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'Fernandomania' 40 Years Later: How Fernando Valenzuela Captivated Baseball Fans For Decades05:49
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Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela throws a pitch on his way to a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals at Dodger Stadium on Friday, June 29, 1990 in Los Angeles. The Dodgers won the game 6-0 as Valenzuela pitched the first no-hitter of his career. (Sam Jones/AP)
Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela throws a pitch on his way to a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals at Dodger Stadium on Friday, June 29, 1990 in Los Angeles. The Dodgers won the game 6-0 as Valenzuela pitched the first no-hitter of his career. (Sam Jones/AP)

If you were a baseball fan in the '80s, you knew about "Fernandomania."

That was the word for the spectacle and excitement surrounding Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela, who made his first start for the team 40 years ago this month. Decades later, he remains a Mexican American icon.

Legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully has described the frenzy around the star pitcher as a “religious experience.”

Fans were immediately captivated by the portly pitcher from Sonora, Mexico. They’d line up at the stadium to watch his “dramatic” windup, Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano says. Arellano is part of the newspaper’s “Fernandomania @ 40” documentary series.

Winding up on the mound, Valenzuela would extend his arms up as high as possible, hands in the air, eyes toward the sky, before unleashing an “explosive delivery to home plate,” Arellano says.

Valenzuela — nicknamed “El Toro” by doting supporters — had the added touch of being a left hander, a rarity among pitchers. He mastered the screwball, a pitch that very few players can perfect because of how taxing it is on the throwing arm, Arellano says.

“But Fernando, for those first couple of years, he was like Zeus,” he says, “throwing thunderbolts down to home plate and just slaying all the competition.”

As a young Mexican American in Southern California at the time, practicing Valenzuela’s delivery became a ritual in the community, Arellano says. Dads and uncles would challenge the kids to competitions to see who could throw their arms the highest or roll their eyes “up to heaven” the most, he remembers.

Los Angeles Dodgers rookie pitching sensation Fernando Valenzuela autographs baseballs for a group of teachers from St. Joseph's Catholic School in Placentisa Cal. on May 31, 1981 before game against the Cincinnati Reds in Los Angles. (Ramussen/AP)
Los Angeles Dodgers rookie pitching sensation Fernando Valenzuela autographs baseballs for a group of teachers from St. Joseph's Catholic School in Placentisa Cal. on May 31, 1981 before game against the Cincinnati Reds in Los Angles. (Ramussen/AP)
Dodgers pitching ace Fernando Valenzuela receives flowers from three of his fans during a Baseball clinic in Los Angeles on May 16, 1981. The children are from the East Los Angeles section which was mostly a Mexican American neighborhood. (RR/AP)
Dodgers pitching ace Fernando Valenzuela receives flowers from three of his fans during a Baseball clinic in Los Angeles on May 16, 1981. The children are from the East Los Angeles section which was mostly a Mexican American neighborhood. (RR/AP)

Valenzuela’s first start for the Dodgers in April of 1981 was a shutout win against the Houston Astros — a moment that marked the start of “Fernandomania.” Los Angeles went wild.

“Nothing has been like this in sports ever since,” Arellano says.

In the early 1980s, Mexican Americans started to become the biggest ethnic group in Southern California, but were “still kind of seen as strangers” despite living in the area for generations, he says. At the same time, the Dodgers had failed to produce a World Series win since 1965 and weren’t actively embraced by the Mexican American community, he explains.

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela blows bubbles as he passes the time in the dugout during the rain delay before Game 3 of the National League playoffs with the Expos at Montreal, Oct. 18, 1981. (Rusty Kennedy/AP)
Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela blows bubbles as he passes the time in the dugout during the rain delay before Game 3 of the National League playoffs with the Expos at Montreal, Oct. 18, 1981. (Rusty Kennedy/AP)

Then in walks Valenzuela, outfitted in thick bomber glasses, who was “pudgy, you know, he looks like your uncle,” Arellano says — and everyone fell in love.

“Specifically for Mexican Americans, we take him to heart more than anyone,” he says, “because for the first time and maybe ever in the United States, everyone wants to be a Mexican.”

He checked off career milestones effortlessly: In his first season in the major league, he won both Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards, as well as helped carry the team to a World Series championship win.

“More importantly for Mexican Americans, we have not had a Mexican who has been as popular among the rest of the United States ever since,” Arellano says.

Four decades later, Mexican Americans still feel nostalgic for the peak of the Valenzuela years. But Arellano says he’s “skeptical of saviors” because Mexican Americans must find confidence within to navigate life in the United States.

“The salvation was us,” he says.


Alex Ashlock produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on April 16, 2021.

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