German Baseball's American Roots
Baseball in Germany looks an awful lot like it does anywhere else. Hot dogs. Kids running down fly balls. Music. And a whole lot of laughter between innings. Is it any wonder Germany has adopted America’s pastime?
Baseball Arrives in Germany
On August 12, 1936, 90,000 people watched a demonstration baseball game from the stands of Berlin’s Olympic Stadion. The program described baseball as “the almost unknown sport” and included an outline of basic rules so fans could follow along. The two teams, both fielded by Americans, were comprised of men who had tried out and then footed their own $500 in travel expenses to participate.
Patton: Wins the War. Looses the Series.
It was 1945 before Germany got their first taste of the sport however, and it came courtesy of Uncle Sam. At war’s end, the Army set up intermural programs in every sport to keep the servicemen occupied abroad.
Most of the German baseball games were played in Nuremburg. A team of major and minor leaguers, representing the 71st Division of General George Patton’s Third Army, won the German division.
Patton’s men lost to the French-based Red Circlers in a five game “World Series” to determine a European Theater of Operations Champion. With nearly 500 MLB players in the service at the time, most considered this the true Series of 1945.
50,000 servicemen were in attendance for the September 3rd game. Harry “The Hat” Walker of the Cardinals and Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell of the Reds played on the German-based team. This was also the first time that MLB players got a look at their future in Willard “Home Run” Brown and Leon Day, who would have to wait two more seasons for the game to become integrated at home.
In Germany, every company had an adult team that played one another. The level of play was high because so many MLB players were enlisted. A few years later, during the Korean War, folks like Joe Hicks and Ernie Banks were stationed in Germany and placed on local rosters.
The US Army also created and supported youth sports leagues throughout westernized Germany. Called German Youth Activities (GYA), these leagues were created as part of the rebuilding efforts. The US Army supplied the equipment and American officers coached and taught German men the game.
Germans Play Ball
In 1949, the first German club, the Frankfurt Juniors, was formed. That year, the local Manheim team, at that time comprised solely of black players, had an average game attendance of 5,000.
Games were played, primarily, in public parks. Some teams today, like the Bonn Capitals, continue this tradition. Others, like Regensburg and Paderborn have constructed stadiums. In fact, when Manheim erected their new facilities, they became the first park, worldwide, to name their stadium after the late Roberto Clemente.
In 1950 the Baseball-Bundesliga, the Allgemeine Baseball-Foederation Deutschland (ABFD) and the Confederation Europenne de Baseball Amateur were formed and 1951 was the first full season for professional baseball in Germany.
The Games continued until 1970 when the Allgemeine Baseball-Föderation Deutschland was disbanded.
For the next 10 seasons, there would be no Bundesliga baseball in Germany. The national team however continued to participate in exhibitions throughout Europe including both Baseball World Cups.
Between 1985 and 1995, the number of baseball players grew from 700 to over 20,000. Half those players were under the age of 18. This correlates with the announcement on October 13, 1986, that baseball was to become a full medal sport for the 1992 games.
Today the sport, in some areas, is once again declining. While an Olympic sport, there was government funding available for teams nationwide. When the sport was eliminated for the 2012 Games the funding went with it.
If Tokyo’s Olympic Committee is successful with their current bid for reinstatement then, under German rules for sport, funding would return.
There are as many theories about the resurgence of the game as there are people to ask. Some account the increase to the computer age.
In the early 90s, the internet was introduced to the world. There was also a windfall of new gaming equipment. Sega replaced Atari only to be replaced itself by Nintendo. At every stop, baseball was a game package, often included with the console. The sport’s electronic availability was at an all-time high.
In fact, the gaming impact has affected the sport in more recent years as well. DBV President Mirko Heid says.
“It used to be kids were more sporty and they’d come in and have to learn the rules of the game. Now, with video games, kids arrive with a complete intellectual understanding of the game but their basic sports knowledge is lacking.”
When The Wall fell in Berlin, German television expanded American programming and included baseball. Cable, which included sports packages, also came into play. The interest in the game, it can be said, is a simple reflection of this exposure.
We asked the Bonn Capitals head coach BJ Roper-Hubbert where the young players he sees come into the game draw their inspiration. Logically, it is a combination of these two worlds. “For the kids the internet is huge now. They’re staying up late and streaming games, like the World Series, online.”
Then there is the “Major League” theory. Ask an average German adult what they know about the game and, overwhelmingly, the response is Major League. Released in 1989, with the second installment in 1994, the Major League franchise was apparently a hit abroad. The internet video age was still 10 years away so this also makes sense.
And that brings us back to today’s game…
In 1980, the national baseball federation was reorganized as the Deutscher Baseball & Softball Verband e.V. (DBV), a national association with representatives of the baseball and softball regional organizations. The Bundesliga was reformed in 1982 and continues to play today.
Presently there are ten regional organizations and approximately 30,000 active players.
The German Baseball Hall of Fame was founded in 1994. In 2012, the All-Star game was added as a mid-season exhibition with the National team fielded opposite the All-Star team.
Germans in the MLB
Thirteen German-born players have debuted in the MLB since 1972. Most were children of American service members stationed in Germany. In 2002, Ron Gardenshire became the first German skipper since 1897, when he took over as the Twins’ manager. Today, Max Kepler plays for the same organization. Born in Berlin and brought up through the German baseball system, he is truly the first homegrown MLB player the German’s have ever had.
With seven players on MLB rosters in 2015, Germany is beginning to make a name for itself in the sport. With continued developmental programs, like Regensburg Academy – which trained five of those seven players – MLB announcers might want to start learning the pronunciation of a few common German surnames.