George F. Ortega, Sr. – Catcher/Infielder
Note: his is player biography is part of our feature, The 29th Infantry Division’s Blues and Grays: the men behind one of the Army’s best World War II baseball teams by Drew Sullins, Colonel (Retired), U.S. Army
For years, a popular refrain often heard by George Ortega, Jr., was, “You should have seen your dad play baseball. He should’ve been in the majors.” The son of George Ortega, Sr. cannot recall how many times over the years he heard that, but says it was repeated practically every time he ran into to someone who played baseball with his father on the ballfields in and around San Antonio, Texas.
George Ortega, Sr. was a standout infielder and catcher on the baseball team at San Antonio’s integrated Brackenridge High School, today the oldest high school in the Alamo city. George was a fiery competitor, accomplished hitter, skilled infielder and catcher known for managing his pitchers well when he was behind the plate. George graduated from Brackenridge High in 1930, and perhaps, in a different time and place, he might have received a more serious look from major league scouts, but being of Mexican ancestry, it was not likely to happen for him.
Fortunately for Ortega, his hometown had a robust baseball culture; and for local Mexican American players, a highly competitive baseball circuit known as the Spanish-American League or “Span-Am League” for short. When Ortega’s high school playing days were over his skills where in great demand by multiple semi-pro teams in his hometown. Much like Lefty Howard’s South Carolina Textile League, the Texas Span-Am League featured highly competitive teams that were sponsored and well outfitted by local businesses in towns like Corpus Christi, Laredo, San Marcos, Del Rio and New Braunfels. Local teams of note in San Antonio were El Fenix Butchers, Blakey’s Garage, Bell Taxis, Oriental Grocers and Kelly Field (later Kelly Air Force Base). They played at locations such as Van Daele Stadium, Pittman-Sullivan Park and Tech Field, also home to the Texas League’s San Antonio Missions, a minor league affiliate of the St. Louis Browns/Baltimore Orioles.
The players in the Span-Am League may have technically been amateurs, but they did sign some type of a contract and usually received pay in the form goods and services from the business that sponsored their teams. And the sports pages of the local newspapers, the San Antonio Express and San Antonio Light, regularly covered their exploits giving these ballplayers a bit of local celebrity. By 1932, 21-year-old George Ortega was one of the best young players in the league playing for Bell Taxi. Ortega hit an astounding .478 for the first half of the of the ’32 season and cooling off to hit .408 for the year finishing as one of the league’s top hitters.
Two years later, Ortega had become a good enough ball player to get an invitation to the Hank Severeid Baseball School in 1934. Severeid, the manager of the San Antonio Missions, was once one of the finest defensive catchers in Major League Baseball from 1911-26, playing mostly for the St. Louis Browns, but also for the Cincinnati Reds, New York Yankees and Washington Senators. Severeid’s baseball school was in San Marcos, Texas and it was only for prospects with a legitimate chance to play at the next level. Despite being selected to attend Severeid’s school, Ortega never played at the next level, and we do not know why. Perhaps it was due to shortcomings from his intensely competitive nature or maybe his ancestry.
Family members describe George and friendly and fun loving with good sense of humor. Still playing in his forties, and owning and operating a tavern called Ortega’s Drive-In, he sponsored a men’s baseball team in a local league and called it “Ortega’s Fat n’ 40.” According to his son, players had to be 40 or older, fat and still able to play ball to make the team. That good humor belied Ortega’s fiery competitiveness. Decades earlier, playing second base for Bell Furniture, Ortega was suspended for much of the 1937 season by the San Antonio Amateur Baseball Commission for getting into a physical altercation with an umpire during his team’s 1936 playoff run. And he loved baseball so much he served another suspension later for trying to play for a second team in different San Antonio league while he was under “contract” to another.
George was also known for his participation in area exhibition games, as he was often invited to play in local interleague contests and when professional barnstorming circuits visited the Alamo city. As a high schooler, he played in games with the future Hall of Famer, Dizzy Dean, who got his start in organized baseball playing for Army teams at Fort Sam Houston and in the San Antonio Municipal League in the late 1920s and into 1930. George Ortega, Jr. also recalls that his father once caught another Hall of Famer, Satchel Paige, during an exhibition contest in San Antonio sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s when Paige was with the Cleveland Indians or St. Louis Browns.
By 1943, Ortega had been playing high profile baseball in south Texas for more than 12 years and had made enough of a name for himself that when he was inducted into the Army, it was covered in both San Antonio newspapers. On December 8, 1943, the San Antonio Light noted that, “Ortega, one of the best-known baseballers in this section has played in the Valley with semi-pro clubs…[and] has been with four Span-Am league championship clubs” was inducted into the Army.
Eight months after this article was published, on August 3, 1944, Pvt. George Ortega, coming from the replacement depot, reported to Company I, 3rd Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division near Vire, France. 14 days after Ortega joined the unit, on August 20, he suffered a serious non-battle injury and was evacuated to a rear area hospital. It is not known what the injury was, but Ortega did not rejoin the unit until March 6, 1945. It is speculative to say, but more than six months of recovery time indicates that it must have been substantial injury. He remained with his unit and was promoted to private first class on May 9, 1945, the day after VE Day.
After the war, Ortega returned home to San Antonio, and his wife, Diega, started a family and opened a couple of businesses. He was a self-employed aircraft painter and owned an icehouse and billiards parlor. He was a family-oriented man who, according to his grandniece, remained passionate and connected to baseball throughout his life. George Ortega died on May 29, 1979, at the age of 67 from liver failure caused by aggressive metastatic colon cancer. His final resting place is in the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio.
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