In 1981, Fernando Valenzuela woke up from a nap and began pitching, and winning, sparking the phenomenon known as “Fernandomania” and almost singlehandedly repairing a fractured relationship between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the city's Mexican American community. As an encore, the 20-year-old from rural Mexico helped pitch the Dodgers to their first World Series title in a generation.
He also did something else amazing.
“He made being a lefthander cool,” says Gustavo Arellano, a Los Angeles Times columnist of Mexican heritage. “In rural Mexico, they would beat 'lefthanded-ness' out of you. ... After Fernando, fathers were trying to make their kids into lefthanders even if they were righthanders.”
Valenzuela's rise to major league prominence began in September 1980, when he was called up from the minor leagues by the Dodgers. In 10 games as a relief pitcher, he allowed zero earned runs.
The next season, when he was only 20, Valenzuela energized fans in Los Angeles, Mexico and throughout the big leagues with one of the more remarkable seasons in baseball history. When he pitched, attendance rose dramatically at home and away games. TV ratings spiked, too.
Arellano, who grew up in Southern California, was a toddler during the summer of Fernandomania. But he fondly recalls how Valenzuela's special season impacted baseball in Los Angeles and Mexican Americans.
"He meant everything to a community that was thirsting for a hero,” Arellano says.
Los Angeles Dodgers Seek 'Mexican Sandy Koufax'
After the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles from Brooklyn following the 1957 season, Los Angeles owner Walter O’Malley believed it was vital to build good relationships with the local communities. But the team alienated the city's large Hispanic population from the start.
To lure the Dodgers across the country, the city of Los Angeles evicted local residents from the Chavez Ravine area, north of downtown, where the team planned to build a new stadium. Many of these residents were Mexican Americans, who became embittered and remained cool to the Dodgers for decades afterward.
O’Malley once wished out loud for a “Mexican Sandy Koufax,” a pitcher who could capture fans’ imaginations the way the Hall of Famer had. Mike Brito, a Dodgers scout since 1978, found him in Etchohuaquila, Mexico (population 857 in 2020), roughly 1,000 miles northwest of Mexico City. "The Dodgers lucked out," Arellano says of Brito's discovery.
As Fernandomania was taking off, Mike Littwin, then a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, visited the pitcher's hometown. “His family lived on a dirt road that was filled with potholes,” he says. “The potholes were as big as some of the houses. They had no telephone, so we surprised them. But they could not have been sweeter.
“It was beyond imagining that Fernando could have made it from this town. It wasn’t a dream come true because nobody could have dreamed it.”
'Fernandomania' Sweeps Dodger Stadium
Dodgers fans, especially Mexican Americans, were eager to see the kid for a full season. They didn’t have to wait long. On opening day on April 8, 1981, scheduled starting pitcher Jerry Reuss suffered an injury while warming up. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda started Valenzuela, awakening him from a slumber to give him the news.
In a 2-0 opening-day victory over the Houston Astros, Valenzuela pitched a complete game. In his next seven starts, Valenzuela completed every game, a rarity. The Dodgers won each. By mid-May, he was 8-0 with an earned run average of 0.50.
By then, Fernandomania was in full swing. Dodger Stadium became the place to be. On the days Valenzuela pitched, the Dodgers played Mexican folk music over the public address system and prepared Mexican cuisine in the media dining room. Lalo and Mark Guerrero, father and son musicians, had a regional hit with their song, “Fernando El Toro”—Fernando The Bull.
“If they could have fit a million people into Dodger Stadium, there would have been a million people there,” actor Danny Trejo, the son of Mexican American parents, told the Los Angeles Times.
The Dodgers added Spanish-speaking ushers. Walk-up sales increased from 8,000 to 12,000 fans on nights Valenzuela pitched. For road games, attendance increased by 5,000 to 10,000 for his starts. The ratings for the Dodgers’ Spanish language broadcasts more than doubled when he pitched. "Unheard of," Dodgers broadcaster Jaime Jerrin told the Times.
Valenzuela's secret weapon was a screwball, a pitch he learned from Dodgers pitcher Bobby Castillo 18 months earlier. He not only perfected it, he developed three different versions of the mystical pitch, which often baffled big-league batters because few pitchers used it.
Valenzuela also had one of the more distinctive windups and deliveries of all time. He began with a high leg kick, then briefly paused before throwing the pitch. During that moment, as still photographs showed, Valenzuela’s eyes rolled back into his head.
Valenzuela also was unflappable, a rarity for a player so young. The first time he surrendered a home run, to Montreal’s Chris Speier, he was unfazed. His next 18 pitches were strikes, Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia told the Times.
“His teammates were so captivated,” says Littwin, who wrote many Valenzuela-related stories in 1981. “They were blown away. I think the players were as caught up as anyone else.”
Decades later, Valenzuela said his 1981 success was simple. “This is sport,” he told the Times in 2021. “But it’s entertainment for the fans. I tried to do my best so they can have a good game, a nice day in the park.”
Valenzuela Earns Awards as a Rookie
Valenzuela, the National League's starting pitcher in the All-Star Game as a rookie, finished the strike-shortened 1981 season with a 13-7 won-loss record and a 2.48 ERA, one of the best in the big leagues. He won the Rookie of the Year award and Cy Young award, given annually to the best pitcher in each league. Valenzuela was the first pitcher to accomplish both feats in the same season.
In the 1981 World Series against the New York Yankees, the Dodgers lost the first two games. But with Valenzuela starting in Game 3 at Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles won, 5-4. The Dodgers won the next three games to claim their first championship since 1965 when Koufax was their best pitcher.
Valenzuela had a solid career, finishing with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1997. But he never matched the heights of his rookie season. For some, his middling 173-153 won-loss record makes him an unworthy Hall of Fame candidate.
But Arellano, who for years thought Valenzuela didn't merit Hall of Fame consideration, believes otherwise. "Fernando helped get the Dodgers back on track (with fans)," he says.
“I really think there’s a home for Fernando in the Hall," says the longtime sportswriter. "He was an extremely important person in the history of baseball.”