“I see great things in baseball. It’s our game – the American game.” -Walt Whitman
The arrival of spring causes men and women of letters to wax rhapsodic about a number of subjects. While love may top the list, in North America the topic of baseball comes in a close second. When the days start growing warmer and groundskeepers start cutting the infield grass and chalking foul lines in preparation for a new season, everyone from accomplished poets to hack sportswriters pen a few lines designed to re-establish baseball’s bona fides as a symbol of life, rebirth and the American spirit. French-born social historian Jacques Barzun summed up the last metaphor best when he wrote, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”
Barzun may have been on to something. With the usual frenzy surrounding the start of Major League Baseball’s 2013 season, it is impossible to dispute that the sport is a beloved piece of Americana. However, as the recently concluded World Baseball Classic showed, the United States is far from the only place where baseball is a revered pastime. While places such as Japan and Cuba also have a long and storied history of professional baseball leagues, love for the game is spawning professional leagues both near and far.
The Low Countries once seemed like an unlikely place to see world-class baseball, but that was before Holland charged to the semi-finals of this year’s World Baseball Classic. The Netherlands, relying largely on position players from Dutch overseas territories in the Caribbean and pitchers from the mainland, showed they know how to play the game.
The Netherlands has actually had a professional league since the 1920s, and one of the earliest teams was an offshoot of Amsterdam’s famous Ajax football club. However, the quality of play has improved greatly since 1925, when sailors from a visiting U.S. naval vessel thumped Amsterdam’s Blue White team 27-2. There are now six baseball academies in the country, and Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Bud Selig is even reportedly interested in opening the major league season in Europe at some point in the future. Given its long baseball tradition and its increasing prominence on the international baseball scene, the Netherlands is an early front-runner for the honor.
While the first baseball team in Taiwan was formed in 1906, it took the country more than 80 years to launch a truly professional league. In 1989, four teams became inaugural members of the island’s Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL). The fortunes of professional leagues in Taiwan have waxed and waned since then, with the founding in 1996 of a second league, the Taiwan Major League (TML), and the growth of the CPBL to seven teams. But financial losses forced the TML to merge with the CPBL in 2003, and the number of teams has fallen to four. Of course, the fans are still fired up for the fledgling 2013 season, largely because former MLB bad boy Manny Ramirez is playing for the CPBL’s EDA Rhinos. A headline on Bleacher Report, a popular sports website, following Ramirez’s first game in Taiwan said it all: “Manny Ramirez Plays First Game in Taiwan, Taiwanese Fans Lose Their Minds.”
The Nicaraguan professional league is a long way from luring top-flight talent such as Ramirez to its modest four-team league. The teams’ small budgets preclude signing big names, and the country is located between football-mad Honduras and Costa Rica, so most people fail to list it among Latin America’s great baseball-playing nations.
But Nicaragua is absolutely crazy for baseball, and several minor and semi-pro leagues exist alongside the professionals. U.S. Marines brought the game with them when they occupied the country in 1912, but baseball proved to be both more popular and more enduring than the soldiers. The U.S. withdrew from Nicaragua in 1933, but baseball remained.
Perhaps the most storied baseball leagues outside of the United States are in Mexico. In the 1940s, the Liga Mexicana de Béisbol managed to entice a number of players from the U.S. to take their talents south of the border, a move that enraged then-Major League Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler. Chandler banned the Americans who chose to play in Mexico from ever returning to the majors, and was in turn sued by Danny Gardella, one of the blacklisted players. Chandler settled out of court and let Gardella and the others return rather than risk Major League Baseball’s anti-trust exemption.
The Mexican leagues no longer directly compete with the MLB for players, but the Liga Mexicana still fields 16 teams every summer, and the country’s second major league, the Liga Mexicana del Pacifico, packs stadiums in western Mexico each winter.
Photos courtesy of Hoofddorp Pioniers; EDA Rhinos; Liga Nicaraguense de Beisbol Profesional (LNBP); Liga Mexicana del Pacifico; Italian Baseball League