Grove of Dreams

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

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.

Rather than face the ignominy of returning to the minors, Flores sought to play in Mexico. In 1946, the Mexican League began offering big contracts to American baseball players with the hope of luring them south. Owners offered Flores a contract after the 1947 season, but he balked at the low salary. Flores tried to argue that his presence would attract Mexican fans excited about seeing one of their own, but the owners wouldn’t budge. Their reasoning wasn’t based on playing skills. Simply put, Flores didn’t deserve a white man’s salary because he was a Mexican.

Flores was crushed by the rejections from Mack and the Mexican League, so he reported to the Padres. He fared poorly for them in 1948, posting an 11-19 record with a bloated 4.36 ERA. But Flores rebounded in 1949 with a 21-10 record, pitching well enough the powerhouse Cleveland Indians called him up. At age 35, Flores joined a pitching staff that already included three eventual Hall of Famers—Wynn, Bob Feller and Bob Lemon—and a young Mexican-American fireballer named Mike Garcia.

He did okay for the Indians, going 3-3 while pitching mostly in relief. But the Indians had no use for a past-his-prime pitcher and sold him to the minor-league Sacramento Solons. Flores pitched in the minors for the next five years but never finished with a winning record again.

SCOUTING FOR A JOB

After his playing days ended, Flores returned to La Habra and prepared for life without baseball. With the money saved from his playing days, Flores tried to buy a house near the corner of La Habra Boulevard and Fourth Street in the white part of town. But when he met with the realtor, Flores discovered the sale was off—no Mexicans allowed outside the barrio in La Habra. After he complained, city leaders offered Flores a deal: deliver us the Latino vote in the upcoming elections, and the house is yours. Flores refused and bought a house in a nicer part of the barrio.

Discrimination by whites wasn’t the only problem Flores faced from his neighbors. Latinos who had once cheered him on now accused the former big leaguer of having a big head. With no formal education, Flores couldn’t land a full-time job. “Those years were hard on him,” says Steve Flores, Jesse’s youngest son. “I was just a kid then, but I remember him hurting. He had been in the limelight for so long but now didn’t know what to do.”

So Flores returned to what he knew best: baseball. He started a semipro ball club, the La Habra Tigers, and recruited many of the sons of his former Los Juveniles teammates. Flores helped organize tournaments involving teams from Orange County and Mexico. He bought bats and balls for the kids who played at his old stomping grounds. Flores also tended to the city’s baseball fields, watering the infield and preparing the diamond.

In 1960, the Philadelphia Phillies asked Flores to scout part-time for them. He showed such promise the Minnesota Twins stole him the following year as their main man in the West Coast. Flores quickly gained a reputation in the organization as someone who not only knew the game, but also knew what made a player. Soon, his players began dotting big-league rosters; during one game during the early 1970s, the Twins’ starting lineup consisted of only Flores signees.

“Jess was all the things you look for in a man,” says Jim Rantz, who has worked for the Twins since 1960 and currently serves as their director of minor-league operations. “Easygoing, very dedicated to the game and a family man. He knew just about everybody in California. He was very instrumental in getting a lot of players into this organization.”

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