Photo courtesy of Historia Grafica del Futbol Americano en Mexico.
Mexico doesn’t have the history needed to win the World Cup. At least that’s what you would hear from various Mexican sports commentators during the last World Cup (South Africa, 2010). As a historian, the idea that history might help us to understand the tragic downward spiral of Mexican sports was not something I could let pass unnoticed, even if the role these commentators assigned to history is not exactly what I had in mind. The point I’d like to make is that a history of team sports in Mexico can aid in our understanding of why—contrary to what so many people (and especially those in the United States) would have you believe—Mexico has never even been remotely close to winning the World Cup.
What I suggest is that the key to understanding the difference in development of professional soccer in Mexico and its expansion in other Latin American countries is that at least two other sports have always competed for the attention of the Mexican masses: American football and baseball. In his book How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, Franklin Foer argues that one of the reasons for the United States’ distinctly underwhelming presence in the realm of the world’s most popular sport is that the social role filled by soccer in other parts of the world (such as Europe or Latin America) is occupied by other sports in the United States, especially basketball. In Mexico today, soccer enjoys a popularity to rival that in Europe or South America—yet this is a relatively new stage. For decades soccer was only one of many organized sports played in Mexico, fighting for popularity. For nearly all of the 20th century soccer had been forced to share the spotlight with American football and baseball. Both of these rival sports had long histories in Mexico, and even today they outstrip soccer in terms of popularity and fandom in certain parts of country, as well as in certain social sectors.
Although soccer in Mexico has been slowly moving up the long road toward public loyalty, its history as a professional sport is relatively short. The Mexican Professional Soccer League was founded in 1943 and, at the time, included teams from only three states—Jalisco, Distrito Federal and Veracruz. Later on, more teams would join the league, including additional teams from the center of the country (Morelos, Guanajuato and others). Teams from the northwestern portion of the country beyond Jalisco wouldn’t occupy a division-one spot in the professional first division until the 1990s. This is because just as soccer was beginning to take off in the center of the country, the northwest was seized with a very different passion—a passion for baseball. The same argument would apply to the southeast portion of the country or to the state of Oaxaca.
While the topic is one to which that professional historians have dedicated but little time, at least three theories exist regarding the arrival of baseball to Mexico. Two of them agree that the sport arrived to Mexico by way of Cuba, but differ as to whether it came first to Veracruz or the Yucatán Peninsula. The third theory places the arrival of baseball at the northern frontiers of the country, citing railroad workers from the United States as the ones who brought south their beloved pastime. According to the Mexican Baseball League’s website, the first baseball game played in Mexico took place in the port of Guaymas, Sonora, in 1877. While resolving this controversy would not, in all likelihood, prove insurmountable, the truth is that each of these three theories is probably correct, and that baseball arrived to Mexico by each of the routes suggested independently of one another. What we know for certain is that multiple Mexican baseball teams were already in existence during the last decade of the 19th century.
At the time Mexican soccer was organizing a professional league, baseball had already been present in the country as a professional sport for two decades and was beginning to extend its influence in the rest of the country. This occurred through the inclusion of teams from more distant states, such as Monterrey, and—as the game grew in popularity—through discussions of the potential for international competition with the United States. In 1945, a second professional league was founded, this one for the winter months, known in the United States as the Mex Pac, or Liga Mexicana del Pacífico. During the latter half of the 20th century, especially during the 1950s and 60s, the expansion of both leagues would make it so there were teams in practically every region of the country.
The period of the 1930s and 1940s is pivotal to our understanding about the historical importance of baseball in Mexico. For this was the time when businessman Jorge Pasquel attempted to convert the Mexican league into an international league large enough in stature to compete with the Majors. John Virtue tells a good chunk of this story in South of the Color Barrier: How Jorge Pasquel and the Mexican League Pushed Baseball Toward Racial Integration. Pasquel’s plan was a simple one: he would recruit players from Cuba or from the Negro leagues (places the Major leagues were not looking for new players) and place them in the Liga Mexicana de Beisbol. As the Liga grew, even players from the Major Leagues would make the move to play in Mexico. In 1947, having retired from professional play, Babe Ruth visited Mexico on Pasquel’s invitation. In answer to a direct question by the New York Times, Ruth said that he would refuse any offer to work as commissioner for the Mexican League, but also praised Pasquel’s project, saying “Anyway, the Pasquels deserve a lot of credit. Baseball is a game that should be played all over the world. It keeps kids out of trouble and develops them into better citizens” (New York Times, May 16, 1946). Ruth’s statements are particularly interesting if we take into consideration the fact that they coincided directly with a lawsuit filed by the New York Yankees against Pasquel and the Mexican Baseball League. According to the Yankees, Pasquel and his agents had violated the law when they invited Yankee players to leave New York to play in Mexico. Setting aside the means by which players were convinced to depart, the truth is that during this period many players, from the Yankees and other professional teams, left the United States to play in Mexico under the patronage of Pasquel (New York Times, May 5, 1946).
