Dead Imitates Art: The Cultural Imagery of Fernando Valenzuela and his 1984 Topps Card

A number of years ago, my father gave me an 8”x 10” painting of Fernando Valenzuela’s 1984 Topps card.  The subject of the painting, however, was depicted as a calavera, a Mexican iconography image celebrating Dia de los Muertos, playing for the “Deaders.”  At the time he presented me with the painting, I was thrilled, of course, but also overwhelmed with other things going on around me.  I placed the painting on one of my shelves housing numerous baseball books and artifacts, and never paid much attention to it over the years.

Recently, among my random baseball card buying sprees, I came across the ’84 Fernando card and remembered, “Oh yeah, the painting.”  So, I went back to the piece and really started to look at it in a new light.  I found a new appreciation for the work not only in the sentiment that this was a gift from my father, who would pass away two years later, but in thinking about the painting as a reflection of my own culture and its place in the history of Chicano pop culture.

What we find is the intersectionality of baseball as art in the form of a baseball card, and the traditional and celebratory imagery of one of the greatest baseball heroes in the Mexican and Chicano community.

In Mexican culture, “calaveras” or skeletons, are ubiquitously depicted in “Dia de los Muertos” or Day of the Dead celebrations, in usually fun and happy scenes.  Dia de los Muertos, celebrated on November 2nd, is a time when we remember our friends and family who has passed on.  We build little altars, and make bits of food and desserts as an offering.  It’s a sacred time in our communities.  Calavera scenes in art portray normal life and everyday activities, just in skeleton form.  It might seem weird, but it’s home to me.

By the time the 1984 season rolled around, Fernando was having a pretty good start to his career.  He was 49-30 with an ERA of 2.55 in 97 starts over three years as a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  No one had ever quite seen a pitcher like Valenzuela before.  He was a baby-faced, pudgy kid with a wide smile, who could light up a room and galvanize a community.  As he looked to the heavens before releasing a killer screwball or a commanding curveball you wondered how in the hell he did that.  He just did.  He was Fernando!

In 1981, his first full season, the 20-year-old led the National League in games pitched (25), complete games (11), innings pitched (192.1) and strikeouts (180).  Remarkably, he won Rookie of the Year, the Cy Young Award, the Silver Slugger Award (.250 batting average with 16 hits), and was 5th in MVP voting.  Not to mention, he was an All-Star.  Over the next two years, the Mexican native’s star would continue to rise, as did his popularity.

For kids and families in East Los Angeles, Fernando had reached cult hero status.  There was an incredible sense of pride when he pitched.  It was as if he was pitching on behalf of all Mexicanos and Chicanos in southern California!  That affinity translated into repeated sold out crowds when Valenzuela took the mound at Dodger Stadium in those years.  As with most cult heroes, we must find a way to uniquely capture their essence in a visual medium.  Among the shops on Brooklyn Avenue and Whittier Boulevard in the barrio, Valenzuela’s image was everywhere!  This was pride.  Pride in him, pride in our community, and pride in the Dodgers.

Years later, the calavera representation of one of my baseball heroes came into my possession, thanks to my dad who knew what it would mean to me.  I honor his memory, and the painting created by Joaquin Newman, here in these words.  I hope to continue this discussion in a presentation at SABR47.  Mr. Newman has created similar works with several other ballplayers that I will also showcase this summer.

 

Author: sabrlatino

Anthony Salazar is the chair for SABR's Latino baseball committee, and editor of its publication, "La Prensa del Béisbol Latino." He has written on the Latino experience in the national pastime, and has consulted with baseball teams, museums and programs looking to tap into the US Latino market.

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