Ex-partners made history
Legends Cardenas, Jarrin shaped Spanish broadcasts
HOUSTON -- In the heart of one of the biggest cities in Texas, a place known for its beloved Astros, one-time football Oilers and a historic dome, Rene Cardenas sits anonymously in the press box at Minute Maid Park.
He's 75 now. His hair, once stylish and curly on top, has receded. His glasses are thick, in frame and lens. He still has the passion that made him Nicaragua's most famous baseball expert, but he is content to sit in his marked spot and write for La Prensa, the same paper he worked for as teenager. He usually has a friendly handshake holstered on his right side just waiting to be drawn.
But Cardenas, the man largely responsible for the modern expansion of Spanish language sportscasts, writes in silence and without recognition.
About 1,550 miles away in Los Angeles, Jaime Jarrin, the Spanish broadcaster for the Dodgers, stands high above the fans as the top man in a broadcast booth with legendary pitcher Fernando Valenzuela and Pepe Yniguez. Jarrin, who is royalty in this stadium, was honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame seven years ago, one of only three Spanish broadcasters to receive the honor. He can barely take a walk at Dodger Stadium without an autograph seeker at his back.
"I was at the right place at the right time," Jarrin said. "I have been extremely lucky in this country. I have never lost one minute of sleep worrying about tomorrow because I have always been able to have three and four jobs at the same time."
When Jarrin, 70, first started with the Dodgers, his partner and first boss was Cardenas. At the time, Cardenas was already an established baseball man with a mind for business and a vision for the growing Hispanic population in not only Southern California, but across the country.
Jarrin was a newsman.
"When I first met Jaime, he thought a baseball was something you eat," Cardenas said. "There is no rivalry at all. He's my pupil, and I am his master. That was the relationship."
Cardenas and Jarrin worked together for three seasons, calling games in Spanish for the Dodgers starting in 1959 and again for 16 seasons starting in 1982. When Cardenas left for a job in Houston in 1961, Jarrin was still a rookie. When he returned several years later, Jarrin was a grown man who had learned under the tutelage of Jose Garcia, Cardenas' replacement. Jarrin was also on his way to solidifying his status as a Dodgers legend.
"I learned more from Jose than from Rene," Jarrin said. "I heard somebody say Rene was telling people he was my teacher, but, as they say, 'the pupil became better than the teacher'."
Apart, Cardenas and Jarrin would make history. Together, they helped shape the way baseball games are broadcast in Spanish today.
"We are not doing this and viewing it as ice cream or whipped cream on top of the cake." -- Angels owner Arte Moreno
There are currently 14 teams that offer Spanish broadcasts of baseball games on the radio on a regular basis and as many as 20 that offer some form of Spanish broadcasts on the radio throughout the season. Four teams -- the Dodgers, Padres, Marlins and Angels -- have two Spanish broadcasters who travel with the club on the road to every game. The Rangers have one broadcaster for the 81 road games.
Some things have changed. Others have not.
Spanish broadcasters who do not travel call their games from a studio with sound effects in a style similar to Cardenas' and Jarrin's first broadcasts almost 50 years ago.
"It's tough for us to get people to recognize how valuable we are, but little by little, we are gaining ground," Jarrin said. "But there is still lots to do. I see a bright future. Hispanic communities and Hispanic markets are growing. Hispanics will spend money, and they love sports and baseball."
Of the teams that regularly broadcast games in Spanish, only a few claim to make a profit. A club's market, radio rights fees, sponsorship and commitment are among the many variables that contribute to a broadcast's success. Not surprisingly, the value of the Spanish broadcast varies with each team.
"A lot of teams, with exception of Los Angeles and Miami, will say Spanish broadcasting to them is not very profitable, and I say 'Shame on you for not getting your broadcasters out in the community and not getting your players out in the community,'" said Rosie Hernandez, the Astros' vice president of marketing. "If you do that, it's a win-win and it will be profitable. You need to build it and nurture it. It won't grow by itself, and it won't grow overnight."
The Astros, like many clubs who broadcast baseball games in Spanish, maintain their broadcasting rights and are partnered with Univision Radio. Such a union provides for exposure on the conglomerates' stations, a ready-made sales staff and a split in the revenue generated. Clubs assist the bottom line by launching their own Hispanic initiatives and advertisement campaigns.