At the end of the day, Pasquel’s experiment failed and baseball—at least on a national level—lost some of its popularity in Mexico during the following decades. Still, if we are to understand the relative historical delay of Mexican soccer compared to other Latin American countries, we must bear in mind that in 1950, while Uruguay and Brazil were battling it out in one of the most famous World Cup finals in the history of the tournament, a vast majority of the population of Mexico was far more concerned with the victory of the Algodoneros de Unión Laguna over the Charros of Jalisco in the series final of the Liga Mexicana de Beisbol. The Uruguayan upset, the now famous “Maracanazo,” had little effect on fans of these Liga teams, who were more concerned with outs and innings than goals and halves.
In Mexico today, despite the obvious domination of soccer at a national level, there are still some areas (notably the northern and southeastern regions of the country) where baseball continues with a popularity similar to the one it enjoyed in its heyday. Mexico also continues to send a significant number of players to Major League baseball teams each year, a number far larger than that of players sent to compete in European soccer leagues. Soccer may hold the hegemony in Mexico, but it is not alone.
Yet baseball is not the only sport in Mexico’s history to distract the public, as well as sports officials and sporting goods companies, from soccer on a national scale. It was another sport with a little-known history, one whose presence preceded the success of other sports, that would steal the scene: American football.
As in the case of baseball, accounts differ as to how and when American football arrived in Mexico. What is well known is that, while baseball came to Mexico via the working classes, American football was transmitted from one elite to another. Each version of the story of football’s crossing into Mexico involves the elite, Porfirian or post-revolutionary, that sent its sons away to the United States to study. These young men, upon returning to Mexico, began the necessary steps to continue practicing the sport they had picked up abroad. We also know that, by the end of the 1920s, the sport had been integrated into institutions of higher learning, and by the end of the 1930s, it had quickly become the most important collegiate sport in the country.
Little known in the United States is the fact that, since 1936, the most important student sporting event of the year in Mexico City is what is known as El Clásico: the game between the UNAM Pumas and the Burros Blancos of the IPN, playing not soccer but American football. These matchups were so popular they filled the most important stadiums in Mexico City before professional soccer even existed.
Yet more interesting than the importance of El Clásico among the student contingent of the two largest universities in Mexico is the quick expansion of the sport to practically every institute of higher learning in the country. This even includes the Universidad Obrera (“Worker’s University”) founded by Vicente Lombardo Toledano. What was it about American football that even openly Marxist universities would make it an integral part of student life? A complete investigation is still lacking, but one hypothesis would be that members of the Mexican elite—those that had either constructed or strengthened many different institutions of higher education in Mexico during the thirties or forties—had a concept of what a modern university should be, and this idea overrode any ideological differences among them. Whether it was Garza Sada in Monterrey or Vicente Lombardo Toledano in Distrito Federal, they agreed that each modern university should have an American football team.
The effect of American football on the expansion of soccer in Mexico seems to be more ambiguous, however. American football distracted resources and interest but, at the same time, its promoters shared infrastructure, traditions and identities. After all, American football competed with soccer only for the interest of the middle and upper classes—those who were attending university—and never became a professional sport in Mexico. Still, American football has, even today, a clear niche among the loyalties of Mexican society.
It should also be mentioned that in some of the lower-class neighborhoods (and in terms of profitability for sporting-goods businesses), boxing and wrestling were for decades another source of intense competition for soccer in Mexico. Despite not being team sports, their potential effect on soccer’s slow diffusion and rise to popularity in Mexico is not to be overlooked. It is a paradox of soccer’s presence in Mexico that in telling its history we must make room for several other sports as well.
There can be no doubt that today the national sport of Mexico is soccer. But we should bear in mind that this is a fairly recent development. During a significant portion of the twentieth century, several other sports were competing for the public’s attention, resources and fanaticism. Even today, despite its prominence on a national level, soccer in Mexico must still share the public’s loyalties with baseball in certain regions, and—in areas such as Tabasco—is still in an obvious second place. In university environments, soccer is omnipresent, but collegiate American football leagues still seem to be the more efficient and better-financed of the two organizations.
With this history of sports in mind, Mexico gives us a picture of a recreational and professional sports scene far more diverse than we usually expect. This historical diversity allows Mexican tourists to the United States to be able to visit Fenway Park and enjoy a sporting event that is in no way exotic. Mexicans do not usually need explanations of any of football’s complex rules during the Super Bowl. In exchange for this familiarity with various sports, however, Mexico may be forced to wait longer before it can claim one of those World Cup trophies we have coveted for so long—from Argentines, Brazilians, and now from Spaniards as well.