A new future: Baseball in Finland

Some of you might remember from my first article here on Bat flips and Nerds that I wrote that baseball is our national sport here in Finland. It’s just a bit different from the one we all know. I also wrote that I would write about it at another time. Well now that Manfred and his gang of penny-pinching billionaires shut down the league for 99 days, I had time to write and tell you something about our game which is called pesäpallo or pesis, and baseball in Finland and how those two sports have the vision to work together and not against each other.

Short history of pesäpallo and baseball in Finland

Pesäpallo is a straight translation from the word baseball. The base is pesä and the ball is pallo. To not mix things further upon this article, I refer to our national game here on as pesis or pesäpallo, and baseball as the game we all know.

So pesäpallo is our national sport. It is not anymore the most popular sport in our country today but sure is one of the oldest ones dating back to the early 1920s. Just like baseball has its origin from different kinds of bat-and-ball games like the old cat or rounders, so too does pesis. I love how these old games have cool names as pesis originates from games that are called the kingball or the longball. Baseball has its mark in our game’s history. It could have even been the national game for us too. One man had a different say though.

Meet Lauri “Tahko” Pihkala. Born 1888 in Pihtipudas, the future father of pesis, was a former athlete who had represented Finland in the 1908 London Olympic Games in high jump and discus. During that time he had also made his first trip to the United States and soon after the trip he would publish a book called “Athletes guide” and started to work as publisher and writer for the Suomen Urheilulehti ( Finnish Sport Magazine) which is the second oldest sports journal in the world.

It wasn’t a love at first sight kind of thing for Pihkala as he had seen baseball games during his first visit to the United States. He was quoted saying:

I wonder how people manage to watch such a long-running game for several hours

Lauri Pihkala

He made a second trip to the United States in 1912-1913. He had been given a task by the Finnish Olympic Committee to learn about modern training methods. After the trip, now 25-year-old Pihkala was named the sports advisor of the Finland Sports Federation. Soon he translated a book about professional baseball to Finnish and started to develop a “unifying, national ballgame.” Wonder if he would have fallen in love with the game at first sight. He took some rules from baseball as the game developed from king ball to long ball and eventually to pesäpallo. A few years earlier he had thought that baseball was boring. The next quote kills the idea of having baseball as our national sport:

Baseball type of pitch from the front is too hard for us Finns to get hit

Lauri Pihkala

And so pesäpallo was born. It gained popularity and like any other major sport, it has had its up and down, high and lows. Key elements that differ the game from baseball is the pitching straight up as you can see in the video above, you can hit the ball up to three times, a triple is a home run and if you hit the ball over the backline it’s not a home run, it’s a foul ball. You can also steal first base which is cool. So basically it took the name but just put the rest of it to a blender and went on from there.

Baseball though has a much shorter history in our country. Back in 1952, they played an exhibition game at the Helsinki Olympic Games but truly the game landed in our country in the 1980s. Erkki Heikkilä, one of the great organisers in our national game pesäpallo, had a vision of getting Finland more involved in baseball and its international activity. As part of this vision, a baseball club called the Bases was born in Turku, Finland. It played exhibition games in Sweden against the local clubs.

Finnish Baseball League was formed in 1981 with a total of five teams participating in its inaugural season and the first chairman of the newly founded Finnish Baseball and Softball Federation was Jukka Ropponen, who I interviewed for this story. Ropponen is now back in the chairman position and he shared the new vision baseball and pesis have together. We’ll get to that shortly.

Baseball got through the troubling times in the 1990s to see a new kind of rise in early 2000. New clubs were formed in Turku, Tampere, and Lahti. The expansion of new clubs helped the league to form a second-tier competition. One of the most successful clubs in Finnish baseball is Espoo Expos which has a total of 17 championships through the 2020 season. Expos have also been part of the Euro Cup tournament 11 times. The first baseball game I ever went to see live was Espoo Expos versus Helsinki Mets in 2021. (Yes, I went to see the Mets before the Marlins).

Just like in all sports, people that put their free time to volunteer to do free work for the sport are vital but even more so when we are talking about a marginal sport like baseball in Finland. It’s amazing how people in baseball have put their work and effort just to keep the game going on: organising the league, building the playing fields, raising money with voluntary work to be able to travel, etc. Now some of those former players are giving back for this new future of baseball in Finland. I tip my hat to all volunteers in sports and other parts of life as well, especially now when we are going through these troubled times in the world.

New future, new vision

“One of the key points of me returning to work as the chairman of the Finland Baseball Federation was to have a good alignment with pesis”. This is Jukka Ropponen, who returned to the position of chairman of Finland Baseball Federation a few years ago after over 30 years of being away from the position. I asked him how this project got started and how it will benefit these sports.

As you’ve read earlier, similarities between pesis and baseball can be seen. The benefits of the two sports working together and the synergies of it are massive. Ropponen continues that “we are too little a country to lose this amount of resources and fight against each other”. Like in every aspect of life, change can be seen sometimes as a bad thing. Here we have an old national sport trying to work together with a fairly new sport in this country. Ropponen praises the open-mindedness that the former head of competition of pesäpallo Mikko Huotari had for this project and also as well the active chairman of the Pesäpallo Federation Ossi Savolainen saying that “they saw the potential and were onboard with it.”

