They saw if you go to a baseball game, you’re likely to see something that you’ve never seen before. That may be true, but still, it’s not every day that history is made in a game that’s been part of the fabric of American life for well over a century. Well, history is what happened last week when the Pittsburgh Pirates called up Gift Ngoepe, a South African citizen who became the first person born in Africa to play in the majors.
When Ngoepe first signed with the Pirates in 2008, he was just the sixth South African to ever sign a contract with a major league club. Perhaps more significantly, he was the first black South African to do so, a milestone in itself for a country that has long been synonymous with racial issues and inequality.
It doesn’t matter where you come from. No matter where you are, who you are, you can still make it,” Ngoepe said. “It was a long road. It was a long journey. I kept with it. There were a few times I wanted to stop. It’s the people that are behind you that keeps you going every single day. That kind of kept my fight. My ninth year, and I made it to the big leagues.
Of course, South Africa isn’t exactly a hotbed for baseball. The sport is far down the totem poll beneath soccer, rugby, and cricket, among other sports in terms of popularity. South Africa has made two appearances in the World Baseball Classic, but they have not won a game in either appearance, going 0-5, and have not participated in the tournament since 2009.
Despite the lack of baseball pedigree in South Africa and the continent at large, in a way, Ngoepe always seemed destined to be Africa’s baseball trailblazer. Ngoepe began playing baseball when he was three-years-old. His mother worked as a clubhouse attendant for the Randburg Mets Baseball Club. They lived in a small room in the clubhouse, and so Ngoepe was always around the game.
As a teenager, Ngoepe was invited to an MLB academy in Italy, where he was under the tutelage of Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin. In 2008, at the age of 18, Ngoepe signed with the Pirates. At the time, he also had the option of pursuing a career in professional soccer, which would have allowed him to stay in South Africa. However, Ngoepe chose baseball over soccer because he wanted to travel outside the South Africa. He chose the road less traveled and the sport that would take him far from his family and his comfort zone.
Nevertheless, Ngoepe’s journey to the majors was long and difficult. Early in his years in Pittsburgh’s farm system, many of his teammates had trouble understanding his South African accent, despite the fact that Ngoepe speaks English. Many of his minor league coaches also misinterpreted his laid-back attitude when Ngoepe was simply trying not to burn himself out too early in a season.
It’s a fabulous organizational win for everybody. I would love for him to have $1 for everybody who’s looked at him and said he’ll never make it. He’s just continued to press on and play and probably many times believed when not a whole lot of other people did.
Clint Hurdle, Pirates manager
Ngoepe also endured plenty of ups and downs on the field throughout his time in the minors. He was inconsistent offensively and at one point gave up switch-hitting, meaning he had to re-learn how to bat against right-handed pitchers after deciding to bat exclusively from the right side.
But at the same time, Ngoepe also developed into a plus defensive shortstop, the skill that ultimately took him to the big leagues. Also, being one of the oldest players in Pittsburgh’s farm system over the last few years, Ngoepe became a mentor for some of his teammates, showing great unselfishness while still trying to accomplish his own goals.
In the end, Ngoepe persevered through more than eight minor league seasons and tremendous odds to become the first African player in the big leagues. When triple-A manager Andy Barkett told his team that Ngoepe was being called up by the Pirates, the entire team cheered, elated for their teammate who worked so hard to make his dream come true, but perhaps unaware of the historical significance of the moment.
Fittingly, Ngoepe got a base hit in his first major league at-bat.