Baseball in Germany

» 25 February 2009 » In international baseball »

Jan Benner maintains a blog about “punkrock, football, drinks, and other boring stuff” which I’ve been reading since last summer. One of the topics that falls in to the latter category is Japanese baseball, particularly the Koshien high school tournament. I checked his site while I was preparing my Baseball Worldwide post, and found that he had written this article on how he got into baseball. So I asked him if could comment on baseball in his native Germany, and he responded with a detailed essay that is certainly worthy of it’s own post.

I’d like to thank Jan for contributing this information. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I did.

First, you have to keep in mind that North American professional sports can be divided into two or three groups. Sports that were here before and sports that were introduced to Germany. Germany’s main sport is football (soccer). There are football pitches everywhere and if you don’t have sidelines and goalposts kids will use whatever they can get to make up a football pitch. All you need is a lawn in some park. So kids here grow up only knowing football. By the time they enter school they might be introduced to new sports like handball or basketball. This is where the two categories come in. Professional leagues for both basketball and ice hockey have been around for quite some time now. The German national basketball team was the champion of Europe in 1993, the national ice hockey team won the bronze medal in the 1976 Olympics. As for sports like American Football or Baseball they just don’t have any roots around here.

What is interesting to note though is that German kids learn a game quite similar to baseball in primary school. The name of the game is “Brennball” (“brennen” = to burn) which can roughly be translated with “The Burning Ball”. The goal is to send a runner around bases. The runner starts at a home base and throws a soft ball into a field in a hall. So there is no outfield, the runners run around the field. Runners are out when they are touched with the ball by the defending team. Usually there’s teams of around 10-12 players on each side. Both teams send all their players on a run around the bases and the team who scores the most runs wins. There are no innings. Every team has one try to go through its lineup.

Keeping this in mind, people in Germany might know the basics of baseball from an early stage, but because there is absolutely no coverage on TV, there is no way you can learn the rules of the game by simply watching it. You usually hear about baseball in the German media when something outstanding happens, e.g. the Red Sox winning the championship after an 86-year drought or the Marlins winning the World Series in 1997 after only existing for such a short time. Or you get shown the “Randy Johnson kills a bird with a fastball” video on a highlight reel on some sports station.

So baseball fans (and players) in Germany are usually people who went to study abroad in the States either while going to school or as university students. Right now Wikipedia says that there are 30.000 active players in Germany although I think that number is a little high. Just as a comparison, the German Football Association (DFB) has 6 million members. They then might go to see a game of Germany’s highest level of baseball, the Bundesliga.

The Bundesliga is divided into two divisions, a Northern and a Southern division. There is one huge difference to the major leagues in that there is relegation and promotion. So teams can’t be sure to play the highest level the next year. This is a feature present in all European sports, I believe the only league without relegation and promotion is the German Hockey League, the DEL (“Deutsche Eishockey Liga”). In 2008 the German Baseball Bundesliga looked like this:

North South
Solingen Alligators Heidenheim Heideköpfe
Paderborn Untouchables Buchbinder Legionäre
Cologne Cardinals Mannheim Tornados
Dortmund Wanderers Mainz Athletics
Bonn Capitals Saarlouis Hornets
Hamburger SV Stealers Haar Disciples
Hannover Regents Gauting Indians
Neunkirchen Nightmares Neuenburg Atomics

You might have noticed that some teams use the same names as major league teams. I guess they do this because it’s easier to get uniforms because they just use the major league merchandise.

All teams play four games against each other, two home and two away. Home and Away matches are usually doubleheaders. There is the chance of a shortened game because one team is too dominant and there are extra innings when the teams are tied after 9 innings. In the posteason the best four teams of each division play each other in a quarterfinal. The 1st place team from one division plays the 4th place team from the other division, the 2nd place the 3rd place and so on. Those series are best-of-five series with the first two games played at the home ground of the worse placed team and the final three at the better placed teams stadium.

The players are usually younger (students) and I have heard of Japanese exchange students who played for the team in Cologne during their stay here. The Cologne Cardinals still feature one Japanese player named Kagami Ryo. What’s also interesting to note is that baseball is mostly played on the territory of the former West Germany. Somehow it just doesn’t grow roots in the eastern part of the country.

So baseball in Germany is something for enthusiasts who are willing to sacrifice their spare time for the sport they love. I still haven’t been able to attend a game but I will try to visit one this season. I do know that the turnout is usually low and that people going there know each other quite well since it has the feeling of a family reunion.

The first game of baseball on German soil was played in an exhibition game during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. A massive amount of around 100.000 spectators turned up to watch this. I believe – although I didn’t find any sources to prove it – that during the Nazi Regime the government banned all American things so nothing happened after this game. Then, the end of World War II brought the game back to Germany, but it took another 40 years to finally get a hold here. The German Bundesliga seems to have started during that period as well. Right now the the future of baseball looks rather dark with the lack of sponsors and the constant rise of football and handball.

Some German players have been noticed by the MLB scouting system and have been brought over to play in the Minors. RHP Jennel Hudson played for the Cologne Cardinals and was drafted by the Red Sox in 2007. The Boston newspapers reported on this which is the reason I noticed it. There was no newpaper writeup about the draft over here. Other names are 1B Donald Lutz, C Kai Gronauer, or 3B Ludwig Glaser. Those guys play at the lowest levels of Minor League ball, but still I think it’s quite something they made it over to the USA.

Unfortunately there are no links to English websites dealing with German baseball, so everyone interested has to have at least some knowledge of the German language.
A great resource is MLBInsider, a site run by enthusiats dealing with everything of interest to German baseball fans. This is also where I look when I want to read about German players in the Minors.The official site for the German Baseball Federation also features a subpage for statistics.

And to give you an impression of German baseball, here are some videos of games

And to round this off the big event this year will be the preliminary qualifying rounds of the Baseball World Cup (not to be confused with the MLB tournament WBC). It seems like 11,000 tickets have already been sold for the games. It’s a 4 team group with Germany, the USA, China and Venezuela, so it looks like the German team won’t stand a chance.

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