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Hall honors Mexican greats
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01/07/2004  1:17 PM ET 
Hall honors Mexican greats
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A display in the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame, in the heart of the city. (Jesse Sanchez/MLB.com)
MONTERREY, Mexico -- The legend of Hector Espino, El Bambino Mexicano -- the Mexican Babe Ruth -- lives at the Salon de la Fama, the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame, in the heart of the city.

Arguably the most prolific offensive player in the history of the Mexican Leagues, Espino turned down offers by the Cardinals, Mets and Padres while playing with San Luis Potosi, Monterrey and Tampico from 1962 to 1984. He owned the all-time record in minor league baseball with 453 home runs until fellow Mexican Nelson Barrera broke the record in 2001. Espino, who was enshrined in 1988 into the Salon de la Fama, still leads the Mexican Leagues in almost every offensive category.

"There have been many great players in Mexico, but Hector Espino was very unique. He was an outstanding athlete, but an even better person," said Magdalena Rosales Ortiz, the director of the Salon de la Fama. "With minimal effort, he would drive the ball out of the park, and it all looked so natural. But for many, he will be remembered as the kind and dignified gentleman who would treat the batboy with the same respect he treated the owner of a team. He is our Babe Ruth, yes, but he was so much more." Espino is only one of almost 200 Mexican, American and Latin American legends honored in the Salon de la Fama.

Located in the Gardens of the Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery, the Salon de la Fama is divided into four primary areas: the Hall of Immortals, a history of the pioneers of the sport, an interactive area and an exhibition hall. There is also an extensive souvenir shop.

"In my opinion, the heart of the Hall of Fame is the area where the plaques are placed in Recinto de los Inmortales (Hall of Immortals)," Rosales said. "The people who are in there are the reason for the Salon de la Fama existing. "

There are 153 inductees, 73 of which are still alive. Broken down, there are 125 Mexicans, 16 Cubans, 11 players from North America and one Puerto Rican in the Salon de la Fama.

The mission of the Salon de la Fama is to honor the professional baseball players of Mexico through compiling; preserving and displaying the history of the sport along with the people who helped the baseball movement. It is patterned after Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

"I think a person who is in the United States with all the history and interest in baseball, a place I consider the birth place of baseball, would appreciate knowing Mexico has a baseball Hall of Fame," said Rosales, who followed C.P. Juan Filizola González to become the director in 2002. "We share the same passion for the best game in the world. Our Hall of Fame is similar to the one in Cooperstown and for that, we are very proud."

Strangely, it was a man known more for his skill to wield a pencil than a bat that spearheaded the movement to create the Salon de la Fama. In 1939, the nation's most famous sportswriter, Alejandro Aguilar Reyes "Fray Nano", wanted to find a way to honor players and the people who developed the sport in Mexico. Such a daunting task was a familiar challenge to visionary. In 1925, as a sportswriter for Toros y Deportes, Aguilar organized what has developed into the current 16-team Mexican League.

Aguilar combined with El Barco of Mexico City, a group that specialized in manufacturing and importing sporting goods, specifically baseball equipment, to sponsor the movement. Through a ballot available in the newspaper, fans completed the voting for the first class of the Salon de la Fama.

The first class elected in 1939 by the fans were Lucas "El Indio" Juárez, Antonio Delfín "Lañiza", Julio Molina "El Diamante Blanco", Leonardo "Najo" Alanís, and Fernando "Cocuite" Barradas. They were honored with bronze plaques at Delta Park in Mexico City during the 1940s.

It was the beginning and there were better days to come.

The second election of the Hall of Fame, several years later in 1964, inducted Angel Castro, Epitacio "La Mala" Torres, Martín Dihigo, Lázaro Salazar, Ramón Bragaña and Genaro Casas.

After 1964, the Salon de la Fama quickly gained momentum and Aguilar's dream to house the inductees in a building began to become a reality in 1971. Antonio Ramírez Muro, the President of the Association of the professional leagues, and the Mexican Summer Leagues led the committee to create the Salon de la Fama building and longtime baseball supporter Don Eugenio Garza Sada, the visionary director of the Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery, supported the cause and offered space for the Hall of Fame in the space adjacent to his brewery. Garza Sada, who is also known for creating the Monterrey Institute of Technology, funded his first team in Monterrey -- Carta Blanca in 1939.

So with building plans in the works, the selection committee at the third Convention of Mexican Baseball in Hermosillo in 1972, doubled the number of the previous two elections by picking 11 inductees for the class of 1971. Among the honorees were Aguilar, Roy Campanella, Josh Gibson, and Monford "Monte" Irvin. They were officially inducted into the Salon de la Fama on March 10, 1973, when the facility opened its doors for the first time. Rafael Domínguez García was the Salon de la Fama's first director.

Among the many who attended the ceremony that day was Bowie Kuhn, then the Comissioner of Major League Baseball. There have been inductions into the Salon de la Fama each year since 1973, except for 1975 when the candidates did not meet the requirements.

"To be in the Salon de la Fama is the biggest honor you can get so I can not ask for anymore," said Jose "Pepe" Maiz, who was enshrined in 2002 as the president and owner of the Monterrey Sultanes. "It means so much to this country and to the players here. Anybody in baseball in Mexico dreams of one day being in the Salon de Fama."

As for Espino, he ventured into the United States and hit .300 in 25 games for Jacksonville in 1964, but returned to Mexico because he did not want to leave his family and was a victim of racial discrimination. When Espino died at the age of 58 in 1997 many believed it was because of the grief caused by the death of his father a short time earlier.

"People may break his records, but there will never be another man like Hector Espino," Rosales said. "He was our angel."

Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.



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