A Spanish Voice That Cries Out for the Hall of Fame

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René Cárdenas spent 38 years calling games for the Dodgers, the Astros and the Rangers. He was the first Spanish-language radio announcer at each stop. A report by James Wagner for The New York Times.

The reminders of René Cárdenas’s long career as a pioneering baseball broadcaster fill the walls of his home office here.

There are plaques, like one he received when he was inducted into the Nicaraguan Sports Hall of Fame in 2000. There are photos, like one from the 1990s taken with his fellow Los Angeles Dodgers broadcasters, Vin Scully, Ross Porter and Jaime Jarrín, and the actor Tom Selleck. There are newspaper clippings, like one from 2008 about Cárdenas’s making his United States television play-by-play debut, at age 78, on a Houston Astros Spanish-language broadcast.

What is missing, perhaps, and has long dismayed Cárdenas, as well as many people who know his history, is recognition from the most hallowed place in the sport, the Baseball Hall of Fame. Jarrín, his former radio partner who is the longtime voice of Dodgers’ Spanish-language broadcasts now, was honored in 1998.

“It’s the dream of all broadcasters,” Cárdenas, 88, said. “I would have loved it. But the Hall of Fame is out of my heart, really. I hung up my gloves already.”

As the World Series, between the Boston Red Sox and the Dodgers, shifts to Los Angeles on Friday, he will watch from Houston with his wife, Jilma, who is still an ardent Dodgers fan. Although he is forgotten compared with Jarrín, his place in baseball history is clear.

“His partner got in the Hall of Fame,” said Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers’ Hall of Fame manager, whom Cárdenas covered. “He deserves it. Without a doubt.”

In 1958, the Dodgers, having just arrived from Brooklyn, bought into Cárdenas’s idea of appealing to Los Angeles’s large and growing Latino population. Theirs was the first Spanish-language broadcast in the United States of a major league team’s entire schedule. Now, many of the 30 major league teams offer something similar.

In all, Cárdenas spent 38 years calling games for the Dodgers (21 years), the Astros (16) and the Texas Rangers (one). He was the first Spanish-language radio announcer at each stop.

“A lot of people don’t know what he’s done, who he was and that he was a pioneer,” said Francisco Romero, a Spanish-language radio broadcaster for the Astros since 2008 who believes Cárdenas should be in the Hall of Fame.

“He was the first to be hired by a major league team full time,” Romero continued. “He opened the door. He also deserves to be in there because he narrated in a way that reached people. He’s a maestro of the art of baseball narration. For his time alone, he merits it. How many of us have learned from him, including Jaime?”

Major League Baseball has made effort to recognize the influence of Latinos, including the broadcasters who brought teams into the living rooms of millions of Spanish speakers.

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A photo of Cárdenas at age 16.
A photograph of Cárdenas, left, and his former broadcast partner Jaime Jarrín from Cárdenas’s collection.

There are only three Spanish-language broadcasters who have received the Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award, the recognition, reserved for broadcasters: Buck Canel, who began radio broadcasts of the World Series in 1937; Felo Ramírez, a broadcast partner of Canel who called Marlins games starting in 1993, and Jarrín.

Canel and Ramírez called major league games before Cárdenas did, including the All-Star Game and World Series games, for the Spanish-language version of NBC’s “Gillette Cavalcade of Sports,” “Cabalgata Deportiva Gillette,” which was broadcast to Latin America. Canel preceded Cárdenas as a Dodgers Spanish-language broadcaster, but in a limited way: In 1957, for example, Canel called 40 Brooklyn Dodgers games on WHOM, said Mark Langill, the Dodgers’ historian.

But Cárdenas was the first to do it full time for the Los Angeles Dodgers or any other major league team.

There could be any number of reasons Cárdenas was never given the Frick Award. But a brief move to Nicaragua, where he is from, and bouncing among teams prevented him from building the deep bonds and good will that Scully and Jarrín did by staying in Los Angeles for so long.

“Maybe that affected his case,” said Jarrín, who is in his 60th season with the Dodgers and sits on a committee of former Frick Award recipients and historians that selects winners.

Cárdenas has reached the ballot of finalists, drawn from a list of long-time broadcasters, at least three times, most recently in 2015, according to the Hall of Fame, whose voting members make the final call on honorees. Perhaps out of sight does indeed mean out of mind.