To make a change you have to go for the source. Ropponen mentioned that formerly these kinds of projects were done on a club level but this time the idea was to have a change from the top and to have the support of the key figures at the head of the sport. The project is still very much in its first baby steps but things have made progress. Pesäpallo is on verge of a new five-year strategy plan and the hope is to have baseball included in this strategy.

“Of course, pesäpallo will remain the main sport or the only sport in some of the smaller regions with lower population and that is okay,” he continues. The main focus is to integrate the sport in the larger populated regions like Tampere or Lahti where there are many more potential players. Baseball could be the alternative choice of sport for pesäpallo players whose pesäpallo playing career is maybe coming to an end or their skill level isn’t quite at the top level and they don’t want to grind in the lower levels. “Baseball could be the spark for their pesäpallo career as well,” Ropponen states.

One federation, one strategy, three sports!

That is the motto for this project. Pesäpallo, baseball, and softball. Working under the same federation and having a unified strategy. “The goal here is not to steal pesäpallo players away from their sport but to keep players and personnel active in the federation by adding baseball and softball to their program,” Ropponen adds.

Finland has a lot of pesäpallo fields. Even my elementary school had a pesäpallo field painted on a tarmac in the schoolyard but there are only a few baseball fields in Finland. The need for baseball fields and training grounds is a need if the sport continues to grow. That could be the case as we talk about our national teams in baseball and softball.

One of the coolest logos I have ever seen!

“International games are the way to market the game for the youth,” Ropponen says and I could not agree more. The Finnish national team for under-12 is holding its first tryouts this spring. There will be pesäpallo players from all over the country trying out baseball and having a chance to put on the national team jersey and represent Finland in the European Championship qualifiers in Vienna, Austria, this summer. The men’s national team has a five-year goal to have a ranking position between 12-16 in Europe and a ten-year plan to achieve a medal. The team is currently focusing on the current players on the roster aged between 17-22 and their goal is to achieve the ranking position and place in the European Championship. The long term plan is for the now established under-12 team to achieve the medal when they get to men’s level.

The women’s softball team has a big dream. The project for women’s softball just recently started with a team consisting mostly pesäpallo players from the Superpesis, the highest level of pesäpallo in Finland. The goal is to be part of the 2028 Olympic games but they have set their goals even higher in short term: “the plan is to be on the medals in European Championship in three years. The ultimate goal is to win it,” Ropponen declares.

Is there a chance we see a Finnish baseball player in the MLB in the future? It could happen. Konsta Kurikka from Sotkamon Jymy has set his goals to someday play in the MLB. He throws a ball at 90+mph and has had a tryout in Germany and played in Spain. His team representatives in Spain expect him to be one of the top pitchers in Europe in the future. It remains to be seen if he continues to chase his dream. Another name to put behind your ear is Kai Francis who currently plays in Gonzaga Univerisity. He is a hard-throwing pitcher who is currently ranked by scouts to be a third or fourth-round draft pick in the future.

There has been one Finnish-born player in the MLB. Meet John Michaelson. Born in 1894 in Taivalkoski, Finland, his family moved to the United States when he was 14 years old. He made two appearances for the Chicago White Sox in 1921. He pitched 2.1 innings, facing 11 batters, he gave up four hits, three earned runs, and recorded one strikeout. He lived a long life in the States, passing away at the age of 74, in 1968. I’m planning to get his White Sox jersey.

The historic first game between Superpesis teams playing baseball was played in Seinäjoki on 26 February 2022. Both teams, Seinäjoen JymyJussit and Hyvinkään Tahko, fielded teams that were put together with youth players, former pesäpallo players and retired baseball players. Although the game was more of a scrimmage, playing only a couple of innings and had one inning consisting, at least on my calculations six outs, one thing was evident. The players were having fun! We saw a couple of good hits, an inside-the-park home run, and stolen bases. One player stole second base, ran through the base just to celebrate the fact that he manage to steal it. He was tagged out but referees let him stay in the game due to a lack of knowledge of the rules. He eventually went on to score a run. There was even a great double-play converted and one of the players shouted that he is ready to sign for the Yankees for $500,000. Talk about a bargain.

A signed baseball from the JymyJussit-Tahko game by two Yomiuri Giants fans and
Finnish Baseball League vetarans Heikki Valkama and Tomio Pihkala

So history in the books. It kind of makes you wonder though. What if Lauri Pihkala had fallen in love with the game when he went to see it over a hundred years ago in the United States? What if he would have met someone like Brett Phillips in the stands. Brett telling him that “baseball is fun, man” as they ran out of the stadium. Pretending to be aeroplanes on the streets. Pihkala would have returned home and said “Baseball is the way to get people into sports!” Could Finland have become a baseball-crazy country like Japan? We will never know and maybe it all turned out just great. Diversity is good.

All and all that game showed what baseball is all about. Also what this vision of these two sports working together is aiming for. Baseball and softball are fun! Pesäpallo is fun! Working together they could support each other and grow together. One federation, one strategy, three sports!

Tomi Korkeamäki is one of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @TKorkeamaki

One comment

  1. Great article. Besides Michaelson, there have been a few American-born players of Finnish ancestry, including pitchers Kevin Tapani, Jeff Lahti, Luke Putkonen, and Will Ohman.

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