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.

Finally, the big break arrived. In 1938, the Chicago Cubs held amateur tryouts in Los Angeles. When Flores arrived, however, he noticed a line of players auditioning for third base. He decided to try out as a pitcher. The 24-year-old pitched two perfect innings that day in a practice game, striking out four of the six batters he faced. Flores repeated the feat the following day. The Cubs offered him a contract that afternoon.

“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.

‘I DID A GOOD JOB’

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.

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.”

In the off-season, Flores and other former big leaguers visited Mexico to conduct baseball clinics, opening the country to Major League Baseball. But Flores never talked much about himself to others. “I didn’t know how big of a player he was until I was older,” says Al Molina, who grew up in La Habra. His father, Pedro, played alongside Flores on Los Juveniles, sparking a lifelong friendship that resulted in Flores becoming Al’s padrino—his godfather.

“That’s the funny part—Jesse wasn’t that type of person,” Molina continues. “I knew bits and pieces of his background—that he had made the majors for several years, something my father said was really difficult in those days. Jesse would talk about his family, our family, but he never brought attention to his career. About the most he would talk about baseball were the players he signed. As you go out and get older, you find more facts about how well-respected he really was.”

Molina accompanied Flores to many local games while his padrino scouted players. One in particular sticks in Molina’s mind. He can’t remember the date or teams involved, only that it happened at Blair Field in Long Beach. The two were following a prospective draft choice, who had just committed an out.

“The player blew up,” Molina recalls. “He took off his helmet and threw it and broke it. After the game, Jess went up to him and said, ‘You got to learn how to keep your cool. Don’t lose your focus.’ He was good at having good advice for younger people.”

Flores saw more than 60 of his players enter the big leagues, an extraordinary figure in the days before computer analysis and corporate funding for ballclubs. Some of the better ones didn’t stay with the Twins, such as Reggie Smith, who starred for the Los Angeles Dodgers during their heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Lyman Bostock, a wondrous hitter who became one of baseball’s first free agents but tragically died while playing for the then-California Angels in 1978.

But Flores’ most famous discovery by far is Bert Blyleven. Blyleven was a lanky sophomore pitching at Santiago High in Garden Grove when the two first met in 1967. By then, baseball scouts were already excited about the teen’s stuff, including a curve that would eventually lead him to 287 victories and the cusp of Cooperstown. The first meeting between the two, however, happened only because Flores was there to scout another pitcher. The pitcher didn’t show, and Blyleven took his place.

After that first game, Flores went up to Blyleven and offered a couple of tips: don’t rush. Stay back on your delivery. Throw better strikes. And work on that curve.

“Jesse wasn’t much of a conversation-alist, and neither was I,” Blyleven recalled in a recent interview. He now lives in Fort Myers, Florida, and works as a Twins television commentator. “He saw some flaws and worked with me on them. Other scouts were there, but Jesse was kind of overseeing everything.”

The two quickly struck up a friendship. Like Flores, Blyleven had come to Orange County as an immigrant (from the Netherlands) and saw baseball as an opportunity to better his life. The two couldn’t talk much outside of weekend games—baseball-tampering rules prohi-bited such conversations—but Flores struck up a friendship with Blyleven’s father. Eventually, the two men made a bet: if Bert made the big leagues in less than two years, Blyleven’s dad owed Flores a steak dinner. The Twins drafted Blyleven in the third round of the 1969 draft. He pitched a year later. Flores enjoyed the steak.

The Twins put Blyleven in their instructional league shortly after the draft. Flores was the league’s pitching coach and helped Blyleven immensely—and not just on his baseball skills.

“I almost killed myself in instructional league one time,” Blyleven says with a laugh. “Players had to find their own place to live and cook for themselves. I had never lived away from my home, and my mother always cooked for me. So one time, I bought some meat and put it in the refrigerator. Ten days later, I finally tried to cook it. It kind of looked brown, but I still ate it.

