Grove of Dreams

The life and times of orange picker-turned-big leaguer Jesse Flores

I tell the kids that I believe that anybody can do it if they try. If you try hard, then you have a chance to be successful. I tried it, and I came from Mexico, and I made it.”

Jesse Flores, as told to Cynthia Wilbur in her 1991 book, For the Love of the Game

THE GREATEST ORANGE PICKER EVER

When you get down to it, Jesse Flores didn’t amount to much as a baseball player. The longtime La Habra resident had smoked through the minors as a young pitcher thanks to good velocity and a vicious screwball, but he never quite figured out big-league batters. Flores bounced around teams in the American and National leagues during the 1940s, finishing with an undistinguished record of 44 wins and 59 losses. The righthander’s closest brush with Cooperstown came courtesy of a fat, lazy curveball he threw to Yogi Berra during Berra’s first at-bat; the Hall of Fame catcher promptly smacked it for a home run. “I loved Jesse Flores,” a former teammate once said. “He didn’t have a lot of stuff, but he had a lot of determination.”

But when death called Flores in 1991, baseball mourned. Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in La Habra overflowed ?with former and current ballplayers, executives, scouts, managers, coaches—hundreds of people who had worked with Flores during a 53-year career as player and scout. These old-timers and young millionaires eulogized him not just as a scout with a preternatural sense for finding prospects or a pioneer in battling discrimination in the game, but also as one of the best men they ever met—Señor Flores, they called him out of respect. But the overwhelming majority of gente who attended the funeral had no connection with baseball at all. They were La Habra natives who knew Flores not as an ex-ballplayer but as one of their own. The orange picker who made it.

PELOTEROS IN PARADISE

Jesus Flores Sandoval was born in 1914, in a rancho near Guadalajara, Jalisco. His father cleaned stables for a living but wanted more. In 1921, the Flores family moved to California, where they followed the picking seasons up and down the state’s fertile fields. Two years later, they settled in La Habra’s Campo Rojo, a worker’s camp so run-down that many La Habrans called it the “barrio’s barrio.” Flores attended the segregated Wilson and Washington Grammar Schools for a couple of years, but his family needed every member to pick oranges for a penny per box. He dropped out of school in sixth grade and joined the other Flores men in the groves.

This was the era of King Citrus, a time when orange groves covered northern Orange County and the county fathers kept Mexicans segregated from the white population—even on the baseball diamond. The county had already become a breeding ground for great ballplayers (Hall of Famers Walter Johnson and Arky Vaughn attended Fullerton High School in the 1900s and 1920s, respectively), but Mexican boys couldn’t face off against their gabacho peers. As a result, citrus growers across Southern California sponsored all-Latino baseball teams. Most of the county’s citrus camps hosted at least one—Richfield (an old barrio that later changed its name to Atwood and eventually ?was incorporated into Anaheim and Placentia) had its Nine, Placentia Mexicans joined the Merchants, and any La Habra brown boy with horsehide dreams hoped to join Los Juveniles.

The growers sponsored these teams for a specific reason: to create better workers. “The Mexican ‘takes’ well to the national pastime of the United States, namely, baseball. More significant[ly], through games such as baseball, he acquires a new meaning for teamwork,” wrote one researcher during the 1930s. An executive with Sunkist put it even more bluntly: “In order to produce the desired workers, [Mexican males] have to become a member of a local society or baseball team . . . to increase their physical and mental capacity to do more work.”

Flores and his fellow peloteros had no time for social engineering, though: they wanted to play ball. Los Juveniles and other citrus-league teams waged fierce battles against one another and other segregated teams—African-American squads from Pasadena, lineups of Japanese-Americans—for the better part of four decades. Their home games were played before hundreds in a sandlot next to a train depot and across the street from an orange-packing plant, a not-so-subtle reminder of what awaited players and spectators alike once their nine innings of respite ended.

Los Juveniles became citrus-league powerhouses, with “Jesse” Flores manning third base for the first five innings and pitching the rest of the way in most games. At 5-foot-10, with a stern face, strong nose and skin so white teammates nicknamed him “El Güero” (“The Light-Skinned One”), he cut an imposing figure on the mound and quickly established himself as the best Latino ballplayer in Southern California’s citrus leagues.

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