Baseball was brought to the Southwest by 19th-century settlers who'd become acquainted with the game in the East, and eventually it crossed the border, evolving into the kind of béisbol that produced Fernando Valenzuela. But long before it reached such sophistication, baseball along the border had produced the stuff of legend.
One story told and retold involves a game played 63 years ago next month. It had all the ingredients of a classic showdown—unbeaten teams and obsessive fans. Just after dawn on May 29, 1921, a caravan of cars carrying the semipro Douglas (Arizona) White Sox and their entourage of fans, wives and children drove past the huge Phelps-Dodge copper smelter on the way out of town. Ahead lay a 100-mile trip over rough dirt roads to Nogales, Ariz., home of the White Sox' archrivals, the Nogales Cuervos (Crows).
The two southeastern Arizona communities were markedly similar. Each was a small town adjacent to a larger Mexican city—Douglas to Agua Prieta and Nogales to Mexico's Nogales. Each had a largely Hispanic population, which accounted for a relaxed, natural duality of national allegiance. And each boasted a powerful semipro team of Hispanic makeup that ranked among the best in the two countries. The semipro teams of the day were the forerunners of today's Mexican Leagues.
The Douglas roster was stable for the first time in several years. Many of the players had been part of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, while others had spent time in Mexico fighting for or against Pancho Villa. (Villa had attacked Agua Prieta shortly before his bold incursion into the U.S. at Columbus, N. Mex. in 1916.)
The White Sox had won their first 12 games of the young season, mostly against competition from the state of Sonora, across the border. The Cuervos' 19-0 record was even more impressive, for the Nogales club had swept all eight games on a California road trip. Both teams had beaten visiting professional clubs.
In Nogales, the festivities began long before the arrival of the Douglas team. Despite Prohibition, liquor was easy to come by. Thousands of fans from all over Arizona and Sonora flooded into the Nogaleses. Among the fans were hundreds of U.S. soldiers from nearby Fort Huachuca (which had been the base of cavalry operations against Cochise and Geronimo and was the adopted home of the Harlem Globetrotters a few years ago). Because of the size of the crowd, it was decided that the game would be played in the 10,000-seat municipal stadium on the Mexican side of the border. Predictably, there was heavy betting. Thousands of dollars and hundreds of thousands of pesos were wagered at even money.
The game began at high noon, with the temperature over 100°. The first ball was thrown out by the governor of Sonora, who was surrounded by a contingent of federates assigned to allay fears of an attack by the still-active Villa.
The game quickly settled into a pitching duel between Tachi Ruiz of Douglas and Arsenio (Indio) Bernal of Nogales. The two traded strikeouts and both had no-hitters through the fifth inning. The 20,000 fans who had squeezed into the stadium roared with each pitch and bet some more between innings. It became increasingly apparent that the game's outcome would probably be determined by one big play.
Bernal began to tire in the late going but he maintained his shutout with the help of some fine defensive plays and generous calls by the local umpiring crew. The teams battled into the ninth, still in a scoreless tie. Ruiz led off the inning for Douglas with a line drive to left that got past the fielder and bounced to the wall. Ruiz slid into third well ahead of the throw. His slide, however, dislodged the bag and sent it skittering into foul territory. Ruiz, breathing hard from the exertion, sat slumped over on the spot where the bag had been. The relay throw finally came in to the third baseman, who casually tagged Ruiz where he sat. Immediately, the home-plate umpire, who had moved about halfway up the line, raised his right hand and loudly called Ruiz out.
Ruiz jumped to his feet and ran to confront the umpire, who tossed him out of the game. The entire White Sox team bolted off the bench and surrounded the umpire, pleading its case to no avail. Hundreds of fans poured onto the field to protest. Losing money was one thing; to feel that it was being stolen was quite another.
The umpire took off toward centerfield with several irate Douglas fans in pursuit. The situation worsened when large numbers of Nogales fans ran on the field hoping to head off the Douglas throng and perhaps, in the process, save the umpire.
Now the armed federates left the stands with orders from the governor to clear the field. The soldiers formed a line and moved out into the swirl of assorted fistfights. The federates seemed to disappear into the crowd, their line broken, their unity shattered. Near the pitcher's mound, one federal was knocked to the ground and, for one reason or another, fired his weapon wildly as he fell. The sound of the shot brought shrieks of surprise and touched off a riot. That, in turn, panicked the federates, who began shooting at random into the crowd. The resulting stampede may well have caused more injuries than did the fusillade that prompted it.
The federates fought their way off the field and set up a defensive perimeter near the governor's box. They held their rifles at the ready but didn't fire them again that day. Just as suddenly as the panic began, it ended. The passion was spent, the fighting was over.
Those who could stumbled back into the stands, leaving the field littered with the bodies of those who had fallen. The tally included one dead, over a dozen hospitalized with gunshot wounds and scores with various other injuries. As a deathly calm descended over the stadium, the field was cleared of the casualties and, to the surprise of few, the game was resumed.
