Ryan Davis, professor of Spanish at Illinois State University, presented his research on Mormon missionary sport clubs in Argentina for a guest lecture sponsored by the BYU Department of Spanish and Portuguese.
PROVO, Utah (Dec. 7, 2017)—When Frederick Salem Williams was called as mission president over the Argentina Mission in 1938, he had a specific goal—to change the minds of the Argentine people about the Mormons. “Before we could interest the people in our message, we had to change the image of our religion in the minds of the people,” said Ryan Davis, professor of Spanish at Illinois State University. Many people in Argentina believed, like most people it the twentieth century, that members of the LDS faith were seen as “polygamous desert dwellers.” This common belief is evidenced by an entry in a 1930 Spanish encyclopedia, which described Mormons as “a small sect living out in the western part of the United States where they practice polygamy.” Recognizing these misconceptions, Williams created an inventive solution—not by preaching or soap boxing, but through organized sports.
American missionaries in Argentina first entered the Argentine sports realm through a basketball competition at the Belgrano Sports Club. Along with participating in the competition, the missionaries also performed in Los Hilly Billy Boys, a missionary orchestra that included President Williams’s wife, Corraine, and Elder Don Hyrum Smith on the bazooka. The Argentines were delighted by the performance and show of athletic prowess. Afterwards, the President of the Belgrano Sports Club approached President Williams, stating that the missionaries were “the best ambassadors [The United States] had ever had,” and that the U.S. government should be extremely grateful to the missionaries for this positive perception.
The success at Belgrano led to the establishment of the mission’s own sports club, a place that hosted sports tournaments, providing social and proselyting opportunities for the missionaries. Three professional teams, comprised mostly of missionaries, were based out of the club: one for basketball, baseball, and softball. Davis theorizes that these were just the division one teams, for “there were mentions of others in the second and third [divisions].” Their baseball team, Los Mormones, was especially successful, defeating Boca Juniors, the reigning amateur baseball team before the Mormons came.
One cause of the baseball team’s far-reaching success was the incredible athleticism of the athletes. In the early nineteenth century, Muscular Christianity was a popular movement that linked one’s overall health to three elements: physical, spiritual, and mental. Muscular Mormonism was the LDS church’s own version of the ideology, preaching the good of “wholesome recreational activities,” which included ball play as a fun, social, and physically challenging activity—perfect for developing social connections and a healthy body.
Subscribers to Muscular Mormonism included Davis’s own great-uncle, Phil, who served on Los Mormones baseball team during his mission in the late 1930s. Known as “big, rolicking Phil,” and a “bohemoth of the ball diamond,” by a few contemporary newspapers, Phil was best remembered for accomplishing his batting record with a broken hand. Of that accomplishment, Phil said, “It’s a good thing I bat left handed!” With his right hand in a cast and left hand holding the bat with three fingers, Phil’s tenacity aligned perfectly with the Muscular Mormon ideal and certainly made an impression on the Argentines.
The sports programs ended when WWII broke out, and all of the American missionaries were sent home. When the mission reopened, however, there were still some who remembered Los Mormones, and many had a much more positive view of Mormons. The sports clubs were not reopened in Argentina, which Davis attributes more to a disenchantment with recreational ideology than to a lack of success.
At the end of the lecture, a member of the audience asked Davis if the efforts of President Williams were successful. He laughed and said, “Depends on what you define as success! As far as convert baptisms go, there’s not really a record of a direct link between the two. In changing the view of the church in Argentina, though, I would say that President Williams was successful, which was his main goal.”
—Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)
Hannah covers events for the Spanish and Portuguese Department of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.
Photo from NEO Sports Insiders