On November 11, 1981, Rookie of the Year Fernando Valenzuela wins the National League’s Cy Young Award, becoming the first player in baseball history to win both prizes in the same season.
In the spring of 1981, at the beginning of his first full season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Valenzuela was unstoppable. He won the first eight games he pitched, including seven complete games and five shutouts, with an 0.50 ERA. He was just 20 years old (though rumors abounded that he was actually closer to 30). His youth and evident good nature along with his paunchy, un-athletic build, goofy windup and the brilliant screwball known as “Fernando’s Fadeaway” endeared him to many baseball fans. Newspapers called the phenomenon “Fernandomania.” His picture was on the cover of dozens of magazines. People crowded ballparks to see him play, especially during his triumphant early-season winning streak. A reporter from the Orange County Register wrote: “You had to be there, back in that magical summer of 1981, to see the long snaking lines of cars already waiting to get into the ballpark gate at 4:30 in the afternoon. You had to click on your radio and hear the happy, mariachi sound (The Ballad of Fernando) emanating from every station in town. You had to read the glut of newspaper ads hustling membership into the rapidly growing Fernando Fan Club.”
Even though he was never again as good as he was that spring, Valenzuela had a solid season: he went 13-7 with eight shutouts and a 2.48 ERA. He had the league’s second-highest win total along with the highest number of complete games, shutouts, innings pitched and strikeouts. He started the All-Star Game for the NL–an unusual honor for a rookie–and pitched three wins to help the Dodgers beat the Yankees in the World Series.
Fernandomania eventually faded, even though Fernando himself remained a dependable pitcher. In 1983, he won the Silver Bat, the prize given to the best-hitting pitcher in the National League. In 1984, he threw a career-high 15 strikeouts in a game against Philadelphia. He set a major league record in 1985 for not allowing a single earned run in 41 1/3 innings, and the next year he won a league-leading 21 games. In 1990, he pitched his first no-hitter.
In all, Valenzuela pitched 11 seasons for the Dodgers. He retired in 1996, after a few years of bouncing from team to team. But he remains an inspiration for many young players, especially those from Mexico.