Nothing Soft about It

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, currently touring Kansas.

Mexican-American fast-pitch softball has a long history in Newton, Kansas.  Image Courtesy the Newton Kansan.

Mexican-American fast-pitch softball has a long history in Newton, Kansas. Image Courtesy the Newton Kansan.

It was supposed be a way to force Mexican-Americans to assimilate into U.S. culture.

Instead, for Mexican-Americans in Newton, Kansas, baseball and softball became cultural cornerstones of their communities for generations.

It’s not unusual for sons to play on the same teams their fathers—or their grandfathers—played on when they were young. (And as fast-pitch has grown in popularity among women’s teams, daughters have started getting in on the action, too.)

According to Zack Lewandowski, the strong family lineage involved in the game is just one example of how this sport, created by U.S. assimilation projects in the early twentieth century, grew into something that helps affirm Mexican-American culture.

Another is the Newton Mexican-American Fast-Pitch Softball Tournament. Begun in 1947, it’s the oldest tournament of its kind. Every summer for more than 65 years, it has brought together teams from all over the country in a celebration of athleticism and Mexican-American heritage, Lewandowski writes:

“It’s basically pride; everybody down there is Mexican-American,” [Angels pitcher Louis] Vaca says. “You’re playing for pride amongst your peers.”

With mariachi bands and dances, the atmosphere at the tournament is welcoming and family-friendly, but that doesn’t mean that the players don’t take the game seriously. A good number of participants played college ball, and some competed in baseball’s minor leagues.

One local team, the Angels, even won the 2009 North American Fast-Pitch Association national championship—the first Mexican-American team to do so.

It’s just one more example of how Mexican-Americans in Newton continue to use the game they love as a way to foster a shared community with a strong sense of history.

Dr. Rachel Epp Buller, Hometown Teams Partner Site Project Director for North Newton’s Bethel College, said she hopes this exhibit will emphasize how sports help connect all kinds of communities. It’s something she sees with her students, as well.

“Sports provide that link, that team experience, to help make the foreign familiar….a link to community integration—historically and in the world today,” Buller added.

The Root for the Home Team: Building Community Through Sports exhibition will be on display at Bethel College beginning September 1, 2015 as part of the Hometown Teams in Kansas initiative.  Click here for more information or visit KHC’s Calendar of Events.