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The Advancement of European Baseball

While there are cultural reasons why European baseball isn't more mainstream, the Honkbal Hoofdklasse and Italian Baseball League are paving the way for the advancement of European baseball. This article contains affiliate links - If you purchase through the links below, we earn money that goes towards supporting the maintenance and development of this site.

Is Baseball Popular in Europe?

London Stadium
London Stadium, home of West Ham United Football Club was converted into a baseball stadium for the London Series between the Red Sox and the Yankees in 2019 – Credit:

With the popularity of soccer, baseball is seen more as a hobby in Europe than a professional sport. There is also limited media coverage in Europe surrounding baseball, as soccer dominates as the most popular sport where fans live and breathe the game. Additionally, basketball has evolved in Europe further than baseball, as NBA players have become more recognizable, especially to the youth. Europeans also don’t have easy access to watch MLB games and even those who do seem not to enjoy it because they struggle with the complex rules and statistics of baseball.

Boston Red Sox vs New York Yankees
A soccer stadium converted into a baseball stadium for the London Series in June 2019 – Credit: Hammersfan / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Major League Baseball has attempted to grow the game in Europe, but due to the difficulty of the dimensions of the field, few venues could accommodate a Major League Baseball game. The NFL has fared better overseas than baseball because a football game could take place at any rugby or soccer stadium.

However, the Honkbal Hoofdklasse, the highest level of baseball in the Netherlands, and the Italian Baseball League, the most dominant league in Italy, are changing the status quo.

Origin of Honkbal Hoofdklasse

Rick van den Hurk born in Eindhoven, Netherlands, pictured pitching for the Orioles in 2011 – Credit: Keith Allison on Flickr / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Baseball in the Netherlands appeared briefly in 1869; however, it did not gain any interest. In 1905, baseball was once again seen playing around the Netherlands, but once again didn’t catch on. It wasn’t until 1911 when J.C.G Grase introduced the game to the Netherlands.

Win Remmerswaal
Win Remmerswaal (pictured) was was the second Dutch-born Major League Baseball player of the modern (post-1900) era (after Bert Blyleven) – Credit: https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/win-remmerswaal/

Grase was an English teacher in the Netherlands who developed a passion for baseball after traveling to the US. As an English teacher, Grase had the ability to translate the game of baseball to the Dutch. When Grase first brought the game to the Dutch, his interpretation said that the game required pitchers to throw the ball underhand. He also translated another pitching issue that stated pitchers had to maintain contact with the rubber on the mound with their delivery, which limited the velocity of the pitchers.

Night game at Neputunus Stadium - Home of the Curaçao Neptunus
Night game at Neptunus Familiestadion – Home of the Curaçao Neptunus – Credit: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/333970128587798228/

On March 12, 1912, Grase founded the Dutch Baseball Union, and Quick Amsterdam, the oldest baseball club in Europe. Grase coined the league Honkbal Hoofdklasse, which translates in Dutch to Major League Baseball. Grase is recognized as the pioneer for baseball in the Netherlands.

Neptunus Familiestadion - Home of the Curaçao Neptunus
Neptunus Familiestadion – Home of the Curaçao Neptunus – Credit: https://www.waterwegsport.nl/honkbal-neptunus-gastheer-european-champions-cup-6-t-m-10-juni/

As baseball grew in the Netherlands, the country has had a lot of international success, where the Netherlands National Baseball Team is currently ranked as the best European baseball team. Dating back to 1954, there have been 34 European Baseball Championships played, with the Netherlands winning the European Baseball Championship 23 times. They also have finished in 2nd place nine times. Team Netherlands is the three-time reigning champions, where they have prevailed in 2014, 2016, 2019.

The Birth of the Italian Baseball League

Baseball in Italy didn’t appear until 1944 during World War II. The US troops carried baseball bats and mitts and taught the locals how to field, bat, and pitch. The inaugural Italian Baseball League season began shortly after in 1948.

Gianni Falchi Stadium. Homes of UnipolSai Bologna based in Bologna Italy
Gianni Falchi Stadium. Homes of UnipolSai Bologna based in Bologna Italy – Credit: Ary29 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

The teams of the Italian Baseball League are divided among two divisions, Serie A1, the highest level, and Serie A2, the lower level. There are currently six teams in Serie A1, where they play 54 games each season. The top four teams compete in the playoffs and compete for the championship called the Lo Scudetto. The Italian Baseball League operates with a promotion and relegation system. After the completion of each season, the bottom two teams from Serie A1 are relegated to Serie A2, and the top two teams from Serie A2 advance to Serie A1.

UnipolSai Bologna players
UnipolSai Bologna players – Credit: https://www.facebook.com/FortitudoBaseball/photos/a.227975307478/10157722704822479

Similar to the Major League Baseball schedule, the Italian Baseball League season runs from April to September. Like the Chinese Professional Baseball League, many of the Italian Baseball League teams feature corporate sponsors.

The fans who attend Italian Baseball League games are traditional, just like in the US. While Major League Baseball games feature fans eating hotdogs, pretzels, and drinking beer, you’ll find fans in Italy eating paninis, bruschetta, and drinking espresso.

The Lengthy Road to the Hall

There are 44 European countries; however, there are currently only six countries represented in Major League Baseball, including Germany, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Netherlands, and Spain. There have been 148 European born baseball players that have played in MLB, with only 2 of them inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Bert Blyleven
Bert Blyleven in 1987 with the Minnesota Twins – Credit: Park Press Inc. / Public domain

Bert Blyleven was born in the Netherlands on April 6, 1951. He was drafted out of high school by the Minnesota Twins in the 3rd round of the 1969 draft. Blyleven received his call up to the majors on June 2, 1970, where he made some noise. Blyleven went 10-9 as a starting pitcher while posting a 3.18 ERA and recording five complete games on his way to Rookie of the Year honors. Throughout his career, he went 287-250 with a 3.31 ERA while eclipsing 3,701 strikeouts. Blyleven has the 9th most shutouts in MLB history with 60 and remains in the top 100 for most complete games with 242.

After his retirement in 1992, Blyleven’s road to the Hall of Fame was quite the journey. In his first year of eligibility in 1998, he received 17.55% of the votes. The following year, his votes sank to 14.1%. It wasn’t until Blyleven’s 14th and final year of eligibility; he made the Hall of Fame with 79.7% of the votes.

The Pioneer of Baseball

Harry Wright Baseball Card
Harry Wright Baseball Card – Public Domain

William Henry Wright, known as Harry Wright, was born on January 10, 1835, in Sheffield, England. Wright dropped out of school at the age of 14 to join St. George’s Cricket Club. SGCC was the cream of the crop, where they became known as the Dragonslayers.

Harry Wright then organized the first professional baseball team, which was known as the Cincinnati Red Stockings. The Red Stockings played their inaugural game versus Great Westerns of Cincinnati on May 4, 1869, where they came out on top 45-9. The Red Stockings went on to finish the season 57-0 while outscoring their opponents 2396-574, with the Red Stockings prevailing with an average scoreline of 42-10. The most valuable player on the Red Stockings was Harry’s brother, George, who batted .633 with 49 home runs and 339 runs. Harry Wright was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953, where he’s regarded as the father of professional baseball.

Mookie Betts Boston Red Sox Fanatics Authentic Autographed London Series Baseball

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