"Some immediately associate the Hispanic consumer as being frugal and being a consumer that cannot afford the good things in life, which is not true," Hernandez said. "It is true in some instances because of immigrants who come trying to make a life better, but there is also an immigrant population that comes with dollars to spend. There are also second- and third-generation populations that are coming of age economically that emphasize family events and entertainment and creating memories for the family. What is better family entertainment than a good, old-fashioned baseball game?"
The Dodgers maintain the rights to the broadcast and package the Spanish broadcast with the English broadcast. The Angels, who are also partnered with Univision, eventually would like to take control of their entire on-air inventory. Like the Dodgers, the Angels do not differentiate the Spanish market from the English market. It's simply the market.
"We are aggressive in the rates we charge. We don't view it as a throw-in because our Spanish broadcast has tremendous value," said Sergrio Del Prado, the Dodgers' vice president of sales. "Some markets make sense and some don't. We also have most the competitive Spanish media market in the country, so we are all competing for listeners and viewers. Our market demands a first-class, quality product."
Bill Kulik purchased the rights to broadcast games in Spanish for the Red Sox, Devil Rays and Phillies for a third party named the Spanish Beisbol Network. He is involved in virtually every aspect of the broadcasts, including calling games, selling sponsorships and reading commercials. He has discovered first-hand the hardships of trying to establish a fan-friendly broadcast while also trying make money.
"It is so tough to sell to corporate America, and I did not expect that," Kulik said. "The top markets might not feel the pain as much as me, but I'm trying to reach the fringe markets and I can't convince corporate America to support us. That drives me crazy because they talk the talk but don't walk the walk. I'm thinking they just don't get it."
What Kulik believes some people don't get are the numbers.
Hispanic buying power nearly hit $700 billion in 2004 and is expected to exceed $1 trillion by 2010, according to Hispanic Business Inc. Buying power -- personal disposable income, or after-tax income available for purchasing goods and services -- is a measure of the relative economic importance of a market segment.
Additionally, U.S. Hispanics are the fifth-largest Spanish-speaking community in the world behind Mexico, Spain, Colombia and Argentina, according to Pew Hispanic Center. There are an estimated 41.3 million Hispanics living in the United States with a real medium income of $34,241, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"The Hispanic population is something every club has to be aware of," Padres owner John Moores said. "The markets are going to have to perceive the effect of the growing Hispanic population, which is very real. As economic power increases by Hispanics, it has to be reflected down the road by additional television and radio presence down the road. It will happen because that's where the dollars are and marketing arms of every ballclub will continue to chase the dollar. It's about an enlightened self-interest by the clubs, and that follows dollars."
Angels owner Arte Moreno has quickly gained a reputation as fan-friendly owner, but his commitment to the Angels' broadcast is a well-calculated endeavor to bring in fans and turn a profit. It has nothing to do with the fact that he is only Hispanic owner in Major League Baseball.
"We are not doing this and viewing it as ice cream or whipped cream on top of the cake," Moreno said. "What we are trying to do is offer a service. If we were losing money on it, we would not be doing it. We believe we are stretching the market out, and I think we can do a better job. I don't believe we are as good as we can be in anything we are doing."
But how do you make money in Spanish broadcasts?
Many believe a strong commitment from the club and a sales staff that is trained to understand the similarities and differences between operating in the English and Spanish markets are crucial. Tapping into monies earmarked by sponsors specifically for Spanish initiatives -- as well as creating partnerships with less traditional businesses like health companies, pharmaceutical companies and banking services -- could also create opportunities for "fringe" teams.
Team alliances and a well-connected third-party partner might make also a difference.
"The hardest thing in the world is to find is somebody who can sell," said Ralph Paniagua, a New York entrepreneur who has a long business history in Major League Baseball. "It's hard to find people who have contacts. That's why certain teams are successful and others are not. You have to have professionals who know what they are doing."
"He had a terrific speaking voice and a wonderful command of the Spanish language. He was, in effect, Vin Scully in Spanish. -- Stan Evans, former senior vice president, Gumbinner Advertising Agency
The desire to reach the Spanish market followed the Dodgers when team owner Walter O'Malley moved them from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958. So did their method to target the audience -- peddling, among other things, Tareyton cigarettes. The Dodgers also needed a Spanish broadcaster to call games and assist in the marketing to bring in new fans. Dynamic and dapper, Cardenas was a perfect fit.
"The first time I met him, I flew to Dodgerstown in Spring Training, and he blew me away," said Stan Evans, who represented the American Tobacco Company as the senior vice president of Gumbinner Advertising Agency. "Rene not only knew baseball, but he had a terrific speaking voice and a wonderful command of the Spanish language. He was, in effect, Vin Scully in Spanish."
