By David Simmonds
Nothing can replace fútbol – known here as soccer- as the most popular sport in Mexico, but baseball comes in a strong second. From Tijuana to Tampico, in the large cities and the smallest villages, you find ballparks. Some are impressive stadiums with manicured grass, many more are just dirt fields where corn used to grow. I have driven thousands of miles throughout the back roads of Mexico, and I am always amazed and heartened to see, even in otherwise impoverished towns and villages, a group of adults or kids throwing the ball – playing a pick-up game. It reminds me of life in small-town America not so long ago.
No one really knows when the game of baseball was first played in Mexico. A popular theory has the first evidence of play dating back to the U.S. – Mexican War, when idle American soldiers played near the town of Xalapa, Veracruz, in 1847. Other towns make the same claim; that the soldiers first played around that time in their town, so, quién sabe? We do know that it wasn’t until 1925 that the current version of the Mexican League was formed, with all six teams playing their games in Mexico City http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20040107&content_id=626058&vkey=news_mlb&fext=.jsp&c_id=null .
U.S. Players Head South
The Mexican League level of play soon became comparable to the north-of-the-border Major Leagues, helped by Mexico’s more enlightened views on race. For the next 22 years, until Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, finally integrating baseball in America, many of the great African-American players chose to play in Mexico at one time or another, including Hall of Famers Willie Wells, Josh Gibson (perhaps the best catcher ever), Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell. They not only liked the money, they liked the lifestyle, the food, the fun – and the acceptance of their skin color.
In 1946, flamboyant Mexican businessman Jorge Pasquel attempted to rival the American Major Leagues by offering large salaries to some of the game’s biggest stars, including Ted Williams and San Francisco’s favorite son, the great Joe DiMaggio. And although those two declined to make the move, nearly 20 other white players, such as Mickey Owen and ex-New York Giant pitching star Sal Maglie, did. Alas, Pasquel’s dream soon faded as revenues failed to match expenses, and interest in baseball in Mexico went into semi-hibernation for the next decade, as a faltering Mexican economy made it tough to sell game tickets. This fascinating story of sport, race and imperialism is wonderfully described in what many, including me, consider to be the best baseball book ever, “The Veracruz Blues” (http://www.amazon.com/Veracruz-Blues-Mark-Winegardner/dp/0140260285) by Mark Winegardner.
The Kids Lead the Way
In 1957, baseball in Mexico was magically revived thanks to a rag-tag Little League team from Monterrey, Mexico. After beating every team along the way to the World Series in Willamsport, Penn., their star pitcher, Angel Macias, became a national hero when he threw a perfect game against La Mesa, Calif. – a feat accomplished only 18 times in the entire history of Major League baseball. This unlikely victory captured world-wide attention – and baseball interest was back in Mexico for good.
Today’s Liga Mexicana de Béisbol (http://liga.mexicana.milb.com/index.jsp?sid=l125) comprises 16 teams, spanning the entire country. The league is now affiliated with U.S. Major League Baseball , and is one of three designated Triple-A minor leagues, one step below the major league level. The others are the Pacific Coast League and the International League. They play excellent ball, easily surpassing the best U.S. college teams. If you’ve never witnessed a minor league game, you are missing the true essence of the game, stripped from the hype, over-the-top marketing, insane salaries, and prima-donna players so prevalent today in the majors.
And so it is in Mexico, where the stadiums seat as few as 6,000 maximum in Campeche, to as many as 27,000 in Monterrey. You can usually park for free on the street and ticket prices run well under $10, generally just $1 – $5; add a bottle of Corona and a mesquite-grilled taco for about 30 pesos, or a little over $2. Of course, not every Mexican can afford even these prices, but many can. A family can easily enjoy a night at the ball yard for under $20. The whole experience is like attending a carnival, with patrons joking with umpires and players, as the scantily clad cheerleaders enthusiastically lead the charge in rooting for the home team. The camaraderie and sense of community that the town derives from this common experience are extremely important to a country that values friendships and family above all.
The league is divided into two divisions, north and south. The North Division has teams in Chihuahua, Monclova, Mexico City, Monterrey, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Saltillo. The South Division is represented by Campeche, Minatitlán, Oaxaca, Puebla, Cancún, Villahermosa, Veracruz, and Mérida.
Mexico also has a separate winter league Liga Mexicana del Pacífico (Mexican Pacific League) (http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Mexican_Pacific_League), running from early October until December. The league has eight teams in small towns in northwestern Mexico at Culiacan, Guasave, Hermosillo, Mazatlán, Mexicali, Los Mochis, Navajoa and Obregón. Many Major League players have played in this winter league to keep their skills honed between seasons, and some others go to play out their career, when they are no longer performing at the major league level. Even the great Fernando Valenzuela pitched in Mexico after his major league career had ended.
Catch a Game
You might be surprised to learn that nearly 100 major leaguers, past and present, were born in Mexico. The first was Mel Alamada, from the state of Sonora, who was signed by the Boston Red Sox in 1933. The best known players are aforementioned Dodger Hall-of- Famer Fernando Valenzuela and Oaxaca-born Vinny Castilla, who had a great 15-year career with several big-league teams.
So, the next time you’re in Mexico, check out the local baseball scene. Catch a game some evening (click here for schedules www.lmb.com.mx) and enjoy a slice of Americana – Mexican style.
Disclosure: I am being compensated for my work in creating and managing content as a Contributor for the México Today Program. All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared here are completely my own. Mexico Today is a joint public and private sector initiative designed to help promote Mexico as a global business partner and an unrivaled tourist destination.