By the spring of 1949 the new coach's spadework had begun to pay off. A San Antonio sportswriter noted "the wonderful spirit" of the Bowie baseball team—"the way the pitchers bear down, the sharp fielding and baserunning reminiscent of the old St. Louis Gashouse Gang." The Aztec, the Bowie yearbook, had already gone to press by the time the Bears edged El Paso High, the Anglo school on the North Side, to win the district title, so beneath a team photo the editors had written, Good Luck to you, Team, and when these Aztecs reach you, may you have lived up to those early-season forecasts.
When the Bears reached Lamesa, Texas, for the best-of-three bi-district playoffs against Lamesa High, their appearance on the sidewalks caused gawkers to pour out of storefronts. "You'd have thought the circus had come to town," Sambrano recalls. Some people made cracks like, "Why don't you speak English?" and "Remember the Alamo," while others called the players "hot tamales" and "greasy Mexicans."
Herrera found a restaurant that would serve the team, but not in its largely empty dining room; tables and chairs were hastily set up in the kitchen. The Bears' coach rarely brought up the discrimination his boys faced, for fear they might be tempted to use it as an excuse. Herrera regarded prejudice as the problem of the prejudiced, Sambrano says, best met with an even temper and devotion to the task at hand.
Bowie's Ruben Porras three-hit Lamesa to win the series opener 9--1, and the next day Trini Guillen scattered five hits in the 8--0 shutout that clinched the bi-district title. "Those guys were big," Sambrano remembers, "but we had what they didn't: speed." Against the Golden Tornados, the El Paso Herald-Post reported, the Bears "made a race track out of the diamond." In the first inning of each game Bowie scored a run on a lone hit and either an error or a walk.
By sweeping Lamesa, Bowie earned a trip to Austin for the single-elimination quarterfinals of the state tournament. "If memory serves," Lara recalls drily, "there were eight teams, and we were rated 10th to win it all."
Racial segregation still prevailed in Texas during the 1940s, but Mexican-Americans confounded the easy dichotomies of black and white. In Lubbock, where the team made a rest stop on the way to Austin, a sign in one window read, NO DOGS OR MEXICANS. "I remember seeing two drinking fountains, one COLORED and one WHITE," Morales says. "Me being brown, I didn't know which was for me. I asked a husky Anglo guy which one I was supposed to use." Morales took the man's reply ("I don't give a s---") as permission to use the white one.
In Austin, while most of the other visiting teams stayed in hotels, the Bowie team had to sleep on Army cots set up beneath the stands of Memorial Stadium, the football field on the Texas campus, and to make the long slog across the field to the Longhorns' field house to use the bathroom. But to Herrera's naive boys, the unusual accommodations only heightened the adventure. They lined the cots up like hurdles and ran races. When Hispanic businesses and social organizations back home sent telegrams of support, the Bears delighted in the spectacle of a Western Union messenger driving his motorcycle up the stadium ramp for deliveries. One day four players ventured downtown to see a movie and were bewildered when they were told, "Mexicans sit upstairs." They waited for the usher to turn a corner, then scrambled into seats in the orchestra in the dark. "We watched The Streets of Laredo," shortstop Ruben Rodriguez recalls, "with William Holden."
Facing Stephenville High in the quarterfinals, Bowie made another display of first-inning resourcefulness, scoring three runs on two hits. The press had expected Herrera to start his ace, Guillen, who was 7--0 for the season. One reporter wondered why the Bowie coach instead "gambled with his Number 2 pitcher."
"Number 1, Number 2, who can tell?" Herrera replied, leaving unsaid that Guillen had just spent four days in the hospital with strep throat. Porras—"the dark-skinned righthander," as the Austin American-Statesman described him—struck out six while limiting Stephenville to two hits in the 5--1 victory.
The wisdom of using his ace sparingly became clear the next day, in the semifinal against Waco High. The game lasted three hours. Guillen held up until the fourth, when Waco touched him for two runs and Herrera brought Porras on in relief.