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Colorado baseball history, Part 5: The Sugar Beet League

Colorado Rockies news and links for Friday, February 18, 2022

With the lockout holding strong and the Rockies season opener on March 31 in Los Angeles against the Dodgers in doubt, it’s hard to start previewing 2022 season. So instead of looking ahead, this series will look to the past at the vast and diverse history of baseball in Colorado. Part 1 and Part 2 looked at the history of Black baseball players and integration. Part 3 looked at the Colorado Silver Bullets. Part 4 looked at mining teams.

When MLB locked out the players in December, the 40-man rosters froze for each team. While the Rockies current 40-man roster is sure to change by Opening Day (whenever that might be), at the moment, one-third of its players are Latino.

The countries with the biggest representation are Venezuela, led by Germán Márquez Antonio Senzatela, and Elias Díaz, and the Dominican Republic, including Raimel Tapia and Carlos Estévez.

Then there are legends like Andrés Galarraga and Carlos González (Venezuela), Ubaldo Jiménez (Dominican Republic), and Vinny Castilla (Mexico), among many others. Obviously, the Rockies aren’t outliers. A 2020 article from the MLB Players Association states that 20% of MLB’s players are of Hispanic descent.

The Latino infusion in Rockies history is undeniable, but the Latino influence on baseball in the Rocky Mountains dates back much earlier in Colorado history.

It all started when Colorado’s sugar beet industry exploded in the early 1900s. With more sugar factories opening all over the state, sugar companies couldn’t find workers fast enough. So they brought in Spanish-speaking laborers from the Southwest United States, Mexico, and beyond.

Within a few years, 10,000 of 12,000 laborers in the sugar industry were Latino. The sugar companies also established segregated “Spanish Colonies” where workers and their families lived, after building their own house and paying for the land. By the 1940s, there were over 100 “colonias” across Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska.

Farming sugar beets meant excruciating work and laborers only had one day off. That’s when Sundays became baseball days. The game grew quickly, becoming a cherished part of each community, especially since segregation and racist attitudes of the time barred most Latinos from playing in recreation, collegiate, and professional leagues. Instead, las colonias fielded community teams, many of which evolved into semi-pro teams over the following decades.

The teams cleared out places where sugar beets had been dumped and transformed fields into diamonds with plywood home plates and weighted sacks for bases. Without fences, outfielders had to maneuver around car-filled streets and trains.

Gabriel Lopez, the son of a member of the Greeley Grays, and his wife, Jody, have spent the last 20 years researching Latino history in Colorado and baseball. The couple has written two books and contributed to the ¡Pleibol¡ exhibit.

In an article, from Anythink Library’s Spark Magazine, Lopez explains that the Brighton Rams’ diamond had a railroad track running through it, which made for some interesting scenarios: “If a player hit [the ball] under the train, it was considered a standing-room double,” he says. “If you hit it over the train – and there’s someone fast enough to climb through or over the train to get it – the ball was still playable.”

Canvas-stuffed rags became gloves and bats were often taped or nailed back together after they broke to extend their lives. All the gear, from catcher’s masks to hand-made baseballs, were communal. Players shared equipment so that anyone could play, regardless of their gear.

An exhibit called ¡Pleibol¡ In the Barrios and the Big Leagues, with dozens of partners including the Smithsonian and History Colorado, features artifacts (including some that can be seen in a 3D format) and photos from the Spanish Colonies of Colorado, some of which is in the virtual exhibit online and on YouTube. The traveling exhibit is currently in Dodge City, Kansas, but it called El Pueblo History Museum home in the summer of 2021.

While teams were competitive and games could get intense, games also marked a great celebration of baseball and culture, as the two teams hung out after games. This included after World War II when Japanese-Americans were freed from internment camps and relocated or returned to rural areas, including the Spanish Colonies.

As the online exhibit from the National Museum of American History explains, “White teams often wouldn’t play [Japanese-Americans], but Mexican American teams did. After games, players gathered to share meals and swap stories. Lifelong friendships formed between players.”

The Greeley Grays, with a name inspired by the Negro Leagues’ Homestead Grays, are one of the most famous Spanish Colony teams. Formed in 1925 and employed by the Great Western Sugar Company, the Grays were one of 13 colonias teams in northeastern Colorado. By 1942, the Grays became a semi-pro team that played in the Rocky Mountain League, aka the Sugar Beet League, of the National Semi-Pro Baseball Congress. The Grays went on to win N.B.C. championship in 1963 and 64.

By 1969, the Grays folded in part because of the Vietnam War and its draft. Gil Carbajal played for the Grays from 1952-68 and then restarted the Greeley Grays in 2005 as a collegiate summer team in the Mile High Collegiate Baseball League. There are also several youth teams that carry on the cherished moniker.

More than 100 years before MLB and the Rockies came to Colorado, Latino players and communities helped create the foundation of baseball love the region is known for. Latino players around the world have helped the game grow and evolve.

The ¡Pleibol! exhibit highlights unique histories from East Harlem, The Bronx, Southern California, Cuba, and beyond. The exhibit also focuses on the contributions of Latinas, including a member of the Colorado Rockies ownership group, Linda Alvarado, who will be the focus of next week’s article.

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Threat to MLB openers increases, talks end after 15 minutes |

Apparently, talks are not getting better between MLB and MLBPA. A meeting on Thursday didn’t last very long. Instead of players doing drills and getting back at in Arizona and Florida, the lockout remains. The two sides could start meeting on an everyday basis starting next week, but it won’t matter if the meetings are as short as New York Mets infielder Luis Guillorme describes them.

The Shift: Jake Opitz Hangs Up His Uniform…For Now | Rockies Magazine

In a classic Jack Etkin deep dive, the Rockies writer explores Jake Opitz’s decision to step down as the Arizona League Complex manager to spend more time with his family, mostly to be a stay-at-home dad while his wife, Katelin, can focus on her role as assistant head coach and recruitment coordinator for the University of Denver volleyball team. It definitely leaves a big hole for the Rockies on the player development front, as Opitz, a former Heritage High School star in Littleton who as drafted by the Cubs in the 12th round of the 2008 draft, has been with the organization since 2017, including managing the Grand Junction Rockies and then being named the ACL Manager of the Year in his sole season on the job in 2021.

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