It’s the national pastime – bueno, alongside politics. It has become a big part of Venezuelan culture and embedded itself into the way we speak: we’re not in a tough spot, you’re “en tres y dos”. Venezuelans are never baffled, they have a  “cara de poncha’o”. We don’t do great, “la botamos de jonron”.

Hey, even Hugo Chávez used it as a political tool, reminiscing the days he was an aspiring pitcher who got into the Military Academy on his athletic prowess (or at least, that’s what he told us).

So how is it that an American sport has become a part of the Venezuelan fabric in a continent where, apparently, nobody even understands what the game is about?

Baseball made it into Venezuela helped by the already-ongoing cultural and economic exchange with the United States at the turn of the 20th Century. Several wealthy Caracas students went up North to study in American universities. Almost at the same time, the oil boom was starting back home, and places like Maracaibo were enjoying the benefits of it. Among some of those benefits, was that foreign game that needs a bat and a glove that the American oil workers established in Zulia brought along with them.

The very first Venezuelan baseball team, Caracas BBC, was established in 1895. The first official baseball game recorded in Caracas was played that same year.

Baseball started to become a big part of the sporting life of Venezuela during the Juan Vicente Gomez years. In 1917, the Magallanes team was born. But it wasn’t until 1941 when the game became a full national obsession.

That’s when the Venezuelan national team played the Amateur Baseball World Series in Cuba, and came back home with the title. Names such as Daniel “Chino” Canónico, Guillermo Vento, José Antonio Casanova and Atilano “Pollo” Malpica became part of the country’s sports history. They are still remembered as “Los Heroes del 41.” Four years later, four teams, including Cervecería Caracas and Magallanes, founded the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League which is still playing to this day.

The Venezuelan winter league still captures the imaginations of many Venezuelans every year from October to late January. It’s the sport with the largest attendance numbers, with close to 2.6 million tickets sold last season, with 7 of 8 teams boasting increased attendance figures. It’s also the highest rated TV sporting event, and most importantly, it’s the most lucrative professional circuit in the country.

It’s so important that the Venezuelan Government still grants it preferential status and exchange rates for buying hard currency, necessary to sign foreign players and buy equipment. No other private sports league gets this goodie.

Venezuela is also a huge exporter of baseball talent to the United States. Many will say baseball players, oil and beauty queens are our main exports.

Pitcher Alejandro Carrasquel made his debut with the Washington Senators in 1939, becoming the very first Venezuelan player in the Major Leagues.

The Venezuelan pipeline to Organized Baseball has not stopped ever since (names such as Luis Aparicio, Bo Diaz, Manny Trillo and David Concepcion will surely ring bells with older fans), with an influx of talent which boomed in the late 1980s and early 90s.

Andres Galarraga became the first Venezuelan to claim a MLB batting title in 1993, Omar Vizquel was awarded with 11 Gold Glove Awards throughout his long career as shortstop, Wilson Alvarez threw the first no-hitter by a Venezuelan in August 1991…you get the picture.

Current superstars include Miguel Cabrera, the first Triple Crown winner (2012) since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967 and Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, who pitched a perfect game in 2012.

These days, it’s hard to picture a Major League game without at least one Venezuelan. So much so in fact that four criollos were on the 2015 World Series rosters: Wilmer Flores for the New York Mets, and Franklin Morales, Alcides Escobar and Fall Classic MVP Salvador Perez for the Kansas City Royals. This is why baseball keeps on getting the lion’s share of coverage in sports media, including the two all-sports national daily newspapers, Meridiano and Líder.

The fan base is passionate, loud and they give every game a party atmosphere. You can see it in most fans wearing team jerseys at the ballpark – or making it a part of their everyday attire. Twitter goes beserk with every controversial play and team win.

There’s simply no way to put into words how passionate Venezuelans are when it comes to baseball, even though it has been tried by some of the very best.  

That’s the reason why, whenever a young American player who hasn’t seen baseball away from his country, comes to Venezuela and is blown away by the intensity they get to experience at a ballgame. There’s definitely nothing like it.

By this point you can’t picture Venezuela without baseball. And, judging by the contributions it has made to the game abroad, you can’t imagine baseball without Venezuela.

 

24 COMMENTS

  1. The Empire used to care. Our PE/Earth Science teacher kept us up to date with his transistor radio and hand gestures backed up with a constantly updated blackboard.

    Baseball should be played in daylight.

    0/Cardinals
    O/Bob Gibson

  2. This is one of the sports, together with just a few others like sumo, where guys with huge bellies are professional players.

    • This is mostly myth. Of the entire league now there are is there anyone other than Sandoval and possibly Prince Fielder who have ‘bellies’? The vast majority of the players are extremely fit.

      The biggest guts belong to offensive lineman in American football, but that’s because they have to be inhumanly strong and the calories needed to maintain that strength/stamina are incredible.

    • In addition to what Rory said, there are a lot of different kinds of athleticism. Baseball players may not need the stamina of football (soccer) players, but they have to have extremely fast reflexes and excellent coordination. Consider: A fast ball thrown at 95mph will cross the plate in four tenths of a second. In order to hit the ball, the batter must begin his swing when the ball is already about half-way to the plate. So, he has only two tenths of second to decide if he should swing and how. Just getting a hit is so difficult in the Major Leagues that if you managed to do it only one time out of three “at bats” on average (batting .333), that would make you a superstar.

