Base Ball in Graceland
On March 15th, 1889, the first competitive game was played at the newly completed Gloucestershire County Cricket Ground at Ashley Down, Bishopston, in the historic English seaport city of Bristol. The contest was not a cricket match but rather an exhibition game between two teams of American professional baseball players. The press coverage given the event – including stories headlined “THE AMERICAN BASE BALL PLAYERS IN BRISTOL”, that appeared in two separate journals – indicates that the bemused incomprehension with which many modern Britons react to the American national pastime has not altered much in the ensuing decades.
The visit came at the climax of a world tour that had begun in November 1888 and had taken baseball to Australia, New Zealand, Ceylon, Egypt and Continental Europe. The tour was the brainchild of Albert Goodwill Spalding and its purposes were a typical mixture of that Gilded Age archetype’s passionate missionary zeal for the game, go-getting business ”push”, and his often Machiavellian politicking.
The choice of Bristol for the tourists’ first game was no coincidence. Both Spalding and Gloucestershire C.C.C. recognized the opportunity for some mutually beneficial commercial back-scratching. A company formed to build the new cricket ground had bought twenty-six acres of farmland for £6,500, and would spend another £2,000 to prepare the site for first-class cricket. Dr. W.G. Grace was the club’s representative on the company board, and he and his fellow-directors saw in the Americans’ visit a fine chance for some pre-season marketing.
Grace at the time was 42 years-old, and still the premier batsman in first-class cricket, although his effectiveness as a bowler of the top rank was on the decline. Grace and Spalding – then 38 – would have been a well-matched pair. Both were physically imposing men – Grace particularly so, at six-foot-two, with his long House of David beard – and had out-sized personalities to match. Spalding realized the great publicity value of associating the prestigious W.G. with his tourists.
As might have been predicted of an English March, the weather was uncooperative. The Clifton Chronicle noted: “They originally intended to play their first match in England…on the Gloucester County Ground in honour of Dr. W.G. Grace, the champion cricketer, but the great floods forced the postponement at the last moment.” Similarly, the Bristol Observer commented: “It was rather an honour that they should have consented to make their first English appearance in the County of the Graces, but the weather, which here flooded a quarter of the city…in the English Channel gave the base-ballers such an unmerciful pitching and tossing as they crossed from France, that they admitted they landed at Victoria [then London railway terminus for boat trains from France] fairly done up, and could on Saturday last scarce have done justice to a game which requires in the fullest sense the exercise of all the physical faculties and plenty of mental keenness.”
In the face of these circumstances, the tourists played their first games in and near London, causing something of a stir in sporting circles. On 15th March, six days later than the originally planned arrival in Bristol, the Western Daily Press ran this rather prickly and self-defensive paragraph: “The base ball players yesterday raised their siege of London, and today advance upon the provinces, beginning at Ashley Down. We in the provinces are not going to take our opinions about base ball from London, any more than we take our opinions about cricket. The public assembled at Ashley Down today will be as competent to form an opinion upon the game as the critics at Lord’s, or as the crowds at the Oval…But it seems worth noting that the base ball players seem to have interested London rather than converted it from a belief in cricket.” The Bristol Times & Mirror next day struck a less curmudgeonly note in its very full report which commenced: “The band of Americans who have been touring around the world giving exhibitions of their national game of base ball arrived in Bristol yesterday morning from London. They were met at the Joint Railway station by several gentlemen, with whom they drove to the Grand Hotel. Subsequently the teams and a few others interested in athletic sports in the city were entertained at luncheon by the directors of the County Ground Company. The Duke of Beaufort [a long-standing friend and patron of the Grace family] to whom all the visitors had been introduced, presided…” After listing various individuals in the party of about fifty present, including the players and several local dignitaries, the report continued: “At the conclusion of a well-served luncheon, The CHAIRMAN proposed “The Queen” (applause). He said it was unnecessary for him, in the presence of visitors from the United States, to descant upon the virtues of the Queen and the beneficence of her reign, for those were matters as well known to them as to those who lived under her rule (cheers). The CHAIRMAN next submitted “The health of the President and Prosperity of the United States” and remarked that he was sure the base-ballers would receive a hearty welcome wherever they went in this country. They did not look upon the visitors as strangers, for though the sea separated them by thousands of miles, yet they were joined not only by the electric telegraph but by the blood running through their veins (cheers). Mr. LATHROP [the U.S. Consul] after the toast had been most enthusiastically drunk, humorously returned thanks. Mr. E.G. CLARKE, in proposing “American Base Ball Clubs” asked local athletes not to hastily form an opinion on the merits of the game they were