Racial divide and segregation didn’t stop Ray “Shorty” Bonilla from triumphing in a sport he loves.
After decades of playing catcher in the Newton Mexican-American Fast-Pitch tournament — a softball league started in Newton in 1946 before spreading out to Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas and other locations in Kansas — on July 5 at Athletic Field in Newton, Bonilla sauntered to the pitcher’s mound to receive an accolade he had worked all of his adult life for: a plaque for the induction into the Newton Mexican-American Fast-Pitch Hall of Fame.
The plaque was presented by Newton Mexican-American Fast-Pitch tournament Director Manuel Jaso and Chanute G.I. Forum longtime player Tony De La Torre in front of 60 or so softball fans, Bonilla’s family, friends and old teammates ready to see diamond action on a luminous day. The Chanute native — a gregarious athletic hero for pursuing a sport he loves despite the obstacles — shook hands with Jaso and De La Torre and those who presented the plaque to Bonilla for his longevity and exceptional play in the seven-decade or so softball league, as well as his softball play throughout his life while growing up in Chanute.
“That’s something I never even dreamed of,” Bonilla said of his accomplishment. “We just played ball. When you play ball you don’t think that you are going to play.”
In a stark reality that included racism, racial divide and segregation, Newton Mexican-American Fast-Pitch tournament’s inception was in 1946 in Newton after Mexican-American soldiers from World War II and other Mexican-Americans interested in softball were denied the opportunity to play in softball leagues that many of their Caucasian neighbors were playing in. Since then, the tournament carried on every Fourth of July weekend until present day, expanding into the Sunflower State, neighboring Midwest states and the opportunity for other nationalities to play amongst Mexican-Americans in the softball league.
Lifelong friend and a fellow teammate (pitcher) of Bonilla’s of the Chanute G.I. Forum team — Chanute’s Mexican-American Fast-Pitch team — Harley Ponce, who is also Mexican-American, knew that it was an arduous road for Mexican-Americans to play the game they loved amongst their peers, even after sacrificing their blood, sweat and tears for this country.
“This is right after World War II; a lot of those guys came back and there was a lot of stuff that they couldn’t do, so they just made them a ball diamond and got started,” Ponce said. “At that time Mexicans weren’t very popular.”
Bonilla and Ponce — with the racial stigma transpiring in Chanute and most places around the nation — would grow up in this type of environment in the 1950s, which included segregated schools, businesses and neighborhoods. Some instances for Bonilla and Ponce included not being able to get a haircut downtown, repudiated from the swimming pool and being separated in a colored section at a movie theater.
Bonilla was born in Savage, Montana in 1935 before he and his family — who migrated from Mexico in the 1920s — moved to Chanute in the 1930s.
Ponce, who is four years younger than Bonilla, was born in Chanute in 1939. As both Chanute natives grew up in their adolescent to teen years, both Bonilla and Ponce attended St. Patrick Catholic School. And because of how small the community is, Bonilla and Ponce were bound to cross paths, whether outside playing or on the softball field.
Bonilla and Ponce played together in the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church league. Their friendship grew despite going their separate ways when softball games were over, and eventually became best friends. Even their families spoke to each other on several occasions.
“Sometimes we didn’t see each other for a long time; I’d go by and see him,” Ponce said of his friend, Bonilla. “All the years we played we were extra close because we were always together.”
In the early 1950s, it wasn’t abnormal to see the dynamic duo, who were typically amongst peers who would go on to play in the Mexican-American Fast-Pitch tournament, playing in the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church league at 12 and 13 years old in a community adjacent to where the McDonald’s now is located in Chanute — which was called Little Mexico comprising close to 25 to 30 Mexican-American families who worked for the Santa Fe Railroad — sometimes even playing without softball gloves. This is how much of a penchant they had for the game.
“Back at that time, that’s what we did — play ball,” Bonilla said. “We played ball because we loved to play ball. We just played softball because that was what we did back at that time. They had baseball, but we never did baseball.”
Both Chanute natives grew up — with Bonilla going to work for Byers, a company specializing in concrete and rock pressure before venturing in ownership, including Sting, a local bar in town still in business, and Ponce attending Chanute Junior College before going on to work for Ash Grove Cement Company — and by this time they were infatuated with the Newton Mexican-American Fast-Pitch tournament — a notion highly spoken about amongst their peers as they were growing up. Along with concerning themselves with more responsibilities, they began playing for the Chanute G.I. Forum softball team, a fast-pitch team, in the 1950s at Highland Park in Chanute. In 1962, they played in their first fast-pitch tournament in Emporia, and up until the 1970s, Bonilla and Ponce would journey in cars to several places just to play the game they love.
“We went to Newton, Hutchinson, Emporia, Topeka, Kansas City; in the later years we did go to Omaha (Nebraska),” Ponce continued.
The objective, of course, was to win, and Bonilla and Ponce — along with their teammates — played in tournaments until they were beaten twice. Ponce as a pitcher, who became one of the best pitchers in the state before being inducted into the Newton Mexican-American Fast-Pitch Hall of Fame in 1998, would toss to Bonilla as a catcher, much like how they did growing up in Chanute, and Bonilla would do an exceptional job in framing, blocking the plate from wild pitches and throwing base runners out — one of the reasons he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Today, the tournament, which is the oldest Mexican-American tournament in the nation, still holds true to its roots — opportunity, advancing and progressing — providing scholarships to Newton students every year.
And Bonilla always stuck to his roots of playing softball — a game he has played since he was a kid. After accepting his plaque, he waved to the dozens of softball fans, thanking everyone who supported him throughout the rigorous journey. The veteran softball player walked to the stands before the Newton Mexican-American Fast-Pitch tournament softball old-timers game.