On Baseball’s Past and Growing Presence in Europe

The arrival of players like Max Kepler and Dovydas Neverauskas signals a change in the MLB landscape, as a growing number of European ballplayers are making their way Stateside. On a continent where baseball is overshadowed by soccer, cricket, rugby, basketball etc., the decision for a child to play baseball over other sports is becoming more realistic.

Take Kepler of the Twins, for example. He was an elite athlete growing up in Germany and preferred playing baseball over soccer. As the game has progressed into the 21st century, so have the European baseball academies, which are similar to those long established for soccer. When these academy teams play at youth tournaments, MLB scouts show up looking for transferable MLB tools. The product of one such academy, Kepler was signed by the Twins for $800,000 as a 16-year-old.

The sport still has a lot of growing to do, but why has it begun to take hold in Europe?

Roughly 500 MLB players were called upon to serve their country during World War II, with stars such as Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, and Ted Williams temporarily leaving the diamond. Most veterans and those with MLB experience were kept from the front lines, but the vast majority of minor leaguers and journeymen went off to combat in Europe. After the Nazis surrendered in 1945, the U.S. Army set up an athletic program to keep the soldiers busy until they were shipped back home.

Baseball became the most popular sport within those circles, and in September of 1945, the championship team from Germany played against the best team from France. With numerous major leaguers and Negro League players (Jackie Robinson, for instance) in action, many considered the five-game series in Nuremberg the real World Series that year. Right, Cubs fans?

After the series, many minor leaguers and African-Americans stayed behind, as they got the chance to play an integrated, professional game. When soldiers returned home, they left their old baseball equipment to children who were just being introduced to the sport. This led to a tradition of a high level of baseball being played in Europe and got many locals excited about the sport. In the 1950’s and 60’s, European kids became more passionate about baseball, which coincided with its temporary introduction into the Olympics.

However, baseball was excluded again after 1964 and the money that came with it dried up. With no more money in the game, other sports began to push baseball back to the fringes once more. But the reintroduction of the sport in the 1984 Olympics and the subsequent technology advances in the early 21st century have meant that access to baseball is at an all-time high. There has been a resurgence of the sport in Europe, thanks in large part to the internet, cable packages, and video games.

Much of the information from above came from an interview I conducted with Sam Gilman, Editor-in-Chief of European Baseball & Softball Magazine. EBSM covers professional baseball and softball at its highest levels across Europe and includes a weekly schedule of writing, including cultural pieces and training articles for players and coaches alike. Gilman, an American living in Germany, wants to see the sport we all love continue to grow.

“There’s a lot more going on than people in the States are aware of,” Sam told me.

Between men and women, there are over 110 teams across 16 countries, and Gilman’s goal is to help create a larger community across the continent. If more people are being exposed to the game, the level of fan interest and talent on the field will continue to improve.

The World Baseball Classic was very well received in Europe, according to Gilman. Although the games were usually played in the earliest hours of the morning, there was a great deal of social media flutter about where to watch games and discussion of the results. With teams such as the Netherlands and Israel advancing past the group stages, there was a surge in viewership as well.

Events such as the WBC are fantastic tools that MLB can use to help broaden the game, as Europeans who had never really been exposed to baseball become interested in learning more about it. The more adults and children that understand the basic rules of the game, the easier it will be for a wide-scale system to be put in place to expand the sport.

Wladimir Balentien celebrating a home run. Photo shot by Freek Bouw / Phrake Photography

But how realistic is it for European children to play baseball over other sports? Gilman believes that the framework to make that possible is being built, but the jump to the minor leagues from European academies is a massive one. Firstly, the adjustment to a new land and culture, let alone playing baseball everyday (compared to two days a week), is difficult. It’s tough for their bodies to be able to play at a high level for over 100 games a year. Secondly, Europeans also feel the minor league system is set up as a me or him situation, where on-field performance and development is vital. In Europe, the players are used to a more friendly system where everyone plays together and hangs out afterwards.

Next, and possibly the biggest problem, is that the education in the US, often times, does not transfer and the educational system in Europe is in many respects superior to that of the US. Also, many companies in Europe wouldn’t recognize a degree in the US and wouldn’t appreciate or understand the gap in a player’s timeline because baseball doesn’t mean anything in Europe.

However, the growth of academies and development of baseball in Europe bridges some of these gaps. Gilman thinks that for the sport to take another jump, the key is for it to continue to be included in future Olympics. This will allow for more funding and, in turn, create a more consistent professional structure where teams can begin to be sponsored and invest in facilites. Also, the opportunity to be an Olympiad and compete for your country will naturally increase the level of competition amongst the players. This will give exposure for future generations as well as producing all-stars that kids would want to grow up and become. Sam thinks that it can happen, but it will be a slower turnaround, and won’t replace a major sport.

The comparison offered was that, in 20 years baseball will be like soccer is in the United States today: a sport on the rise, but maybe never a child’s first sport he/she picks up. I want to give a big thanks to Sam Gilman for taking the time to chat with me, and I recommend all of you follow Sam on Twitter and Instagram, and that you check out the European Baseball & Softball Magazine’s website.

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