Bobby Avila and the Dearth of Mexican Baseball Stars

Helmar This Great Game, Card #59 featuring Bobby Avila

Mexico’s population is more than double that of Venezuela, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico combined. Yet those four Latin American countries have sent far more players to the major leagues than Mexico. Why? The answer is cultural
When was baseball introduced to Mexico?

When Was Baseball Introduced to Mexico?

Historians figure that baseball was introduced to Mexico somewhere around 1840, most likely from visiting Cubans. But Mexico didn’t latch on to America’s National Pastime as eagerly as other nations. First, Mexico shares a border with the U.S. and has a complicated relationship with their northern neighbor. That complex dance continues today. As a result of the suspicions that Mexico had of the U.S., and of political and military clashes with America, Mexico wasn’t eager to embrace an American game. Baseball grew slowly in the country.

By the 1920s the Mexican League was formed and organized professional baseball started to take hold in the country. Ironically, some of the impetus came from the U.S. when African-Americans who were not allowed to play with white players in America went south to play year round. Most of the great black players joined teams in Mexico as late as the 1950s. This influx of talent helped squash the development of Mexican players. But another sport also accomplished the same thing.

That Other Football Game

European football (soccer) has been played in Mexico since the early 19th century, and club teams cropped up 30-40 years before a professional baseball league was formed in the country. With its emphasis on running and cohesive team play, Mexico has always loved soccer. Their national team has been among the best in the western hemisphere for nearly a century. Children in Mexico idolize soccer players. If you’re a good athlete in Mexico, you usually play soccer. As a result, the best athletes in the country gravitate to the game.

The Mexican League Raids

In the 1940s, an ambitious oil millionaire named Jorge Pasquel decided it was time for the Mexican League to compete with Major League Baseball. He flew to the U.S. and convinced several big league stars to sign contracts to play south of the border. He signed pitcher Max Lanier of the Cardinals, and catcher Mickey Owen. His biggest prize was ace pitcher Sal Maglie from the Giants. But MLB wasn’t going to let Pasquel siphon their best talent. The major leagues announced that anyone who played in the Mexican League would be banned from playing in the United States permanently. Most of the players tore up their contracts, and even after a lawsuit settled some of the financials in favor of Pasquel, the war was won by MLB. The Mexican League was branded as interlopers. A stigma attached itself to Mexican baseball.

Bobby Avila: Batting Champion

A few Mexican players came to the U.S. and had success. Bobby Avila was one of them. He played 11 seasons in the majors and won a batting title in 1954 when he also finished third in MVP voting. When his playing career ended, Avila went back home where he bought a baseball team and later entered politics. His country produced a few other longtime major league players, like Jorge Orta and Aurelio Rodriguez. The biggest star was Fernando Valenzuela, who captivated baseball in the early 1980s with the Dodgers. Mexican slugger Vinny Castilla also had a very successful career.

But Mexico, with its 120 million people, is still sending their best athletes to the soccer fields. Many good baseball players are choosing to stay in the Mexican League, where they can play year-round in warm weather and close to family. Avila remains the most popular (and best) position player from Mexico to have a career in the U.S.

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