On September 17, 1981, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela throws his eighth shutout of the season to set a new National League rookie record. Valenzuela’s three-hitter beat the Atlanta Braves 2-0 and put an exclamation point on one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history. Fans loved the unorthodox young Mexican import, and the “Fernandomania” that swept across Southern California and much of the country that summer became the biggest story in baseball.
One thing that so endeared Valenzuela to the public was his humble upbringing in the poor farming community of Navajoa in the Mexican state of Sonora. Though he was known to be the youngest of 12 children, his birth date was less certain. Valenzuela claimed to have been born on November 1, 1960, but in fact may have shaved several years off his age in order to appeal to as many major league scouts as possible. After getting his start in Mexico’s Liga Mexicana de Beisbol in 1978, Valenzuela made his debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1980, at the alleged age of 19. That year, he pitched an impressive 18 scoreless innings in 10 appearances with two wins and one save and going into 1981, his first full season in the majors, Valenzuela was the odds-on favorite for Rookie of the Year.
Valenzuela won his first eight starts of the season, posting a miniscule 0.50 ERA to start the year thanks to four shutouts in April. A chubby 5’11’, Valenzuela stood in stark contrast to the tall, lanky pitchers, like Steve Carlton and J.R. Richard, who dominated the National League in his era. He befuddled opponents and amazed fans with his famed screwball and his unique left-handed pitching style in which he seemed to look backwards towards second base before delivering the ball to the plate. In fact, he was so good that fans and reporters began to dispute his age, finding it hard to believe that a young newcomer could cause so many problems for so many experienced major league batters. The Dodgers, of course, delighted with the crowds of cheering fans Valenzuela attracted, weren’t asking any questions.
On September 17, Valenzuela immediately settled into a rhythm, and after surrendering a first-inning walk, retired 12 men in a row. In the sixth, Valenzuela, also an excellent hitter who would sometimes fill in at first base for the Dodgers, helped his own cause by singling in a run. All told, Valenzuela pitched nine innings, allowing only three hits, and struck out six Braves with his bewildering screwball and pinpoint control.
Valenzuela’s stellar play led the Dodgers to the National League pennant and the World Series in 1981. In Game 3, with the Dodgers trailing the New York Yankees two games to none, Valenzuela survived nine shaky innings for a 5-4 Dodgers victory. The Dodgers went on to beat the favored Yanks the next three games to bring home the world championship. After the season, Valenzuela became the first and only man to win both Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award in the same year.