Long before Texas Western defeated Kentucky for the 1966 national championship – immortalized in the film “Glory Road” – there were the Sidney Lanier High School Voks, a team that found little glory as they made history.
The San Antonio school had a two-fold mission for its Mexican-American student body: Provide students with vocational training – hence the nickname “Voks” – and assimilate them into American life.
But when they started bringing home state championships, things got dicey.
“Sports teach morals and character and the American way,” said Ignacio Garcia, a graduate of Lanier who now teaches history at Brigham Young University. “But sometimes assimilation can be very traumatic, and it can also reflect a society’s discomfort with people who are different.”
Garcia authored a new book about the Voks’ unlikely reign in Texas high school basketball during the late 1930s and early 1940s. In a five-year span, the Voks won state titles twice and finished in the top three the other three years.
It surprised their white faculty members. It angered more than a few fans from other schools.
The flashpoint that began the Voks’ rocky reign was the 1939 San Antonio City Basketball championship game against one of their rivals, the Brackenridge Eagles. Tony Cardona, one of the Voks’ star players, scored the winning basket just thirty seconds into sudden-death overtime. Hundreds of Mexican American fans jumped to their feet to celebrate the emotional victory. But when someone threw a fist at Cardona’s head, a riot began and spilled out into the street.
Another confrontation four years later sparked the title of Garcia’s book, "When Mexicans Could Play Ball." When the team arrived in San Marcos, Texas for the 1943 regional title, an older white man confronted them with a gun and asked what a group of Mexicans was doing there. When Coach ‘Nemo’ Herrera told him they were there to play basketball, the man repeatedly yelled that Mexicans don’t play ball. Finally, the police escorted the man away, and one of the players muttered under his breath, “Yes, Mexicans can play ball.”
Though reporters and spectators alike reminded them that they didn’t belong, the Voks’ coach taught them to navigate prejudice with integrity.
“He taught them how to win and succeed, and how to become good citizens,” Garcia said. “Most of the players went on to have very successful lives.”
More than 40 of Herrera’s players joined the U.S. armed forces to serve their country during World War II. Herrera personally drove some of them to the train station to report for duty. Many of the players eventually became high school principals, teachers, coaches, civil service employees, businessmen, politicians, steel workers, college basketball stars, husbands and fathers.
David Rodriguez, a member of the 1943 championship team, is one of the players who went on to play college basketball. He became a junior college All-American player who led Tyler Junior College to the national title. Later he played for the University of Houston as well as the Mexican Olympic team. In 2009 he was inducted into the Tyler Junior College men’s basketball Circle of Honor.
Rodriguez and four of his teammates are still alive today, including Tony Rivera, Jesse and Carlos Camacho and Joe Bernal. Seven players passed away as the book was being written, but Garcia was able to develop relationships with these players. Garcia attended Lanier a generation later as the Civil Rights movement peaked in the 1960s and had the same principal as the players did in the 1940s.
“This book was a labor of love,” Garcia said, “The more I got into it, the more I loved it, and some of the players have become dear friends who will still call me periodically.”
When Mexicans Could Play Ball recently won the Al Lowman Memorial Prize for “best book of Texan county and local history” from the Texas State Historical Association. The book is published by the Texas University Press.