Long before ground was broken on Constellation Field and the Skeeters played their first game of professional baseball, Sugar Land was home to some of the best amateur baseball teams in the region.
Organized baseball has been played in Sugar Land since before the turn of the 20th century, but really got competitive in the 1940s until it faded out in the 1970s. Just as Imperial Sugar owned the old company town, it also sponsored the local baseball teams, providing jerseys, equipment and fields to play on. With names like the Imperials, the Imperial Tigers, Imperial Pirates, and the Imperial Braves, the company kept its stamp on all things related to Sugar Land. It also afforded young men the opportunity to have their moment in the sun.
“We were good. We were undefeated. Everybody else wanted to play us. We used to play a team from Mexico called Piedras Negras, they were good, but they wanted to play us,” said D.C. Pickett, who at age 80 has many fond memories of his playing years.
He recently gathered with Ernest Trevino, 84, and George Morales Jr., 74, at the request of Chuck Kelly of the Sugar Land Historical Foundation to talk about the Golden Age of baseball in Sugar Land.
Just like Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, baseball helped break racial barriers in Sugar Land.
“Sugar Land was always unusual,” Pickett said. “It wasn’t black and white; it was never like that. Everybody worked together and the sugar company controlled everything. We worked together, we got off and we played together, so there wasn’t all that this-and-that.”
The teams were usually Hispanic or black until the mid-1960s when they integrated and added a a few white players into the mix. For the athletes, race wasn’t the issue; playing and having fun is what counted.
“Sunday was a special day. We wouldn’t go nowhere on Saturday night, but Sunday morning we’d be ready to go,” Pickett said.
Trevino started playing in the early 1950s.
“My father played baseball and I used to watch him play,” he said. “After I got into high school, that’s when I started to play baseball. I asked him, when can I start playing with y’all? He said, ya, you’re going to have to wait a little more. I was 14 years old at the time.”
Trevino never did play on the team with his father.
“Through the years that I played baseball with our team here, he got to see me play, just like I got to see him play. When he was playing he played third base. When I started playing he went out there and started seeing me play and all of that.”
He gave his son some critical advice as a player.
“He told me when you hit the ball over the second baseman or the short stop, you run over to second base. So I hit the ball over the first baseman and I went over to second base and he just looked at me from the stands. After that, I fell in love with baseball,” he said. “There was nothing else to do in Sugar Land.”
In the 2017 book “Mexican American Baseball In Houston and Southeast Texas” by Richard A. Santillan, Gregory Garrett, Joseph Thompson, Mikaela Selly, and William Lange, the authors noted that Trevino was known for his speed.
“A track star in school, Tevino played baseball starting in 1952. He amazed local crowds with his speed on the base paths. One of his claims to fame was stealing home successfully three times,” they wrote.
Pickett was a pitcher of note.
“I was a pitcher and we won almost all the games,” he said. “When I left Sugar Land I went to Prairie View and I played at Prairie View for three years on the college team.”
Pickett could make the ball do what he wanted.
“I couldn’t throw a straight ball. Everything I threw was junk,” he said. “I had a knuckleball then. It would go about 20 miles per hour but no one could hit it.”
Like Trevino, Morales got into baseball after watching his father play.
“The way I got interested is my dad used to play ball. I was born and raised here in Sugar Land and I lived in Mayfield Park until I was 12 years old. When I turned 12 years old I moved to Stafford. But all this time, my dad, he liked baseball, so he played baseball.”
The senior Morales was also an entrepreneur.
“My dad was a promoter. He had a café and dance hall in Stafford and what he did, he would contract some teams to come up from Mexico to come up here to play. So they would come over here and play and my dad would feed them and everything,” he said. “I don’t know where they slept, but I do remember that my mom used to be a cook and they had the restaurant and they would go in there and eat. They would come down on the bus, play the game, and then go back.”
In “Mexican American Baseball In Houston and Southeast Texas” the authors noted the formation of rivalries.
“The Sugar Land Imperials and Richmond Tigers baseball teams formed rivalries with Mexican American and Anglo teams all over Southeast Texas. The teams played Anglo, Mexican American and African American teams from Texas City, Shiner, Navasota, Austin, and Port Arthur. Frank Johnson’s Imperial Tigers once played a team in Alvin. The Alvin team, Johnson said, had in their rotation a young fireball pitcher named Nolan Ryan.”
Morales recalled that the big occasions were when the teams from Mexico arrived.
“When they brought the teams in from Mexico to play over here, we always had big crowds to watch those games,” Morales said.
Several of the players also participated in LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) leagues.
“I played with the LULACs for about two or three years,” Trevino said.
Most of the local games were played at West End Park, which was located southeast of where Constellation Field stands today.
“They had stands out there and everything, and cars would park on the sides. It was a crowd,” Morales said. “They used to have an announcer, Lee Blackburn, he was always on that bullhorn. He would make it sound like he was an announcer for the big leagues.”
Back then, baseball was about the only summertime entertainment around.
“There wasn’t that much going on back then in Sugar Land, except for the baseball teams,” Morales said. “Everyone came out for the baseball teams. I remember there used to be a car going through the neighborhoods announcing that there was going to be baseball games. Everybody had a lot of fun. They went out there and had some good times.”
Although West End Park had stands, delineating the outfield was another story.
“There were no fences and no lights,” Morales said. “If they hit it over the tracks you just kept going.”
“One time we went to Cleveland, Texas, and we played ball down there,” Pickett recalled. “We hit so many home runs in that game they had to stop play because we didn’t have no more balls. We had about six guys on the team hit a home run.”
Morales transitioned from baseball to softball in the early 1970s and continues to play softball today.
“After we finished baseball, that’s when softball came in,” he said. “So my generation, we were more into softball than into baseball.”
In baseball, just like softball today, the rivalries were always friendly.
“There was a lot of ball playing around here, but what else were you going to do? That was it. Everyone after the games would go get a cold one,” Morales said.
(Editor’s note: Those Were the Days is an ongoing series about the history of Fort Bend County that runs each month with a fifth Wednesday. This article was postponed a week due to space limitations in last week’s issue.)