Cardenas was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and shined at age 16 as a reporter and later the sports editor of La Prensa, the largest paper in his country. He began his radio career by calling boxing matches and basketball games in Spanish throughout Latin America. He moved to Los Angeles in 1951.
Upon the recommendation of a friend at KWKW, he was given an interview for the Dodgers' job in 1957, and under the guidance of Dave Van de Walker and station manager William Beaton, the first regular and most recognized Spanish broadcast production of home and away games started in 1958. The broadcast was based on Cardenas' proposal.
"I knew it was very special at the time," Cardenas said. "I knew it was history being made, and we were out front."
It was an eventful start. Cardenas' first broadcast partner was a disc jockey named Milt Nava. He was a nice guy, but he didn't know the game. The next hire in 1959 didn't know the game, either, but he had potential.
Anybody could see Jarrin was something special even with his limited knowledge of the sport.
"I was like, 'Wow, what is going on here?'" Jarrin said. "What is this game?"
The Dodgers called every home game in Spanish in those days and recreated the away games with sound effects and tricks from a studio by following Vin Scully's English broadcast. Cardenas' popularity seemingly grew with every game.
"Rene could have been elected mayor at the time. He could have been elected president of half a dozen countries," Evans said. "He could not even go into a grocery store without being mobbed."
The Dodgers' success did not go unnoticed. In Houston, Roy Hofheinz, a prominent business man who had been successful in his bid to bring a Major League team to Southeast Texas, wanted Cardenas to direct his Spanish broadcast.
As president of the powerful Houston Sports Association, Hofheinz had plans in the works for a dome facility he would later name the Astrodome for his team, the Colt 45s. Judge Hofheinz, as he was widely known, also had the support of, among many other powerful entities, the American Tobacco Company. Cardenas left the Dodgers for Houston in 1962 to become the head of all Spanish-language broadcasts, including basketball and boxing at the Astrodome. Cardenas' voice went statewide, also reaching Mexico and parts of South America.
"It was my Dad's vision," said Fred Hofheinz, an attorney in Houston. "He was into getting marketing every way we could find it. He hired Rene and got it started. Looking back, I think Rene deserves an awful lot of credit. Hispanics in Houston in 1961 were the not powerhouse they are now."
Cardenas had it made in Los Angeles, but the move to Texas was a risk worth taking. His decision to leave the Dodgers can still be viewed as the biggest decision of his career.
"It was easy to leave even though I was making good money that season with the Dodgers," Cardenas said. "When the American Tobacco Company decided to buy the rights for broadcast in Houston, they were my biggest sponsors in LA. It was an important step for the agency to cover the games for Texas, to open up a new baseball market, and they were willing to give me a job year-round."
Cardenas spent the next 15 years flourishing in Houston, and Jarrin did the same in Los Angeles. In 1969, the San Diego Padres launched their Spanish broadcast with Mario Thomas.
Cardenas eventually returned to Nicaragua in 1977 to retire, but it didn't last long. The Sandinistas took over in 1979, forcing Cardenas to return to the United States in 1980.
It had only been four years, but times had changed.
"... he was better than anybody who is doing Spanish radio today" -- sportswriter Juan Vene
Long before Cardenas or Jarrin, there was Eloy "Buck" Canel. Canel was born in 1906 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as the son of a diplomat and the proud descendent of artists and poets in Spain. He grew up an avid sports fan in Staten Island, N.Y., and later developed a love for baseball in his travels to Cuba. The well-traveled Canel had a knack for telling a good story and making people laugh.
"He loved to joke around, and he was always kidding," said Juan Vene, Canel's friend and a longtime sportswriter. "He had such a grand sense of humor and would tell stories in Spanish for us and in English for those who didn't speak Spanish."
Canel began his career in journalism as a writer for the Staten Island Advance and later as a correspondent for The Associated Press. He worked for the French-wire service, Havas, and the French news agency, Agence France-Press.
Beginning in 1937, Canel called the first of 42 World Series for NBC's Cabalgata Deportiva Gillette in Spanish. He later teamed with Lalo Orbonznos, Musiu de lo Cavalerie and Felo Ramirez, who currently calls games in Spanish for the Florida Marlins and was honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001, in the Gillette production. Canel also called the home games for the New York Yankees and became an international star by calling all of the major sporting events, primarily boxing, and transmitting them to Latin America.