about to witness, for like cricket, it had many fine points, which require some knowledge of the game to appreciate. Mr. SPALDING, in acknowledging the compliment, referred to the kindness with which they had been received during their tour in every part of the world where they met Englishmen. He appealed to Bristolians not to prejudge the game, and said until they had seen it played two or three times it was impossible to form anything approaching a correct idea of its merits. He wished they had been able to fill their original engagement, for they would have considered it a great honour to have made their first appearance in this country in the home of the best-known Englishman in the world – W.G. Grace (applause). Mr. [Cap] ANSON (whom Mr. Spalding described as the W.G. of America) called upon the Americans present to give three cheers for Dr. W.G. Grace. This having been done, three more were given for the Duke of Beaufort, and the proceedings terminated. The party were then conveyed in breaks to the County Ground at Ashley-hill…”
The Times & Mirror report then continued, under the sub-head HOW THE GAME IS PLAYED, with a diagram of a baseball diamond and a 400 word digest of the rules, beginning, inevitably, “The game, which is a natural development of rounders…” The game report, under a further sub-head CHICAGO v. ALL AMERICA, estimated the crowd at just 3,000, attracted “By the novelty of the sport and the beautiful state of the weather” and noted that the ground, despite the recent severe rains was in excellent condition. This may also be credited in some degree to Grace, who throughout the construction period had visited the site almost daily, apparently making life hell for the builders and groundsmen. The teams were given as follows:
ALL AMERICA CHICAGO
T.L.[sic] Brown………….Pitcher……………. J. Ryan
W. Earle…………………..Catcher……………..A.C. Anson
G. Crane………………..Long [sic] Stop……..T.P. Daly
F.H. Carroll……………….1st Base…………….M. Baldwin
J. Manning……………….2nd Base…………..F.N. Pfeffer
G.A. Wood………………3rd Base…………..T. Burns
T. [sic] Healy…………Left Field…………..M. Sullivan
E. Hanlon……………Centre Field………..J.K. Tener
J.G. Fogerty………….Right Field………….R. Pettitt
This line-up contains a few curiosities. The Times & Mirror wrote: “It will be observed by those who have read accounts of the matches already played in this country, that several important alterations were made in the posts assigned to the various players. The most celebrated pitcher of each side was given a rest, and Daly, the great catcher of the Chicago team stood at short slip [sic], his usual position being occupied by Anson.
I take the rested pitchers to have been Chicago’s Mark Baldwin (w156-l165 3.36 era lifetime) and the All Americas’ John [not T.] Healy (w78-l136 3.85 era lifetime). The All Americas’ starting pitcher here was presumably the speedy Liverpool-born outfielder Tom Brown (whose middle initial was T., not L.) and whose major league pitching career consisted of twelve games, w2-l2 5.29 era. Jimmy Ryan, the Chicago starter, was also primarily an outfielder who during his major league career pitched in twenty four games, w6-l1 3.62 era. This chopping and changing of positions may have been a result of fatigue at the end of a long tour. Despite the fill-ins and the 10-3 score – Chicago won – observers complained that the pitchers enjoyed such a marked superiority over the batsmen as to render the game tedious.
On the All America team the players – Brown, Carroll and Hanlon excepted – were by no means the elite group their name implied, being in the main journeymen and in some cases complete non-entities. They may have been the best Spalding could get for the money he was willing to pay, but if he was passing off this generally uninspiring bunch to the unsuspecting Brits as some kind of All Star team of elite professionals he must have been right up there with P.T. Barnum in believing that there’s a sucker born every minute. Of course one All America player – a Banquo’s ghost at the Grand Hotel luncheon and a salient absentee from Ashley Down – was John Montgomery Ward. This popular and charismatic star had been asked by Spalding to captain the All Americas. Ward was the moving force behind and within the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, and more than one historian has speculated that Spalding took him on tour to get him out of the United States while his fellow club magnates ratified the infamous Brush Plan, which formulated a draconian new standard contract designed to severely curtail players’ rights and conditions. Ward stuck with the tour until it arrived to Britain, then hightailed home to see what measures could be taken to counteract Spalding’s and the other club owners’ machinations. All of this cut-and-thrust ultimately culminated in the Players’ League revolt of 1890.
The day after the game, the Western Daily Press continued in the waspish vein of its previous day’s note. Under the head “CRICKET’S COMPETITOR” the article began: “Probably out of the thousands of people who went to Ashley Down yesterday to watch the match between the Chicago and All America base ball players there would not be very many who were sufficiently ‘enthused’, as the Americans would say, to witness a return match if one had been arranged. It is necessary, indeed, to guard against excessive depreciation of a game which it is clearly more interesting to play than it is to watch. It is very likely extremely fascinating to the striker to try to hit balls delivered with great skill by the pitcher, but the spectator must require to have his sympathies quickened by partisanship in order to be roused from the depressing effects which the repeated failures to hit produce in his mind.”
