Ben ChappellOct 19, 2022
Mexican American Fastpitch
Vernacular Sport and Cultural Citizenship in Mid-America
Stanford University Press 2021
Today we are joined by Ben Chappell, Professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas, and author of Mexican American Fastpitch: Identity at Play in Vernacular Sport (Stanford University Press, 2021). In our conversation, we discussed the origins of Mexican American Fastpitch, his interlocutors debate over whether to open Mexican American softball tournaments to Anglo players, and how fastpitch helped Mexican Americans enact a specific and local form of cultural citizenship in the Midwest and Texas.
In Mexican American Fastpitch, Chappell uses ethnographic methods to study Mexican American fastpitch in local communities stretching across the Midwest and Texas. His work took place over a decade in small towns, like Newton Kansas, and bigger cities including Austin, Houston and San Antonio.
His first two chapters deal with the history of Mexican American softball and set the game alongside the larger history of Mexican habitation in the Midwest and the gender and racial politics of softball. He shows that Mexican Americans played softball from the very beginning of the game, but the oldest specifically Mexican American tournaments in the Midwest started shortly after the Second World War. The oldest – the Newton – will be seventy-five years old in 2023. These tournaments proved opportunities for Mexican American ballplayers to assert their particular citizenship despite barrioization, economic marginalization, racism, and segregation.
Through a thick description of several of competitions such as the Newton and the Latin, Chappell shows how these tournaments encompass much more than the batting and fielding on and around the diamond. While softball does possess its own illusio – roughly speaking appeal – to men and women, competitors and fans; the game is only part of the reason for these tournaments’ longevity. Mexican American fastpitch players not only enjoyed a compelling sport, but also a festival that included community engagement, different foodways, and family reunions. The game’s illusio worked differently for Mexican American men and women – the latter have only more recently started to compete in these tournaments.
The popularity of these tournament peaked sometime in the late 20th century and now tournament organizers face the difficult question of how to save the game. The most common debate is whether to admit Anglo teams (and thus preserve the tournament) or remain a specific site for Mexican American organization. Tournament organizers also deal with ringers from around the world, double dip scheduling, and rival sporting codes. In a final theoretical chapter, entitled “Between the Lines,” Chappell considers the particular and the universal in the experience of Mexican American fastpitch and compares it to other fastpitch communities including a very close comparison with Native American fastpitch.
Chappell’s captivating account of the Mexican American softballers and their tournaments will be of interest to readers interested broadly in local sport and ball games. It should also be required reading for people with interests Mexican American history and ethnography, and sports anthropology and ethnography.
Keith Rathbone is a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He researches twentieth-century French social and cultural history. His book, entitled Sport and physical culture in Occupied France: Authoritarianism, agency, and everyday life, (Manchester University Press, 2022) examines physical education and sports in order to better understand civic life under the dual authoritarian systems of the German Occupation and the Vichy Regime. If you have a title to suggest for this podcast, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at @keithrathbone on twitter.