"I can still sing the song from Cabalgata Deportiva Gillette," said Mexico-born Eleno Ornelas, the Texas Rangers' Spanish broadcaster. "Buck was the first to do it. He opened to doors for all of us today."
Canel also provided a sneak peek into the business side of broadcasting baseball games in Spanish that still exists today.
The Brooklyn Dodgers' television and radio broadcasts had two major sponsors in the early 1950s, Schaefer Beer and the American Tobacco Company -- a corporation looking to market its Lucky Strikes cigarettes into the Spanish market.
It was decided that the best way to reach the target audience and sell cigarettes was through baseball. The most popular Spanish voice of baseball at the time was Canel, so he was hired in 1954. He would broadcast selected games for the next three seasons at Ebbets Field, including 40 in 1957 for New York's WHOM. The strategy would resurface a few years later when the Dodgers moved to California.
"It was the mid-1950s, and there was a big Spanish population in New York," said Tom Villante, a former Dodgers broadcasting coordinator. "We would do the games, and we would take ads out in the Spanish papers. We would tell them to watch the game in English and listen in Spanish."
Canel was the staff's Spanish expert, doing everything from reading advertisements, writing copy and hosting a radio show. He appealed to fans in New York because of his genuine approach and likable demeanor. He appealed to sponsors because he was helping them sell their product.
"He was the most popular Spanish speaking sportscaster in the world," Vallenti said. "He had a very deep voice, and he spoke English fluently. You would never suspect he was Spanish by listening to him speak."
For almost 50 years, Canel called baseball games in Spanish. He participated in his final World Series in 1979 and died in 1980. In 1985, he was named recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award, becoming the first Spanish broadcaster to be honored by Hall of Fame.
"Buck lived a good life, and he was better than anybody who is doing Spanish radio today," Vene said.
"The stomach is very important, and family. I know exactly who I am." -- Rene Cardenas
In 1981, Cardenas took a job with a radio station outside of the city and worked his way back into the Astros' Spanish radio broadcast. He simultaneously helped expand the Texas Rangers' broadcast by becoming the club's first Spanish broadcaster the same year.
"I have no regrets about coming to Houston," Cardenas said. "I had two children -- one was three and another was six -- and they offered me very good money to leave Los Angeles. It was a hard opportunity to turn down, and I didn't. I made my home here, and I love it."
Cardenas left Houston and returned to Los Angeles in 1982 when Jarrin's partner, Garcia, left because of an illness. Cardenas was back in LA, but as the No. 2 man.
"I remember everybody welcoming me back, and it was wonderful," Cardenas said. "Jaime had his professor back with him. It didn't bother me that I was not the No. 1. I was eating. The stomach is very important, and family. That was no big deal."
At least not initially. Not being honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame had long become a sore subject for the veteran broadcaster and was brought to the forefront when Jarrin was honored by the Hall in 1998.
Cardenas returned to Texas the same year.
"He felt he should be the first considered for the Hall of Fame, and I don't think that he will never rest peacefully because he did not get the recognition he felt he should have," said Tommy Hawkins, a former vice president of communications with the Dodgers. "It was not as if the Dodgers or Jaime were promoting Jaime. That's just the way the mop flopped. After Fernandomania in 1981, there was no stopping Spanish radio or Jaime. It was Fernando, Mike Brito and Jaime as this strong troika. Rene was never able to challenge that."
Jarrin heard the grumbling and could sense the tension, but his relationship with Cardenas, on and off the field, was strong. It was also being tested.
"I like Rene a lot, and I have a lot of respect for him," Jarrin said. "He accepted his role and understood in the beginning, but he became a little bit bitter because he was trying hard to get into the Hall of Fame and he did not. He couldn't. For the last 25 years, he was doing only two innings a game, maybe.
Since his return to Texas, Cardenas has been a staple in the Astros' pressbox. He writes for countless publications and remains one of the most accomplished sports writers in the history of Latin America.
He has fans across the globe and friends all across the country.
"I hope that one day or somehow, Rene can get the recognition that he deserves," Hawkins said. "If I remember clearly, Rene started here in Los Angeles, went to Houston and came back, but things were not the same because Jaime was in control. I hope he finds peace"
Perhaps he already has.
Cardenas has found salvation in front of his laptop with a pencil in his hand on the second row in his favorite city's best-known ballpark. He doesn't talk about the Hall of Fame anymore. Nobody brings it up, either.
"I'm an old man," he said. "I don't think about the Hall of Fame because it's not in my heart. I have lived a good life and have been blessed so much. I love one place, and that is Houston."
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.