The piece – it would be inaccurate to call it a report – continues with the same tone of frank prejudice and lofty patronizing which only ignorance can perfectly produce. I have heard American sportscasters (notably the late Harry Caray on one particularly toe-curling occasion that happened to coincide with my fiftieth birthday) treat cricket with the same brand of fatuous facetiousness that is always the mark of the truly ill-informed.
The Times & Mirror, while more restrained and less obnoxious in tone, did have the same faults and virtues to find in the American game. It remarked: “The Americans deserve all the praise they have received for their marvellous fielding. Certainly cricketers could learn much from their throwing, though doubtless with a little practice our county men would make just as brilliant deep-field catches.” The paper’s reporter did, however, join in the general discontent at the apparent superiority of pitcher over batter. The English found the regular failure of the hitters monotonous, and the crowd of 3,000-4,000 thinned out considerably by the end of the seven inning game. It should be noted that similar dissatisfactions were felt in America and three years later rule changes were brought in aimed at rebalancing the central pitcher/batter duel in favour of the hitter.
Those who did leave the game early missed what must have been an entertaining post-game diversion wherein, according to the Bristol Observer, “…a few of the chief members of the Gloucester team [had] a chance to bat against [the Americans’] peculiar delivery.” The cricketers, with one or two exceptions, were conspicuously unsuccessful in dealing with the American pitchers. W.G. Grace was not one of the exceptions. The Western Daily Press man noted that, “Dr. Grace, who would probably be able to hit most full pitches with only a broomstick, was not able to stop many of the balls delivered to him.” Easily the most effective of the cricketers was W.G.’s elder brother, Dr. E.M. Grace. E.M. was known as “The Coroner”, although I am unable to say if this sobriquet referred to his medical or his sporting activities. He was not anything like his brother’s equal as an all-round cricketer but was renowned for the prodigious length of his hitting. He was what cricketers call “a slogger” and such was the force and velocity of his strokes – many what in the English game are called “cross-bat drives” – that at one period he was banned from playing at a number of village cricket grounds as a severe danger to both persons and property.
The final verdict of the more or less sympathetic Times & Mirror reporter was that baseball was altogether unlikely to supplant cricket in the affections of the English, but would be more entertaining if the teams played fewer innings and were the batsmen “…armed with a larger club, or with an instrument more in the shape of a cricket bat.” In other words, if it was more like cricket, people who like cricket would like it better. The Western Daily Press ended its coverage in the same patronizing tone that had infused its entire article: “The experience gained yesterday confirms the impressions which descriptions of the game produced, that is that base ball is an admirable game – for Americans.” I don’t know if Al Spalding – who, as noted elsewhere, generally speaking had the scruples of a stoat and, to quote the great A.J. Leibling’s friend, Col. Stingo, ‘the soul of Jimmy Hope the bank robber’ – lifted and reversed the phrase directly from the Bristol writer, or whether it was a general usage, but he wrote in his 1911 autobiography: “Cricket is a splendid game – for Britons…” adding, “Cricket is an Athletic Sociable…Base Ball is an Athletic turmoil. Base Ball is War!”
Of course, ignorant distain has for much more than a century been the attitude of most Americans toward cricket and most Britons toward baseball. It is telling to note that two voluminous and apparently thorough biographies of W.G. Grace, while mentioning the building of the new Gloucestershire County Ground make not the slightest mention of the inaugural competition, and their respective indexes contain no entries for either baseball or Spalding. Alas, the combination of airy ignorance, blinkered chauvinism, and complacent prejudice that has left these two great (mainly) English-speaking nations unable to appreciate each other’s traditional bat, ball and running games – which themselves share a common ancestry – has left those who have a genuine love and appreciation of both sports to sit in the stands at either Ashley Downs or Shea, pondering questions like: “Why didn’t Al Spalding and Harry Wright scout E.M. Grace when they toured England back in 1874? He would’ve been a helluva prospect.”
Note: An edited version of the above piece first appeared some years ago in Number 21 of the SABR publication The National Pastime: A Review of Baseball History. In the intervening time not much beyond the demolition of Shea Stadium and its replacement by one of the new major league ballparks featuring corporate names – an innovation Spalding would, I’m sure, have welcomed – has changed. Further, I would suggest that anyone interested in the general subject of bat, ball and running games might look at the post on this website, “Rounders, Schmounders”, that being a review of David Block’s authoritative 2005 book “Baseball Before We Knew It.”