I remember playing catch with my mother, not my father. My father, Gabriel Fraire, taught me plenty about sports. In the early 1960’s he ran the Biddy Basketball program for youth in Gary, Indiana, was President of the Elks Little League baseball organization, and coach of numerous youth teams. He was also a Boy Scout Master. To say he was involved with kids – his and those of others – would be an understatement.
He will probably never be written about in history books, except for perhaps the ones I write, but he was very instrumental in providing athletic programs for Gary’s youth, especially for its African American and Latino population. When Gary mayor Meyer Katz formed the city’s first Human Relations Commission in 1965, he appointed my father to the committee partly to have some representation from Gary’s growing Latino population and partly in recognition of my father’s work with youth and athletics; but as much as he taught me the particulars of playing sports, including baseball, I do not remember ever playing catch with him. I am sure I did, but I just do not remember it. It is my mother with whom I remember playing catch, and I remember one time in particular.
I was about 7 or 8 years old and it was one of those oppressive summer days when you could actually see the heat wave up from the concrete, and the smell from Inland Steel and US Steel/Gary works was particularly heavy. I wanted to play catch but no one else wanted to be out in that weather. I was moping about the house with that long face kids can get. My mother, always wanting to please us, offered to play catch with me.
My mother, Gloria Guerrero Fraire, was a respected member of the Mexican community in East Chicago, Indiana. She was a WAC in World War II and was an active member of the “Old Timers of Indiana Harbor.” She organized many fundraisers and community events, and was the Vice President and a founding member of the Señoras of Yesteryear, a group of Mexican women who produced Harbor Lights, a community history book with a wealth of information on the early lives of the first Mexican residents of Indiana Harbor, the section of East Chicago closest to Inland Steel and where most of the Mexican community lived.
And she was a talented high school athlete, but on the hot summer day, she was just my mom willing to play catch with me.
I had heard stories about her baseball ability. When she was in high school (1939-42) she played for a Mexican girls’ softball team called Las Gallinas [trans: hens]. My mother was also one of the first Mexican girls to play sports for East Chicago Washington High School in East Chicago, Indiana. She never bragged about herself, but relatives and family friends told us she was a very good shortstop who threw a baseball better than many boys. Fred Maravilla, probably the oldest surviving Mexican American from East Chicago, and the first coach of the Gallinas, once told me once that some of the Gallinas softball players, like my mother, were gifted athletes. He said he and the coaches of the boys’ hardball baseball team, Los Gallos [Roosters], used to say that they wanted to put some of the women on the Gallos team, “which nearly always brought laughter from the guys because they thought we were joking,” Fred told me. “We weren’t kidding.”
My mother even still had her old softball glove, a big, bulky thing with only three fingers. I always thought those old softball mitts were funny looking, but when she put it on it formed around her hand as if were tailor made. I knew instantly that perhaps some of those stories were true. Nevertheless, despite what I had heard, I was skeptical. After all she was my mother. I reluctantly agreed to let her play catch with me.
At first, she threw underhand. I thought it was the only way she knew how to throw. While I enjoyed catching her soft throws, (I pretended they were fly balls and I was Willie Mays), I felt that her throwing underhand was not real baseball. I thought if I was going to get anything out of this, I needed someone who could really throw. But she kept lofting me those soft fly balls. Finally, in frustration I said. “Throw it the other way; throw it fast.” I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it was probably something like, “Son, you’re a little too young to handle my fastball.”
She gave in. She told me to hold my glove up in the air. She cocked her arm back and in one fluid motion let go with a fastball that I barely saw as it rocketed into my glove. I would like to say I caught the ball, but the truth is, she threw it directly into my mitt; and when it hit my glove, it not only stung, but the force of her throw knocked me over backwards. When I got up and brushed myself off, I took a short breath and then I told her I wanted to be an outfielder and needed to practice catching fly balls and maybe she should throw some more underhand. My mother didn’t gloat or even smile. She just returned to tossing me those soft fly balls.
To view photos of Indiana Latino’s, please visit our Latino and Hispanic Heritage Collection.
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