Grove of Dreams

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

“I couldn’t believe it was happening,” Flores told an Orange County Register reporter years later. “A week before, I was picking oranges, and now I was going to get a chance to play baseball. It was a dream I had since the first day my family came to this country, and to have it come true was incredible.”

Scouts raved about Flores’ stuff. “He tosses that screwball just about as well the first day of the season as he does the last,” one pitching coach enthused. “He’s fast enough when he has to be, has a good curve ball as a pitcher needs and can thread a needle with his screwball.” The Sporting News, meanwhile, wrote that Flores tossed a “terrific fast one” and that his pitches were always “alive.”

The Cubs sent Flores to their A-ball affiliate in Bisbee, Arizona. He dominated the Arizona League in 1938, winning 24 games with an ERA of 2.38. Flores received a promotion to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, the premier minor league in the western United States. The young pitcher struggled in the advanced division but nevertheless showed enough promise to convince the Cubs he was ready. Chicago called him up for the start of the 1942 season.

Flores was just the third player of Mexican descent to make the majors (the previous two were Mel Almada and Chile Gomez) and the first to come from Southern California’s citrus leagues. Sportswriters loved to mention his background in profiles. “To help provide frijoles for the family table, Jess spent many a day picking oranges in the groves,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in a 1940 piece. “Take it from Flores, reaching up and plucking the golden fruit off the trees is a job calculated to strengthen the fingers, develop the hand muscles used in pitching a baseball.”

But the Cubs weren’t interested in good stories. Flores pitched just five innings before the Cubs sent him back to the Angels. One Cubs executive snorted that he had “nothing but a dink screwball.” Flores had a strong 1942 for the Los Angeles ballclub, but the Cubs nevertheless sold him to the Philadelphia Athletics at the end of the season.

During the 1942 off-season, Flores played in the California Winter League, one of the country’s first integrated baseball leagues. He faced off against such Negro League legends as Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell. But the season was just a couple of games old before Flores and other participating major leaguers drew the wrath of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s commissioner and an ardent opponent of integration. Landis cited a Major League Baseball rule that barred players from participating in exhibition games 10 days after the end of the regular season. Baseball fans knew the real reason: the powerful Landis didn’t want his players to barnstorm with blacks.

Landis launched an investigation against Flores and other major leaguers who participated in the California Winter League. The commissioner ultimately decided against any fines or suspensions. But the message was sent, and Flores never played in the California Winter League again.


Flores joined the Athletics at a down time in the franchise’s history. The club, owned and managed by Hall of Famer Connie Mack, hadn’t played .500 ball in a decade and had finished last or next-to-last in the American League the past eight seasons. Travel restrictions imposed because of World War II forced the Athletics to cancel their traditional spring training at Anaheim’s Pearson Park, depriving Flores of a return home. The wartime draft stole what few good players Mack had, including A’s ace Phil Marchildon. Mack replaced him with Flores after an impressive spring training, which meant the young Mexican would start opening day against the Boston Red Sox at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. This would be Flores’ first major-league start.

The rookie pitched valiantly that day, allowing only two hits and one run while going the distance. Nevertheless, the feeble A’s lost to the Red Sox, 1-0. Undeterred, Flores pitched four days later against the Washington Senators and future Hall of Famer Early Wynn. Again, the Athletics couldn’t hit. But Flores wouldn’t bend. He matched zeros with Wynn for an amazing 15 innings until the Athletics finally scored two runs in the top of the 16th. Flores lost his shutout in the bottom half of the inning but hung on for a thrilling 2-1 victory, Flores’ first in the majors.

Just before he died, Flores told an interviewer that the memory of working in La Habra's citrus groves motivated him during those first couple of starts. “I did a good job,” he said, “and it reminded me of all the times I had picked lemons and oranges. Right then, I promised myself that I was going to do better and better. . . . You start thinking about where you have been and the tough times when the most you could make was $2 a day, working 10 hours.”

Unfortunately, those two first games were the pinnacle of Flores’ playing career. The A’s were terrible in 1942, winning just 49 games and losing 105 while finishing in last place again. Flores was their sole bright spot, finishing with a record of 12 wins, 14 losses and an earned run average of 3.11; he led the team in victories and ERA. But the Athletics never really shook their slump while Flores played for the team. His best season was in 1946, when he posted a 9-7 record with a 2.32 ERA as the A’s sunk again to a 49-105 record. The A’s rebounded the following season with their first winning year since 1933. Flores, however, tanked and won just four games while losing 13. Reloading with new players, Mack sold Flores to the Cleveland Indians after the 1947 season; they placed him with their Triple-A affiliate, the San Diego Padres.

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