mexican Pacific Coast Winter League.

I wanted to see if there were any Latinos in the major leagues, so I started collecting baseball cards in 1952 and continued for several years.

The mom and pop grocery stores in the Barrio de la Azteca sold the TOPPS package for a penny and that included a big slab of chewing gum. My favorite teams were the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees, and my collection included Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Whitey Ford, Jackie Robinson, Phil Rizzuto, Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks, and many others.

I felt a certain hubris and an immense sense of pride when I anxiously tore the red wrapping and saw the few Latino players, all in all, a total of only 29: Al López, Roberto “Bob” Clemente, Camilo Pascual, Pedro Ramos, Carlos Paula, Bobby Avila, Al “Chico” Carrasquel, José Santiago, Mike García, Román Mejias, Juan Pizarro, Luis Arroyo, Raúl Sánchez, Luis Aparicio, Minnie Minoso, Rubén Gómez, Héctor López, Willy Miranda, Hank Aguirre, Félix Mantilla, Jim Rivera, Camilo Carreón, Chico Cárdenas, Chuck Estrada, Frank Herrera, Mike Cuéllar, Ossie Alvarez, Chico Fernández, and Felipe Alou. I looked at these baseball cards almost on a daily basis. They were my heroes. My self esteem increased and so did my positive self-concept.

Among the baseball players of the 1940s and the 1950s, Ted Williams was one of my favorites. He is considered one of the greatest hitters of all-time, having played his entire career with the Boston Red Sox. Except for the time that he served as a Navy pilot during World War II and as a Marine pilot in the Korean War, Ted Williams, a towering six-four, won six batting titles, the American League’s Home Run crown, the RBI title four times, and the Triple Crown two times.

During the 1941 season, he finished with a .406 average and was the last major league player to top the .400 mark. He retired in 1960 and six years later, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I would have liked him more and he would have been my idol had I known what I know now. In 2013, I read a biography written by Ben Bradlee Jr., entitled, The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, and found out that he was half-Mexican on his mother’s side. She and her family emigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico to Santa Barbara, California in 1907.

Her name was May Venzor and her parents were Pablo Venzor and Natalia Hernández. What deep satisfaction and excitement I would have felt then if I had known this important fact about his life.

I started collecting baseball cards in 1952, and the cards accompanying this story are all from my personal collection. I thank God every day that my sainted Mamá did not throw them away when I went to St. Mary’s University in the fall of 1967.

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