Jaffe: Pirates’ Gift Ngoepe joins exclusive list of baseball’s continental pioneers

From SABR member Jay Jaffe at Sports Illustrated on April 27, 2017:

On Wednesday night, a bit of baseball history was made with the debut of Gift Ngoepe. Called up by the short-handed Pirates, the 27-year-old second baseman became the first Africa-born player to play in the major leagues when he entered a game against the Cubs as part of a double switch in the top of the fourth inning. In the bottom of the frame, the South Africa native made another bit of history by stroking a clean single up the middle off Jon Lester.

Baseball’s efforts to broaden the game’s reach beyond North America date back to the 19th century. The game was introduced into Cuba in 1860, into China in 1863, and into Japan and Korea in the early 1870s, just as the first major league, the National Association, was getting started in the U.S. In the winter of 1873–74, Harry Wright “the father of professional baseball,” took his Boston Red Stockings and the rival Athletic of Philadelphia to England for a series of exhibitions that was a financial flop. In 1889, Albert Goodwill Spalding, who had starred as a pitcher in the nascent National Association (1871–75) and National League (1876–77), organized a more successful six-month international barnstorming tour featuring major league stars in an effort both to brand the game as uniquely American (despite its apparent derivation from the English bat-and-ball game of rounders) and to expand Spalding’s market for sporting goods. They made stops in Australia, New Zealand, Egypt (to a six-year-old learning about the game, this famous photo was the original “Riddle of the Sphinx”) and Europe. More recently, Major League Baseball’s international efforts have included not only the placement of expansion teams in Canada but opening the regular season in Monterrey (1999), Tokyo (four times, first in 2000) and Sydney (2014) and introducing the World Baseball Classic tournament in 2006.

As a small-market, forward-thinking team (at least in recent years), the Pirates have taken a high profile in their international efforts. They signed Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh, two Indian athletes who beat out some 37,000 other contestants in a competition to find the country’s fastest pitcher for a reality television show called The Million Dollar Arm (later dramatized in a movie of the same name); the latter was still active as of last year but neither played above A-ball. Ngoepe, who replaced the majors’ first Lithuania-born pitcher, Dovydas Neverauskas on the Pirates’ roster, literally grew up in a baseball clubhouse in a suburb of Johannesburg.

Read the full article here: https://www.si.com/mlb/2017/04/27/gift-ngoepe-first-baseball-players-continent

Originally published: April 27, 2017. Last Updated: April 27, 2017.