Otto Hess is thus far the only player born in Switzerland who has played for a Major league team. In his career, which spanned from 1902-1915, Hess played 198 games for the Cleveland Naps/Blues and the Boston Braves. Baseball wouldn´t make it to Hess’ homeland for another century.
In the summer of 1980 a group of teenagers, who called themselves the Challengers, picked up the game of baseball and began playing regularly in the park. The friends were interested in rockabilly and all things Americana, including muscle cars. They decided to try baseball and named the team after their favorite muscle car, the Dodge Challenger. The first organized baseball game was played in November of the same year between the Challengers and a team from Lucerne. The umpire called the game after three innings not only due to snowfall but because they ran out of baseballs.
Two of the founders of the Challengers were also involved in the founding of the Swiss Baseball and Softball Federation (SBSV) in 1981. The next year the first official Swiss championship was held with six participating teams and the Challengers won it all. According to Sascha “Serge” Kuenzler, president of the Challengers, some of the founding members are still active today.
36 years later the game has taken root in Switzerland. The top league, National League A (NLA) has eight teams. They come from small towns, like the home of last year’s champions the Therwil (Flyers), and large cities like Zürich home of the Barracudas, alike.
At the moment the Barracudas, founded in 1985, are the biggest of the Swiss baseball and softball clubs. They have about 150 active members ranging in age from 5-60 years, playing on 10 different baseball and softball teams. Altogether there are approximately 1,000 softball and baseball players throughout Switzerland.
Manuel Hirtz, president of the Barracudas, is happy to share the secret behind his club’s growth. “First of all hard, and especially steady, work is a must. You can’t let go at any time. The president and the other board members have to work year-round. We strive for steady growth but not at any price. A new player has to fit into our organization. They have to understand and live our values. I want our members to be proud of our club. Lastly you need good coaches and good people to lead the teams.”
At the moment there is one baseball field with international dimensions in Switzerland. It is fully equipped with all the necessary facilities including lights. The field is used by all the three Zürich baseball clubs. Heerenschürli Baseball Stadium is also a training center for the Swiss National teams. “In about two years we are going to get a new field in Wittenbach,” said Monique Schmitt of the SBSV.
For softball the situation is different. There are no proper fields and the teams are playing in the city parks not sporting complexes. Perhaps not surprisingly then the women’s national softball team, who represented Switzerland in the 2016 World Championship in Surrey, Canada, remains unranked.
The men’s national baseball team is ranked 50th in the WBSC rankings. They will play in the European Championship B-pool next summer. The goal is to earn a spot in A-pool. If that happens it would change the situation of the SBSV dramatically. “We would be automatically promoted to the highest group of the Swiss Olympic Committee, which means that we would get much more financial support,” Schmitt said. The Swiss believe in the ‘slow and steady wins the race’ mantra when it comes to growth. They see the future of baseball and softball as solid.
Baseball is growing steadily. If the federation and the clubs manage to keep developing the youth programs, it is possible that in few years Otto Hess will no longer be the only Swiss-born player to make the show.