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A League of Their Own
On a July day in 1931, 21-year-old Bill Anawaty stepped up to the plate and faced the pitcher. As the slim 21-year-old waited for the ball, everything else dropped away. He didn’t think about the crowd, or his job, or his immigrant parents. At that moment, he was only a baseball player. When the pitch arrived, he slammed it, and took off around the bases.
The crowd, all from Syrian Lebanese communities across Texas, roared its approval. Those in the stands that day may not have grown up with the game, but they knew a great player when they saw one.
Anawaty was the star of the Young Men’s Amusement Club (YMAC) of Port Arthur, Texas. He was also a first-generation Syrian Lebanese American.
“It was the children of immigrants who really played baseball,” says George Murr. Murr, a Houston lawyer, is president of the Southern Federation of Syrian Lebanese American Clubs. His dad played for the YMAC team in Houston. Murr’s parents, like so many others, had dealt with the challenges of immigrating. But the children, Murr says, “were born here, and they had a passion for the game.”
No one knows for sure how the first teams in the league came together. But each probably started the same way: as a casual game to spend an afternoon. Baseball was the national pastime. It captured the imagination of Bill Anawaty and thousands of other Syrian Lebanese boys along with the rest of the country.
Anawaty’s parents came to the United States in the 1890s. They were part of a wave of migration that saw nearly half the population of the Mount Lebanon region leave what was then the Ottoman Empire. (The modern countries of Syria and Lebanon were formed in 1920 and 1943, respectively.)
About 60,000 Syrian Lebanese immigrants, most of them Christians, settled across the U.S. from the 1880s to the 1930s. As their children were born in the U.S., the community more than doubled in size.
Many immigrants came to the U.S. because the economy was crumbling in the Ottoman Empire at that time. Akram Khater, a history professor at North Carolina State University, says that the problems started after the Suez Canal opened in 1869. “This flooded markets with Japanese-made silk, and while there might have been other factors, like religion, the main reason people left was to go make some money. You could do that in America. So they came here, worked as peddlers or in factories.”
Question: What was happening in the Ottoman Empire that pushed people to leave?
Check Your Answer
The economy was crumbling.
Question: What did the US offer that immigrants found appealing?
Check Your Answer
The ability to make money.
As baseball became the national pastime, the children of immigrants joined the rest of the fan base in their new homeland. Bill Anawaty and his teammates loved the game just like all the other kids. Loving baseball was part of how they learned to handle dual identities: they were Americans, and they were the children of immigrants.
Their lives in the U.S. were far from simple. Many Americans didn't easily accept Syrian Lebanese newcomers. Like other immigrants, they spoke their own language, had their own foods, and tended to settle in their own neighborhoods.
“My dad’s family lived across the tracks in Port Arthur with other Lebanese families,” Peggy Karam, Anawaty’s daughter, recalls. “People treated them like dogs outside of their circles. So, they kept to themselves. But the kids who were first born here, like my dad, they were American kids, and American kids played baseball.”
The Port Arthur team was formally created as part of the YMAC, the organization established by Anawaty and his fellow teammates in 1925.
“Assimilation happens both ways,” says Khater. “This process isn’t so much a melting pot as it is a weaving together of disparate influences. So, of course the children of immigrants pick up baseball and make it their own.”
Over time, the YMAC teams began competing against teams from other Syrian Lebanese American organizations across Texas. Gradually those events led to tournaments among teams from all over the South. The games also became an excuse for dancing, eating and socializing.
“The competition was fierce,” says Peggy Karam’s husband, Richard, whose father was also an avid player. “But over time the picnics became parties and then banquets, a way for people to get together.”
Question: How did baseball help Syrian Lebanese immigrants assimilate into American life?
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They enjoyed the same pastimes as other Americans.
Question: How did they “make it their own?”
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They made games into social events for gathering, dancing, eating, and socializing.
The Port Arthur team, according to Richard Karam, was always the best in the league. Fittingly, it adopted the name L’Monar, meaning “guiding light,” in 1932.
Bill Anawaty was a big reason the team was so good. He was also a reason the team got so much attention. In addition to having a way with a bat, he also had a way with words. He supported his parents and six sisters working at The Port Arthur News. He wrote about the team, with a special focus on its successes.
Peggy Karam explains why being part of a winning baseball team was so important to Anawaty and his neighbors.
“They were so poor,” she says. “But they could get together, and they could play on a team, and they could win. It was something they could achieve. They lived on the wrong side of the tracks in these towns, but on the field they were superheroes. They were strong. They might still speak Arabic and be newcomers to the American experience, but on the field they were as American as anyone else.”
In the 1930s, teams across the South formed what is today the Southern Federation of Syrian Lebanese American Clubs. There are currently chapters in more than 20 states.
Over the years, Anawaty kept scrapbooks of his team’s records, stats and photos. He eventually wrote a book, The Spice of Life, that partly recalled L’Monar’s many triumphs. Their prowess on the baseball diamond, Peggy Karam says, helped them face the day-to-day challenges of belonging to a community often viewed with suspicion by people who were wary of newcomers.
For a time the baseball games remained the Southern Federation’s focus, with the honors of winning the tournaments fiercely prized. But by the 1970s the teams were no longer the vital core of the expanding federations. “I think that maybe the need for them had passed,” Murr says. “I knew my dad and my uncle played, but by the time I came along, the teams weren’t as important to the clubs as they’d once been.”
The teams had served their purpose. “People don’t just abandon who they are even as they adopt being American,” Khater explains. “They transform as much as they are transformed by [their new culture.] Baseball was another way for them all to come together, a way for them to connect and to reconnect with each other. Outside of these games, they were different. They had to always be on their guard. But these baseball games were a way for them to just be, where there was nothing wrong with them just being themselves.”