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The largest baseball stadium in Germany, the Armin-Wolf-Arena seats 4,500 and brings in an average of 1,000 fans to post-season games. (Walter Keller)

Eins, Zwei, Drei Strikes You’re Out at the Ol’ Ballgame

What happens when the American pastime comes to Germany?

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Germans’ growing fondness for baseball resists easy interpretations. This isn’t the Dominican Republic, a nation drawn to baseball as a way out of poverty, or Japan, which embraced the game wholeheartedly in the 1940s partly in homage to American power. So what’s driving the baseball boom? For one thing, the globalization of American sports has exposed Germans to baseball as never before. Two decades ago, most Germans’ only awareness of the game came from watching dubbed American sitcoms such as “Die Bären Sind Los,” (The Bad News Bears), and occasional games aired at 6 a.m. on the U.S. Armed Forces Television. Today, Major League Baseball games are widely available in Europe via mlb.tv and ESPN America. And the Major Leagues have embarked on a new effort to recruit European teenagers, with a dozen scouts based in Europe. Since 2004, the majors have sponsored a 16-day academy in Tirrenia, Italy, every August that has become the premier showcase for European up-and-comers. For many of these young players, the prospect of signing a U.S. contract—and, perhaps, stepping up to bat in the Major Leagues-is an enticement more alluring than a professional soccer career in Europe.  Everything is bigger in America, shinier in America, it’s just something that dazzles you,” says Brunner.

Still, some German baseball players say that America had little to do with it. They were drawn to baseball for its own sake—its exactitude, its elaborate set of rules, its cerebral dimensions. “I had no clue where the game came from,” says Michael Francke, 31, a substitute on the German national team who grew up in the East German town of Strausberg and started playing baseball when, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he saw two ex-American servicemen shagging fly balls on a field near his house. Francke, who later played minor league ball for a Milwaukee Brewers farm team, was intrigued by “the chess-like aspect, the strategy, the mental part” of baseball as well as its demands for all-around athletic skill.

Max Kepler, the son of an American mother and a Polish-German father, both ballet dancers in Berlin, got his start pitching in the city’s German-American Little League. The Saturday games—barbecues, kids in Yankee pinstripes and A’s green and gold, American baseball moms shouting encouragement from the sidelines—connected Kepler to his American roots. And he admired baseball’s acrobatics, athleticism, and a pace unlike anything he had encountered in European sports. "In baseball it may look like you’re hanging out and doing nothing,” he told me. “But then you hear the crack of the bat, and that split second when you get that shot, when you make that diving play, is the best feeling ever.”

Several players I talked to told me that baseball, with its one-on-one confrontations between batter and pitcher and its emphasis on solitary action, embodies, in a seductive way, the American celebration of the individual, in contrast to the collective spirit of European football. At the same time, Brunner says that many in this nation that has produced the BMW and the Mercedes-Benz seem to have an instinctive appreciation for baseball’s precision—the narrow strike zone, the tiny margin of error for throws from third to first base to beat a runner. "There’s something about that that appeals to the engineers in us," said Brunner, who studied mechanical engineering in college before embarking on a baseball career.

***

Claus Helmig, 76, remembers a brief time when baseball seemed on the verge of winning over Germany. I met Helmig in the Armin-Wolf-Arena's VIP tent, a cozy, heated refuge from the autumn chill of the baseball stadium. It was late September, and I had returned to Regensburg to attend a qualifying round for the World Baseball Classic, the sport's top international competition. It passes almost unnoticed in the United States but is closely observed by baseball aficionados in the rest of the world. The national teams of Germany, Great Britain, the Czech Republic, and Canada were playing an elimination series; the winner would advance to the official 16-team tournament. In March, the Dominican Republic bested Puerto Rico in the finals held in San Francisco (Canada, the victor in German’s qualifying round, would not advance out of pool play against the USA, Mexico and Italy.) The red-carpeted lounge was filled with corporate sponsors and Major League scouts, dining on steak and sipping Rieslings. Mustachioed, white-haired and solidly built, Helmig sat on a corner sofa and talked to me about his journey from the ashes of World War II to a shot at the Major Leagues in Dwight D. Eisenhower’s America.

Helmig was born in Frankfurt in 1936. That year, at the Berlin Olympics, a pair of American college teams played an exhibition game before 100,000 mostly perplexed spectators, including Adolf Hitler. Der Führer watched the sport’s German debut from a seat behind third base and chatted up the players afterward. Baseball returned to Germany in the aftermath of the war with the arrival of occupying American forces. In Helmig's hometown, Mannheim, he and his friends used to go to the soccer stadium on weekends to watch the Mannheimer Tornadoes, a segregated US Army League team starring a power-hitting first baseman named Ernie Banks, who would later have a Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Cubs. At his first game, Helmig caught a foul ball that had sailed over the backstop. “It was like a pearl,” he recalls. “I fell in love with the game at that moment.” He remembers “the hamburgers, the hot dogs, the Coke, and the American ice cream. This was something that no German had ever tasted before.”

In the late 1940s, Helmig and his older brother Jürgen played in a baseball league organized by the U.S. Army’s German Youth Activities program. It was a golden age for German baseball, with 140 teams and tournaments across the country. “The kids would be taken in army trucks to play other teams in Mannheim and Heidelberg,” Helmig says. When he was 16, his uncle—a sportsman who had often “gone hunting with Hermann Goering””—brought him along on a hunt with several U.S. generals. Helmig used the opportunity to wangle an invitation to put a squad together and play exhibition matches against their teams. Soon the scouts came calling, and the Helmig brothers landed contracts from the Baltimore Orioles.

Claus, an outfielder, and Jürgen, a pitcher, touched down at Idlewild Airport in New York City in the spring of 1956. They were greeted by a swarm of newsmen, eager for a glimpse of the two German brothers who had mastered America’s game. The Helmigs met Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle in the Yankees’ clubhouse, attended the Baseball Writers of America Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, and played alongside Brooks Robinson in spring training before being sent down to the minors—Jürgen to Georgia, Claus to Paris, Texas. By September, they were history. Cut from the Orioles, they finished the season playing for the Baltimore Elite Giants in the Negro League World Series. Then their visas expired and the U.S. Department of Immigration put them on a plane home.

Helmig came back to Germany and found the sport in decline.  German Youth Activities had abandoned the baseball program. “There was no more equipment,” he remembers. “No more coaches, and the game disappeared.” Helmig tried to keep German baseball alive, running little league teams and clinics. But “soccer kills everything else,” he told me. “And the media had no interest.” By the 1960s, soccer had totally eclipsed Germany's baseball culture. It would take another five decades before the game began to make a resurgence.

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About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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