Fabulous Fernando

Valenzuela enthralled baseball world with his incredible 1981 debut

September 25, 2012
(NBHOF Library)

By Cassidy Lent 

Fernando Valenzuela was a nineteen-year-old native from Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico, who had only been in the United States for two years when he entered the major leagues with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was a September call-up in 1980 and pitched 17 2/3 innings without giving up an earned run. 

Twelve months later, Fernandomania took the baseball world by storm. And Valenzuela became an overnight sensation. 

Valenzuela captured the imagination of the baseball world with a red-hot start to the 1981 campaign. He pitched a shutout against the Houston Astros in his first start, then followed that by winning his next seven decisions with five shutouts. He went on to not only win National League Rookie of the Year Award, but also beat out future Hall of Famers Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, and Nolan Ryan for that year’s NL Cy Young Award – becoming the first pitcher to win Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards in the same season. He finished with a 13-7 record in the strike-shortened 1981 season. 

Valenzuela also led the Dodgers to the World Series title – their first championship in 16 seasons. 

However, it is possible that none of this would have happened had Valenzuela not have been discovered when Dodgers’ scout Mike Brito was in Mexico in 1978. After coming to Class A California League in Lodi, Brito decided that Valenzuela needed to develop an off-speed pitch and asked Dodgers pitcher Bobby Castillo to teach Fernando the screwball – a opposite-spin curveball that breaks in to left-handed hitters and away from righties. 

Valenzuela picked up the pitch quickly and, within a week, was deemed to have a screwball just as good as Castillo’s. During the 1980 season with Double-A San Antonio, Brito went to check on Valenzuela and was astounded by how well he had mastered the pitch. 

By the next season, Valenzuela was a household name in America. 

He finished his big league career with a 173-153 record in 17 seasons, earning six All-Star Game selections. But it was that 1981 season that will always be remembered for the birth of Fernandomania. 

Check out bios of other Latin Legends here

Cassidy Lent was a 2012 library research intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development. 

For information on how to apply for the Class of 2013 Steele Internship Program, click here