  3. The popularity of the game extends to most of the hispanic caribbean , not just Venezuela , Maybe the closeness of the US has helped bring US baseball games closer to this area , initialy thru US radio broadcasts and later because of the influence of US expatriates working in the local affiliates of US companies in the area. Have a friend now in his sixties who is a rabid baseball fan from earliest childhood in a small provincial town in western Venezuela , who used to hear the games transmitted in english by a radio station for US service men (Panama and US Navy Vessels??) .. Maybe in Venezuela the triumph of the local team representing Venezuela in a amateur baseball tournament in Havana in the mid forties caused people to become more interested in the game , followed by the fact that so many locals have in time become important players in big US basball teams allowing for people to take a patriotic interest in their performance in US games…..!!

    Soccer is also popular in Venezuela , although not as much as baseball , maybe a paralell question is why soccer has never become a popular sport in the US , maybe it says something about the ethos of US americans as opposed to the ethos of the rest of the world which worships soccer!!

    • In the Colombian Caribbean baseball is a very big deal but it is virtually unknown in the interior. I just googled it and there’s a professional league but it only has 4 teams. Maybe in the medium term these teams could join in, like Canadian teams who play in US sports leagues.

  4. I don’t know why anybody likes baseball, it’s as slow as a wet week , although it’s better than the gladiatorial slaughter on the streets of Venezuela .. I even like cricket which is the 2nd most popular sport in the world .. I suppose the passion has to be engrained at an early stage in life to understand the nuances ..as per bullfighting . Like trying to explain the offside rule to your girlfriend ..!! Waste of time. Give me a good game of rugby any day See if rugby can eclipse baseball in Japan as they host the World Cup in 2019. That’s a World Series where other countries are allowed participate ..

    • Its not an action game , most of the game is spent in a slow very suspense filled duel between just two people , the pitcher and the batter while the rest of the player just look on, then if the batter hits the ball there is a rush moment of concentrated action which brings on a strong release of adrenaline , players rush, run, try to catch a flying ball etc bringing watchers to a high pitch of excitment before all action subdizes . This special dynamic between the slow solitary duel of two highly skilled people (reminds one of the cowboys movies moment when two gunslingers face each other in an empty street) with the mounting suspense as the two players face each other can be very appealing , then the rush of adrenaline once the ball is struck is also very exciting .
      In contrasst to soccer it is more a game between individuals than between teams of individuals acting in close constant coordination , its also less phisical than soccer , you dont have to be an athlete to play it , its slow tempo following by a fast rush moment makes makes it a game where the excitement shifts very suddenly bringing a special kind of pleasure to the fans.
      Im not a fan of baseball (nor of any mass sport for that matter) but I can understand its appeal . I have only watched one full game in my life , years ago , as the invitee of some people I was staying with in the midwest of the US . Initially I found the game too slow and boring , then as I kept following it through its different paces I found it more and more interesting until at the end I was as excited over the result as the rest of my companions !! My own dear mother ( a very spry and active person despite her age) has been a rabid caraquista fan for her whole life , and follows all important games with relish , however because of the traditional milieu in which she was raised and lived shes never set foot in a baseball stadium .

  5. I think it is one of those games that you have to grow up with. Also, you don’t need a whole lot of expensive equipment to play it. Obviously, it is a big indication of the influence of American culture in the countries that have adopted the sport. Another one is Japan, which learned the game and adopted it from the American soldiers and contractors following WWII.

    And besides, catching a baseball game is a pretty good time.

  6. Rafael thank you for this post! I´m a baseball fan but I am definitely a super fan of Venezuela´s professional baseball. The healthy rivalry, the jokes, the banter, it´s wonderful. To be in a Caracas-Magallanes en el Universitario is one of the most exciting things ever… Not even a Yankees-Red Sox has the same feeling… Even though it is popular in the hispanic caribbean countries, as Bill says, here in RD the fans are not as enthusiastic and passionate as we are in Venezuela, not even close!

    I understand when people says it can get boring and dull. However there is a lot of drama and electrifying moments as well. When you have a decisive game and the 9th inning goes like this…. https://youtu.be/KdVjE5IV7Ic it does not get better than that!!!!!

    BTW the minute Chavez said he was a magallanero I knew everything was going downhill with his government…

    • ” To be in a Caracas-Magallanes en el Universitario is one of the most exciting things ever”

      Oh, dear! I don’t want to know what kind of life you have is that is one of the most exciting things to happen to you ever!

      • Hahahhaaaaaaaaa Kepler I ment it in a sport related experience…. However I must say I’m a simple girl. Gimme good company, some buzz and a good baseball game and Im all set.

  7. Japan took up baseball well before WW II. The first organized team was established in 1878. Japan introduced baseball to Korea and Taiwan while those countries were ruled by Japan (which ended in 1945). All three countries have sent players to MLB, and Taiwan has dominated the Little League World Series.

    It should be noted that Japan had good relations with the U.S. before the 1930s and even in the 1800s. The U.S. Navy has a tradition of Filipinos serving as mess stewards, but that started after the U.S. annexed the Philippines in 1898. Before that, many Japanese filled that role. (There were several Japanese stewards on USS Maine when she blew up and sank in Havana.)

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