“An hour later, I started sweating and felt sick,” Blyleven continues. “The only person I knew was Jesse, so I went to him and said I feel terrible. I told him about how I had kept the meat in the refrigerator. He asked how long I kept it in there, and I said 10 days. ‘Oh, my goodness!’ he said. ‘You must have food poisoning!’ He called the trainer, and they gave me stuff to get the meat out of me.”

Blyleven didn’t see much of Flores after he made the big leagues, although he made it a point to work out with Flores’ rookie teams during winter league and spring training. “All the young kids respected him,” Blyleven said. “He was like a fatherly figure, someone you respected. You knew he had been in the game a long time and signed a lot of good major-league players. All in all, he wasn’t just a pitching coach, but also a friend. If you had a bad outing, he’d get you ready for the next one. If you had a good start, he wouldn’t let you get too high. You took the good with the bad, and that was what Jesse was about, like life.”

The two kept in touch once Blyleven left the Twins, talking every couple of months. Blyleven was there when Jesse’s wife, Consuelo, passed away and he became friends with Flores’ two sons, Steve and Jesse Jr., both of whom became renowned scouts in their own right. Blyleven and Steve still hold charity golf tournaments in the Inland Empire for hemophilia research.

“Jesse is someone I admired,” Blyleven says. “He was like a father figure to me. I put Jesse in the same column as my pops. They were two men who cared. That’s how you want to be remembered—as a man who loved what he did and had a lot of charisma to get the best out of other people.

“It’s easy to say a lot of nice things about Jess,” adds Blyleven. “Every time I think of him, I get a smile.”

THAT BIRD’S GOING TO MAKE IT

“My father gave money to whoever needed it,” Steve Flores said during a recent conversation. He currently works with the Texas Rangers as their head of scouting on the West Coast. “He drove an old Thunderbird, and we’d always tell him to get a new car. But he wouldn’t. He’d rather save money or give it to people. No questions asked. I’d always asked him why he gave it away, and he would always say, ‘Because they need it. Besides, if you give a loan, you’re probably not going to get it back.’ He once owned a gas station that went belly-up because he just gave [the gas] away.

“He never talked about his playing days,” Steve adds. “He’d rather talk about family, friends. About the most he would say is what good orange pickers his brothers were.”

Flores finally received accolades toward the end of his career. In 1985, Major League Baseball named him the West Coast Scout of the Year. Two years later, the Minnesota Twins—riding the strong arm of Blyleven, who had rejoined his original squad—won the World Series for the first time since 1924, when they were the Washington Senators and their Orange County ace was Walter “Big Train” Johnson. That same year, the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame enshrined Flores in their pantheon; the plaque noted his less-than-stellar record but lauded the man, saying Flores “held up against the best baseball in the world. . . . [His career] was a noteworthy achievement if you take into account that in those days, American baseball was full of big stars.”

Flores finally resigned from the Minnesota Twins in 1989 after 27 years of scouting. He helped the Pittsburgh Pirates for a couple of more seasons before retiring for good in 1990. He passed away the following year at 77 and had never moved away from La Habra. Blyleven gave the eulogy at the funeral.

Eventually, La Habra atoned for its previous sins against Flores. In 1994, the city christened a trio of Little League baseball fields the Jesse Flores Sports Complex. The diamonds are located in Portola Park, a small patch of land that sits on the site where Flores and Los Juveniles played. In 2001, La Habra honored him again with a plaque in the park. It praised his ceaseless commitment to the city’s young ballplayers. “Many hopeful players called [Flores], begging for a tryout,” it reads in part. “Jesse would arrange to meet with them and would begin by saying, ‘Okay, show me what you’ve got.’ If the prospect was good and showed love for the game, Jesse would conclude, ‘That bird’s going to make it to the big leagues.’”

“Everyone loved him,” Steve Flores says. “He was just a good guy. I still run into people who’ll say, ‘Your father was one of the best human beings ever.’”

“Boy, my father had a blessed life,” Flores adds. “Everything he did just went right.”

GARELLANO@OCWEEKLY.COM

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Anaheim Concert Tickets
Loading...