Despite a general lack of familiarity and ambivalence towards the sport by the British public, baseball has a surprisingly long and storied history in Great Britain. The first time the sport was introduced to Britons was in 1874, when the Boston Red Stockings and the Philadelphia Athletics toured London, Liverpool, Manchester and Dublin. The tour failed to generate any interest because the game was not understood.
Fifteen years later, a game was played at England’s famous cricket grounds – the Kennington Oval – in 1889. It was an exhibition game that was part of a tour led by American sports equipment manufacturer A.G. Spalding, and featured Hall-of-Famer Adrian “Cap” Anson. (source) In attendance was the Prince of Wales, future King Edward VII. When asked about his thoughts on the game of “Base Ball”, the Prince was quoted as saying:
“The Prince of Wales has witnessed the game of Base Ball with great interest and though he considers it an excellent game, he considers cricket as superior.” (source)
And that’s really all one needs to know about what the British attitude toward baseball was at the time. The sports culture in Great Britain was extremely inhospitable to sports that are perceived not to be entirely British.
The first real footing that baseball managed in Great Britain took place in 1935 when gambling entrepreneur Sir John Moores founded the North of England Baseball League. The Manchester-centric league recruited seasoned American and Canadian ballplayers, as well as British athletes from other sports: soccer, rugby and cricket. Although the league faced numerous challenges, most teams would draw between 1000 and 3000 spectators, with top teams drawing upwards of 5000. With the league’s success, Moores formed two additional leagues: the Yorkshire League and the London Major Baseball League.
A 1936 program from London’s professional West Ham team. Source: Baseball In Europe.
With the onset of World War II, the baseball leagues in London were dissolved and the sport’s growth was stunted. An amateur league was formed again in 1963, but lasted only nine seasons. Regional disputes and in-fighting among fractured baseball governing bodies only made things worse. In 1987, another attempt was made to revive British baseball. The Scottish Amicable Life Assurance Society committed to a three-year £300,000 sponsorship. With the funding, the British Baseball Federation formed the Scottish Amicable National League. However, British baseball continued to have its problems.There were accusations that the Federation had mis-used the funding and and spin-off league that broke off from the BBF did little to further the sport. In addition, it seems that Britons were content to watch the game of baseball and had little interest in actually playing the game. With a limitation imposed on the number foreign-born players in domestic leagues, interest in baseball fizzled.
Today, it is estimated that only 3,000 Britons play organized baseball. There are four leagues: the National Baseball League, and then triple-A, double-A and single-A levels. The National Baseball League consists of eight teams that play a 28-game season from April to August. In addition to the NBL, Baseball Scotland runs a five-team league (three in Edinburgh, one in Glasgow and one in Aberdeen). I visited Edinburgh this summer and traveled to the home ballpark of the Edinburgh Diamond Devils. The Diamond Devils play at the Warriston Playing Fields, a flat park that consists of a few soccer pitches and grass fields. There are no bases, no foul lines, no pitching mound, no backstop, no dugouts. Although I was disappointed in the playing facility (or lackthereof) it is still commendable that baseball is being played at all in my ancestral homeland.
Team GB has been invited to participate in the qualifying round of the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
“We are pleased to extend an invitation to Great Britain to participate in the Qualifying Round of the World Baseball Classic,” said Major League Baseball Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig. “The skill level and passion for the game in Britain is growing and we know their participation will be a wonderful addition to the tournament.”
“It is an honour to recognize Great Britain’s standing among baseball-playing nations with this invitation to compete on a global stage,” said Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Michael Weiner. “We’re confident that Britain’s participation in the World Baseball Classic Qualifying Round will help increase national and worldwide interest in this great sport.”
This is quite an accomplishment for Team GB, a baseball program that has received little funding, yet has medalled in the 2007 European Championships and is ranked 21st in the world. British Baseball Federation President Mark Salter said: “This is, perhaps, the best thing ever to happen in British baseball, both in terms of our national teams and the overall Federation. No doubt the World Baseball Classic will enhance the profile of baseball in Great Britain.”
Great Britain announced its qualifying roster earlier this week. Notable names include Canadian Aaron Hornostaj, former big-leaguer Antoan Richardson, 1st-round draft pick (2011) Chris Reed, Indians prospect Estevenson Encarnacion, and Angels’ prospect Michael Roth.
Featured image courtesy of the British Baseball Federation. Special thanks to Josh Chetwynd’s excellent book, Baseball in Europe.