“As the years pass by, new members are on the electing committee and they don’t know René and the history, or study it,” Jarrín said. “I always voted for him on the list of candidates. It’d be a great pleasure to have him in Cooperstown with me. Undisputedly, I’d love that. But it’s out of my reach.”

Cárdenas took a circuitous path to baseball.

At 16, he covered boxing for La Estrella de Nicaragua, a newspaper in Managua, his hometown and the nation’s capital. He moved to baseball, then to a bigger newspaper, La Prensa, then to radio and baseball announcing. In 1951, at 21, he left for Los Angeles to join some of his family and try his luck in the United States.

Cárdenas finished school in Los Angeles and learned English. In 1957, he read about the troubles of the Dodgers in Brooklyn and their impending move to Los Angeles. He arranged a meeting with the head of KWKW, a Spanish-language radio station, who sold the concept to the Dodgers’ owner, Walter O’Malley.

“There were nearly a million Spanish speakers in Los Angeles,” Cárdenas said. “O’Malley said yes, immediately.”

When the Dodgers went on the road, Cárdenas listened to the English-language broadcast led by Scully and translated the action into Spanish from a studio in Pasadena.

After a year, Cárdenas’s new partner was Jarrín, who was the news and sports director but who did not know baseball well or how to announce it. It may be the national sport in Nicaragua, Cárdenas’s home country, but it was not in Ecuador, Jarrín’s home country.

“He’s a magnificent narrator with a lot of experience and is thorough, and his style was very well received by the public,” Jarrín said, adding later, “I learned from him.”

Cárdenas displayed his 1988 Dodgers World Series ring.

But Cárdenas left in 1962 when the new team in Houston, the Colt .45s, which later became the Astros, offered him the chance to set up their Spanish-language broadcast and a year-round position as director of Spanish broadcasting. Later, the team put him in charge of public relations for Latin America. He was there until 1975.

After a four-year retirement to Nicaragua with his wife in the late 1970s ended because of the country’s revolution, Cárdenas eventually returned to the Dodgers, from 1982 to 1998 (but as the No. 2 broadcaster in the booth to Jarrín) and to the Astros, from 2007 to 2008.

While Cárdenas was away from Los Angeles, the Astros never made the playoffs, and he missed out on calling high-profile Dodgers moments. They won World Series titles in 1963, 1965 and 1981; earned several pennants, and enjoyed the prime years of stars such as Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Maury Wills and Steve Garvey. None was more influential than Fernando Valenzuela, the left-handed rookie pitcher from Mexico whose starts generated “Fernandomania” among not only Latinos but much of Los Angeles and the nation in 1981.

“The whole Fernandomania put Jaime on the map, and it’s kind of like a star is born even though he’d been there two decades,” Langill said. Cárdenas returned a year later.

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Near the end of his career, Cárdenas moved away from radio and wrote for the Astros’ Spanish-language magazine and occasionally La Prensa. Now, he fills his time gardening and updating his website, LaEstufaCaliente.com (The Hot Stove), compiling articles from across baseball and sometimes writing them himself. He does not miss calling games much.

“I’d rather be with my wife watching a game at home than at the stadium,” he said.

Cárdenas uses his Twitter account to share his thoughts about baseball, news articles from Nicaragua and rebukes of the Sandinista leadership and President Daniel Ortega.

Since April, an uprising against the Ortega government’s increasing concentration of power in a few hands has led to violent clashes.

A trophy from the 1988 World Series among figurines at Cárdenas’s house in Houston.

Cárdenas, whose grandfather was the president of the country in the 1880s, still has a complicated relationship with his home country. He became a United States citizen in 1963. That allowed him and his wife to escape Nicaragua and return to the United States with American assistance in 1979 during the country’s revolution. He has not returned since.

He said Sandinistas seized the house he and his wife had built for their retirement in the Managua area, along with their belongings and car, and he fought for years to get it back.

So when Cárdenas was inducted into his country’s sports hall of fame in 2000, he declined to return, and officials instead presented him the honor in Houston.

“I have zero interest in returning to Nicaragua until the current situation changes,” he said. “But as I’m getting older, I don’t know how much time I’ll have to realize my dream and go fishing and return to its beautiful lakes.”

He insisted that he was proud of and that he admired Jarrín’s success. But it has been difficult as a pioneer in his field to see younger broadcasters receive an award he has longed for.

“Resentful, no,” he said. “If I don’t deserve it, I don’t deserve it. But I’m sad.”

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