On the opening day of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 1981 season, a baby-faced rookie — just 20 years old — took the mound for his first major league start. The Dodgers never intended to start Fernando Valenzuela to open the season. He was, after all, third in the pitching rotation behind Jerry Reuss and Burt Hooton. But both were sidelined with injuries, so Valenzuela got the call — and proceeded to throw a complete-game, five-hit shutout for a Dodgers win over the Houston Astros.
It would end up being one of the most pivotal games in the Dodgers’ tenure in Los Angeles. When Valenzuela, a native of Etchohuaquila, Mexico, earned his first start, Latino players made up just 11.1 percent of MLB teams, according to data from SABR (which did not distinguish between Latino and Hispanic players). For comparison, in 2016, Latino players made up 27.4 percent of the league.
“Players of Mexican birth appeared in MLB as early as 1933, and Mexican-born Bobby Avila was the batting champion of the American League in 1954,” says MLB official historian John Thorn. “Yet Mexico’s first national star was Valenzuela, in part because Los Angeles could command more media attention … and because his debut string of shutouts was so sensational.”
Given that the population of Los Angeles was 25 percent Hispanic when the Dodgers arrived, according to census data, the team understandably yearned to be embraced by that demographic. But the relationship had less than auspicious beginnings.
‘Fernandomania’ was a national thing, but he was a Dodger, so those fans were particularly engaged and rooting for him.
Lincoln Mitchell, author
Eight years after real estate mogul Walter O’Malley acquired majority ownership of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team was on the move to Los Angeles. Though the Dodgers are beloved in L.A. now, a large swath of the city’s population was reluctant to embrace its new team. When it was built in 1962, Dodger Stadium displaced a large segment of low-income, largely Mexican-American residents of Chavez Ravine, a valley near downtown Los Angeles. Chavez Ravine was largely composed of the Mexican-American neighborhoods La Loma, Palo Verde and Bishop — which housed families who had moved there due in part to facing housing discrimination in other L.A. neighborhoods.
In 1950, the Los Angeles City Housing Authority earmarked Chavez Ravine as a site for a new housing project, Elysian Park Heights. Using eminent domain, the city purchased the land from the inhabitants — many of whom would never receive compensation. But when Norris Poulson was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1953, he invoked the anti-Communist fervor of the time to label the housing project as “un-American” spending.
The federal government sold the Chavez Ravine site back to Poulson at a reduced price with the contingency that it must be used for a public purpose. So city officials began to solicit sports teams to relocate to Los Angeles, and in 1957, they found their man in O’Malley. The Dodgers owner faced no shortage of resistance to and controversy about his plan to develop the Chavez Ravine land, but ultimately, he and his supporters won a public referendum — by just 3 percentage points.
On April 10, 1962, Dodger Stadium opened. Twenty years later, Valenzuela would help repair relations between the community and the team.
“Once upon a time in baseball, national origin and especially skin color were determinants of access and possible success,” says Thorn. “Slowly, since the advent of Jackie Robinson, it has not mattered to fans or front-office people where you came from … what mattered was if you could play.”
And could Valenzuela ever play.
After Valenzuela burst onto the scene with his five-hit shutout on opening day, 1981, he encored with an 8-0 start to the season with five shutouts and an ERA of 0.50. He broke multiple MLB records, becoming the first player to win the Rookie of the Year Award and the Cy Young Award in the same season and also the first rookie to lead the National League in strikeouts.
“He’s hot out of the gate and by late April, he’s a national phenomenon,” says Lincoln Mitchell, author of Baseball Goes West: The Dodgers, the Giants and the Shaping of the Major Leagues. “‘Fernandomania’ was a national thing, but he was a Dodger, so those fans were particularly engaged and rooting for him.”
But, most important, Valenzuela helped give fans in Los Angeles the greatest prize in baseball — a World Series title. In 1981, the Dodgers triumphed over the New York Yankees in six games for their first title since 1965.
The Dodgers had lost four consecutive world series — ’66, ’74, ’77 and ’78. “There’s a generation of fans who are seeing their Dodgers just lose in the World Series, and that’s frustrating,” says Mitchell. “If they had lost the 1981 World Series, that changes the feel around the Dodgers. And they don’t win that without Fernando.”
The timing of Valenzuela’s arrival in Los Angeles feels too perfect — that the team would not only scout a Mexican star and give him a starting shot as a rookie but also that he’d develop into a Cy Young–caliber pitcher. But it’s not as orchestrated as it seems. “The Dodgers didn’t flood Mexico with scouts trying to find somebody,” explains Mitchell. “It was not a strategy in that sense.” At the time Valenzuela joined the Dodgers, the team was getting older — in need of an injection of youthful talent. The Dodgers just happened to have the perfect player in the pipeline.
The Dodgers had Spanish-language radio broadcasts before Valenzuela arrived, but they increased exponentially after Fernandomania took off in 1981. “El Toro,” as he was affectionately known by Dodgers fans, continued to pitch at a high level in Los Angeles until his release in 1991. These days, he’s a color commentator on the Spanish-language SportsNet LA feed. But the impact of his connection with the city’s Mexican-American community is reflected in the present-day relationship between the team and its fans.