The Zala county town of Nagykanizsa has a peculiar place in the history of Hungarian sports - it was where they played the first Hungarian professional baseball game when local team Nagykanizsa Ants played the Győr Dark Horses on 23 October 1991.
The game appeared Hungary with some American help - A Florida public official called Stephen A. Karakay used to study in the town, and was attending his 50-year high school reunion, where he urged the reunion's organiser to put together a baseball team for Nagykanizsa and popularise the sport in Hungary.
Karakay's enthusiasm was contagious and the Nagykanizsa Ants soon became a reality - the head coach was the local school's PE teacher Zoltán Gondi. He had no previous contact with the sport, however, he was open to new things, so the Nagykanizsa baseball practices started in January 1990. These early training sessions merely resembled baseball - even if Gondi researched tactics and techniques watching videotapes, and tried to adapt training methodologies of other sports to baseball, but the team only had tennis balls and no bats, though that did not phase these early adopters; they used chair legs instead.
Most teams at this time did not have standard playing fields or equipment, and they mostly played on soccer pitches where they could not erect the protective nets and pitcher's mounds. Later, they received equipment from the US, although from the Little League, so it was mostly the elementary school team that could use them.
Baseball gained popularity in the Western parts of Hungary, people founded clubs in Kaposvár, Siófok, Ajka and Győr, and the Hungarian Baseball Championship could finally kick off in 1992. They were an unusual sight, Zoltán Gondi told Index that once some police officers even thought that they were skinheads on their way to the nearby refugee camp as they were walking around in uniform jackets and baseball bats, and the rules of the game - even though all teams knew them - were still subject to many debates.
Nagykanizsa Ants did really well in this championship. Over the first few years, they were constantly improving their ranking, and 1996 brought the first championship victory for the Ants, and they repeated that feat four more times and also won the Hungarian Cup six times, and had some experience in international series too - they managed to win the 2002 season of the Euro Interleague Baseball championship.
Nagykanizsa's baseball life started to decline in the mid-2000s; many good players left the team for German and Czech teams, the national federation was not working too well, and as it was more and more difficult to find sponsors, the team is struggling financially. Even though the Nagykanizsa baseball field was more or less reclaimed by nature, the team is still alive - their women's softball department carries on the legacy of the legendary Nagykanizsa Ants.
(Cover: Baseball field at Nagykanizsa 2019. january 24. Photo: Bődey János / Index)
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