Baseball in Orange County: History Bats Last!

You've seen them, the "Images of America" series books from Arcadia Publishing, a terrific outfit whose sepia-toned book covers and the jam-packed photos inside pick up the slack where big-time houses often fall down as regards local history. I own a half-dozen of these, including books on Silverado Canyon and Old Santa Ana, community photo albums which offer a look into the past, often posed, sometimes cruel, frequently celebratory, black and white nostalgia balanced with careful and well-documented captions that amount to commentary and analysis.  Arcadia, "proud to play a part in the preservation of local heritage, finds in local author and baseball expert Chris Epting a citizen-scholar-fan with a personal commitment to telling the story of America's pastime as played in these parts, in his new Baseball in Orange County.

Mr. Bib's own admittedly limited take on sports tends toward the political--no surprise--and mostly relies on writer-novelist Frank Deford's excellent weekly NPR sports commentaries and the website and writings of Dave Zirin, people's sports analyst and heir to the late Howard Zinn. Check out his terrific Edge of Sports website for a materialist, anti-racist, pro-labor and generally Left political analysis and commentary on sports, owners, unions, fans. 

Epting's collection makes sports stories into history stories too, a guide to the oil boom, development, class and race politics in our county.  Consider the gals in photo above, the Orange Tomboys, an all-female team circa 1947. Part of a Mexican-American female league, they were champions, beautiful and of course segregated. Other "barrio" teams, company teams, civic organization teams have hit the field for 75 years, including the all-white Orange Lions Club-

sponsored Orange Lionettes. Dig the shiny sexy uniforms. They played fast-pitch and eventually went pro!

Still, hard not to be just plain happy looking at all these happy ball players and fans. Some-how the spirit of the game and its players--whether in the Santiago Orange Growers Association team (rich gals) or fans arriving in 1966 for opening day at the Big A--shines from the snapshots and baseball cards and archival images assembled here. Epting tells the story of both the pros and the proletariat, offering the biography of early superstar Walter Johnson from turn of the century oil boom-town Olina (now part of Brea) and helpful digressions (at least for this reader) and field trips, including to the Newport Sports Museum, an impressive-seeming must-visit for sports culture fans.  I say "culture" because Epting, whose book is a labor of baseball love, locates myriad connections, trivia and stories.  There's a photo of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig after a day of bird hunting at a private gun club in Cypress. Turns out The Jackie Robinson Story, starring Robinson and Ruby Dee, was filmed here. 

And one of my own favorite photos is of Epting and his baseballer son posed with the Jack Norworth Trophy, dedicated to the OC resident who wrote a song sung nearly as often as "Happy Birthday." Indeed, Norworth wrote "Shine On, Harvest Moon" and the seventh-inning stretch sing-along classic "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Who knew? 

There are perfect games, and perfect game balls, before and after photos, markers and monuments and, throughout this guide to place and memory, the opportunity to look for details only photographs can provoke and captions can complicate and answer. Seeing what people looked like, and what was there, here before? The uniforms alone are a kick. But what is there now?  Where did everybody go?

Of course, there's a whole (obligatory) chapter on the California Angels, with postcards and artist's renditions, brochure photos and aerial views. My own trips to see the most recent incarnation of ball played there struck me as a lot of spectacle, with fans arriving late, leaving early and so many lights and ads and screens that I had trouble following the actual game from over-stimulation. Still, it was fun and right to be there, with my old dad and my young son, three generations of red-blooded goofs, and we all sang loudly the exemplary anthem of Americana and goodwill.

Of course, if you are a real fan, (unlike me) you'll already know the "local legends" of OC whose photos are collected here, Jesus Flores to Hall-of-Famers Arky Vaughan to Bert Blyleven. Chris Epting, author of all kinds of unlikely books on pop culture, sports, roadside shrines) must have had some kind of fun putting this material together, much of it obviously from his own, as they say, personal collection. He takes it personally, sincerely, and in my case, introduces the reader to a whole lot more history than at-bats, runs, bases stolen or no-hitters. Flores, for instance, a star of the Southern California citrus leagues, was the first Mexican-American pitcher in the big leagues. As Epting tells it, after retiring, "La Habra's city fathers prevented
him from moving into a white neighborhood unless he agreed to help the Mexican vote for Republicans."  That's the necessary, awful part of the story. Here's the cool part: "Flores refused." Batter up!

Baseball in Orange County, Chris Epting, Arcadia Publishing, 127 pps., $21.99

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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