The "out" call against Ruiz stood, as did his ejection. The Nogales team retook the field and the game picked up with one out in the visitors' half of the ninth inning. Unsettled by the violence (and perhaps by the bloodstains near the mound), Bernal walked the next two batters before getting the second out of the inning on a called third strike. That brought to the plate Douglas cleanup hitter and second baseman Amado (Chief) Gutierrez.
A legendary figure in Sonoran baseball, Gutierrez had a playing career that spanned eight decades. He was born in Chihuahua, Mexico in 1870, and he played for several Mexican and American teams, plying his skills wherever the money and/or competition was the best. The earliest available records show that Gutierrez was pitching in the El Paso area in 1888 and he was still playing regularly for a semipro team well after World War II and well into his 70s.
The only gaps in his border baseball career included a brief stint with the Chicago White Sox at the turn of the century and service in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War and World War I. It wasn't until after World War I—when he was nearly 50—that Gutierrez married and started a family, which ultimately included four sons and three daughters. He took a full-time railroad job and settled down in the Douglas-Agua Prieta area.
So great was his impact on baseball there that the municipal stadium in Agua Prieta was going to be named Chief Gutierrez Stadium. (However, the town politicians named the stadium after the governor of Sonora.) It was in this ball park that Gutierrez accomplished a feat that may never be duplicated. The leftfield wall runs parallel to the international border, which is some 50 feet to the north. When in 1930 Gutierrez hit a towering smash out of the park in a Mexican League game, he may have become the only man ever to hit a home run from one country to another.
While the international home run may have been his most unusual, it didn't come close to matching the drama of his ninth-inning shot to dead centerfield that day in Nogales. Bernal appeared to have regained his control after walking the two batters and then striking out the next one. All he had to do was retire Gutierrez to keep Nogales even going into the bottom of the ninth. But after taking a curve for a strike. Gutierrez hit the second pitch far over the centerfield wall for a three-run homer. He then took the mound in the bottom of the ninth and preserved the victory for Ruiz and the White Sox.
The Douglas fans collected their winnings and began their celebration. The White Sox, however, weren't in a mood to carouse. Weary from the game and stunned by the carnage, the Sox players simply wanted to go home. They piled into their cars, drove across the border and headed for the road that is now Highway 92. Near the outskirts of town, they ran into a roadblock set up by angry Nogales fans. At gunpoint, the White Sox were persuaded to stay overnight in Nogales and give the Cuervos a rematch the following day. The Douglas players were allowed to send their families home, while they themselves spent the night sleeping in their cars or camped out at the ball park.
The news of the rematch spread through town quickly but so, too, did an understanding of the circumstances under which the game was agreed. By the time the game started the following day, there wasn't a pro-Douglas bettor to be found. Correct or not, the word was out that Douglas wouldn't be going home until Nogales had its revenge, and the White Sox planned to go home as soon as possible.
Greg Louganis couldn't have taken a better dive. The White Sox hit the ball better than they had the day before, but they managed to stay comfortably behind the Cuervos and lost 15-8. When the White Sox left Nogales, they did so with little fanfare and no opposition. Douglas and Nogales would play each other several more times that year in both cities, but they did so before small, relatively subdued crowds. The White Sox won the season series and capped off a superb season by defeating the national champions from Mexico City.
The White Sox and Cuervos dominated the baseball scene along the border for the rest of the decade. Both teams eventually broke up, with the players retiring, joining Sonoran teams or forming new teams in their hometowns. Some of the players were instrumental in forming the legendary Bisbee-Douglas Copper Kings, a team that beat AAA and major league competition in the '40s and '50s.
Few of the players who participated in that deadly Nogales game are still alive. Gutierrez died in 1974 at age 104, of what was later deemed to have been unnecessary surgery for prostate problems just a few months before the birth of his grandson, Amado III. The child's father, Amado II, had had a promising baseball career interrupted by World War II; he later played on the Bisbee-Douglas Copper Kings.
The two Mexican communities of Agua Prieta and Nogales now have teams in the Mexican Leagues, but in Douglas and the U.S. Nogales, the banner has been passed to the younger generation. In the past eight years, teams from Douglas have won two state high school championships, one state Little League title and seven Babe Ruth age-division crowns. Nogales teams have won several Babe Ruth titles, and the town was picked to host the 1979 national Babe Ruth tournament.
Baseball tradition runs deep and strong in the two communities, with many of today's players tracing family ties back to the old White Sox and Cuervos. Three years ago, Douglas and Nogales high schools ended their league schedule tied for first and had a playoff to help determine the state tournament seeding. The game went extra innings, with No-gales getting five runs in the 11th to win. Nogales had nine runs on 11 hits, Douglas five runs on nine hits. All was calm.