More than 1.6 billion individuals live in Africa, and none in the history of the continent had ever played Major League Baseball.
On Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Gift Ngoepe became the first African to reach the major leagues, a triumphant start in so many ways.
The 27-year-old South African, who was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis and entered the game in fourth inning, singled in his first plate appearance, finishing 1 for 2 with a walk in Pittsburgh’ 6-5 victory over the Chicago Cubs.
“To accomplish this only for me but for my country and my continent is something so special,” Ngoepe, who signed with the Pirates in 2008 as an amateur free agent, told ABC News. “There are 1.62 billion people on our continent. To be the first person out of 1.62 billion to do this is amazing.”
It was so special that Ngoepe nearly broke into tears when he trotted from the dugout to take his position at second base.
“I told myself not to cry because I’m in the big leagues and I’m a big guy now,” Ngoepe said with a smile. “[Catcher Francisco] Cervelli hugged me and I could feel my heart beat through my chest.”
Ngoepe grew up near Johannesburg, living in an amateur baseball team’s clubhouse. His mother was the groundskeeper.
“I was watching these people playing this game, I didn’t know what it was called,” he said, CBS’s Pittsburgh affiliate reported.
The Pirates signed him nine years ago, when he was still a teenager. He’s always been a skilled fielder, and now his hitting’s coming along.
“I would love for him to have a dollar for everybody who’s looked at him and said he’ll never make it,” Clint Hurdle, the Pirates manager, told ABC.
“It was a long road,” added Ngoepe.
A dream come true, he says now.
His mother, who raised him in that clubhouse, died four years ago. Ngoepe says she’s been on his mind.
“I know she’s happy because I told her this moment would come since I was a little kid,” Ngoepe said.
Ngoepe’s younger brother, Victor, is also a prospect with the Pirates organization.