The baseball season of 1981 was an unusual one.
The season started with the talk of a strike. On June 12, the strike began, lasting until July 31. Play resumed with the All-Star game in Cleveland on August 9th.
Three Strikes Define The Season
Just before the start of the All-Star game, August 3, more than 12,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers walked out. President Reagan threatened that those not returning to their jobs within 48 hours were fired. On August 5th, President Reagan fired 11,359 air traffic controllers. This delayed several players traveling to Cleveland for the All-Star game, some not getting to Cleveland until hours before the game. Sweet irony! People coming back to work after their strike affected by another strike!
Losing 713 games during the regular season was a financial hit to everybody in baseball. MLB and the MLB Players Association were looking for a way to make up for lost revenue. A pending Writers Guild of America strike had television looking for additional programming. The split season allowed for expanding the playoffs helping all parties.
MLB had the first-half winners face off against the second-half winners in a divisional series. If a team won both halves they would face a wild card team. The playoff now consists of two best of five rounds, divisional and championship, and the World Series and would include more teams in the playoffs.
Yet! That was not the most memorable part of the 1981 baseball season. A “portly” 20-year-old Mexican rookie from the LA Dodgers took baseball by surprise in 1981. Fernando Valenzuela, at 20, started the season 8-0, with seven complete games, five shutouts, and a 0.91 ERA. He gave up four earned runs in 72 innings.
The left-hander was not a hard thrower. After being signed by the Dodgers from the Mexican Baseball League, he needed a new pitch. He was taught a screwball and mastered it in less than a year. By the last month of the 1980 season, Fernando had pitched in 17 ⅔ innings over 10 games, picking up two wins and a save all in relief.
Tommy Lasorda moved him into the rotation to start the 1981 season and due to injuries, Valenzuela was the Opening Day starter. He pitched a 2-0 complete game shutout against Houston, the team that beat Los Angeles in a one-game playoff to keep the Dodgers out of the postseason in 1980.
Combing his 1980 stats and his first eight starts in 1981 he gave up four earned runs in 89 ⅔ innings. Bob Gibson-like! Well, in 1968, Bob Gibson gave up 3 earned runs in a 103 inning stretch. But Fernando did this to start his career!
He ended the strike-shortened season with a 13-7 record in his league-leading 25 games started, his eight shutouts in his 11 complete games finishing tops in the league. He also led the league with 192 ⅓ innings pitched and 180 strikeouts. He topped Tom Server for the NL Cy Young award. He beat out Tim Raines for the NL Rookie of the Year Award, and finished 5th in the MVP voting. He also won the Silver Slugger award. In the process, his ERA did balloon all the way to a whopping 2.44 though.
To date, Valenzuela is still the only person to win both the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young award in the same year and he capped a historic campaign with a World Series championship over the Yankees. An impressive start to a career, as the youngster became beloved in two countries. By the end of the year, Mexicans were wearing shirts that said, “I live in Fernando Valley.” at Dodgers games. In a short period of time, Fernandomania transformed a population, helping them to move forward from the past.
In the playoffs, he won three games and lost one. With the Dodgers down 2-0, he started game three of the World Series. Tossing 147 pitches, including 101 after six innings, he survived for a complete-game victory. Tommy Lasorda then saved him for game seven against the Yankees. A rookie 20-year-old was set to start Game Seven at Yankee Stadium. However, the Dodgers rolled off three more wins to take the series 4-2 before he could.
More impressive than his performance was how popular he was. In 1981, I was playing little league baseball in Northeast Ohio. Every left-hander emulated Fernando’s unique windup. They would lift their leg high roll their eyes up to look into the sky while turning their backs to the batter before firing the ball towards the catcher. Heck, even right-handers did it.
The Mexican Sandy Koufax
But despite his brilliance on the field, his real impact was off the field.
In 1981 Mexicans made up about 2 million of the 7.5 million people in LA County. Which, at the time, was the largest concentration of Mexicans in the world outside of Mexico City. This potential fan base was untapped by the Dodgers. In part, this was because of the history behind Chavez Ravine, where Dodger Stadium stands.
Originally the area, considered undesirable real estate, was settled by Mexican immigrants. By 1949, about 4,000 people lived in the area, mainly in patchwork homes that often lacked running waters and toilets. In the early 50s, Federal funding was award to Los Angeles to build subsidized housing. Originally they planned on replacing the rundown homes with high-rise apartments, pre-schools for the residents. For political reasons, plans scaled-down. Soon the idea was discarded. The public land use enticed Walter O’Malley to bring the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. After some legal opposition, the new stadium plans moved forward.
SO! On March 10, 1959, residents were advised to move or be moved. For those who waited, the sheriff soon arrived and forcibly evict them. Once cleared of occupants, bulldozers demolished their residence. This being LA, TV crews were around to televise it. Some residents came back and set up tents and lived on the property in protest for a period. This action did not foster a strong relationship between the Mexican community and the Dodgers.
The Dodgers wanted a Mexican Sandy Koufax. Somebody to tap the Latino community just like Sandy Koufax did for the Jewish community. While they had scouted the Mexican Baseball League, it took until 1981 to find a player to fit the bill. Valenzuela, born in Etchohuaquila, Mexico fit the bill. Talented enough to dominate the MLB, Fernando became the toast of two countries. Soon, mariachi bands were in the parking lots before Dodger games, and Dodger players commented that the fans began to change.
Changing the Face of the Fans
The Dodgers were one of the first teams to sell their Spanish language broadcast rights in 1959. KWKW bought the rights, naming Jaime Jarrin their play-by-play man. He says that Fernando changed the “face of the Dodgers” attendance, increasing Latino attendance from about 10 percent in the 60s to about 30 percent in the 80s. “I truly believe that there is no other player in major league history who created more new fans than Fernando Valenzuela. Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Joe DiMaggio, even Babe Ruth did not. Fernando turned so many people from Mexico, Central America, South America into fans. He created interest in baseball among people who did not care about baseball, “ Jarrin has said. When Fernandomania had hit its peak, the Spanish language broadcast had twice the listeners as Vince Scully!
The years of heavy workloads took a toll has his arm. By 1988, he was experiencing a dead arm. Fernando continued playing until 1997 and even pitched a no-hitter in 1990, but the Dodgers let him go as a cost-cutting measure late in spring training in 1991. Upset, he refused to go to a Dodgers game or make an appearance at a Dodger-related function until he finally came back to the Dodgers in 2003 to be a color analyst for the Dodgers Spanish network, working with Jaime Jarrin.
In a 17 year career, Fernando made six All-Star games. He was in the top five of Cy Young voting four times, winning once. He has one top-five MVP finish, won two Silver Slugger Awards, and even a gold glove. He was the league leader in complete games three times. He had six consecutive seasons of 250 innings and in 1988, his Dodgers won a second World Series, though he didn’t make an appearance.
He is also the last player that became a “mania” phenomenon in baseball and will probably the last. Vin Scully said that Fernando “was a religious experience. You’d see parents, obviously poor, with the little youngsters by the hand, using him as inspiration.”
Fernando brought a segment of the population to baseball, something that very few players can ever say. Of the problems in baseball, the one that troubles me the most is that he may be the last player to have that impact on fans again. Hurting baseball the most is the lack of personal connections between fans and players. Odd considering the level of contact available between those groups right now. Maybe the answer for the future has inspiration in the past.
(Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Icon Sportswire | Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG)