Baseball in Britain, A Complex Backstory

Many modern day fans of baseball in Britain believe unwaveringly that the game was brought to these shores by Sir Francis Ley and A. G. Spalding… this is in fact not true.

Angels Over the Pond founder, Editor and features writer, Matt Thomas, writes on the fascinating heritage of British baseball.

The origins of baseball are something of a contentious issue, as American as apple pie and interwoven tightly with the very fabric of American culture and heritage, but documented evidence does prove that baseball, like many things, has it’s roots in Europe. Despite A. G. Spalding’s efforts to credit Abner Doubleday with creating the game, the earliest known mention and illustration of baseball appeared in John Newbery’s A Little Pretty Pocket-Book in 1744, and on the 31st of March 1755 William Bray, an English diarist, noted that he had played “base ball” that day, proving the archaic roots of baseball. Even in the mid to late 1800’s, as ‘New York’ or ‘American’ baseball was being exported back to the United Kingdom, archaic forms of the game were still very popular and exist to this day in places such as Liverpool and Wales.

Many modern day fans of baseball in Britain believe unwaveringly that the game was brought to these shores by Sir Francis Ley and Spalding, with Derby County Baseball Club being the first British baseball club, established by Ley, from the efforts of Spalding’s tours. Where both characters were undeniably a huge influence on the popularisation of the sport in the 1890’s and the establishment of a formal professional league in Britain, this is in fact not true. As early as 1874 the Boston Red Stockings and others toured Britain, displaying their immense talent to huge crowds, with none other than Spalding as one of their roster. Sporting Life publications and newspaper clippings from these early tours make clear that, at that time, baseball equipment was made and supplied to clubs in Britain by John Wisden and Co., a name that most cricket fans would recognise instantly. Why would a company as large as Wisden be supplying baseball equipment, if clubs and players did not already exist?

This link to cricket goes deeper still, when we look at the figures behind the touring Boston Red Stockings (today the Atlanta Braves), who had been formed by the nucleus of former Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first openly professional baseball club in the United States, formed in 1869. At the very heart of both of those clubs was a Yorkshireman, player-manager Harry Wright. A centre fielder in that first professional club, Wright went on to introduce a number of initiatives to progress the ball game and it was towards the end of his playing days when he fought to export his beloved game back to the United Kingdom. Born in Sheffield, incidentally also recognised as the birthplace of modern football and the home of the oldest football club in the world, Wright had been taken to New York at an early age, where his father worked as a groundsman with St. George’s Cricket Club. Wright, like his father, played cricket, including against George Parr’s 1859 England cricket tour of the United States and the wider family were naturally able to pick up and excel in baseball.

The 1874 tour is today widely seen as a failure by many scholars of the game, and Wright’s Red Stockings returned to the States and joined the fledgling National League, organised in part by Spalding himself. Arguably more should be done today to recognise the efforts of Wright to bring baseball in the new ‘American’ format back to Britain. On their departure back to the States, the Sheffield Independent reflected on the tour by wondering whether the lack of new clubs springing up across the country could be due to the fact that baseball was not really a novelty on these shores, and because baseball was seen as inferior to cricket. Spalding, as one of the players on that tour, would have unquestionably been influenced by Wright and his cricket connections.

At the very heart of both of those clubs was a Yorkshireman, player-manager Harry Wright. A centre fielder in that first professional club, Wright went on to introduce a number of initiatives to progress the ball game and it was towards the end of his playing days when he fought to export his beloved game back to the United Kingdom.

In March 1888 the British newspapers picked up on a rumour that leading New York and St. Louis baseball clubs were poised to tour across the United Kingdom, in another attempt at creating a foothold for the now fully organised ‘American’ baseball, from the back of the efforts of Mr Folsam, the American Consul in Sheffield, who had been working hard to popularise the ball game in Yorkshire. Bizarrely, also in March 1888, the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News reported on the return of the President of a St. Louis baseball club, from his tour of Britain. “England is now educated up to American sports” he stated and went on to claim “the game was too much for them”. The publication, quite obviously tongue in cheek, went on to mock the English for being ‘dull’ and ‘slow’ in their ways.

This approach was hardly likely to win many fans in England, but the message was clear, Britain was ready for the taking if ball club Presidents in the States wanted to grasp the opportunities, and Spalding was one of many who did wish to. By November 1888 the first efforts to establish a formal league of baseball clubs in the United Kingdom, in the form of the ‘American’ game, was mooted by John Barnes, manager of the St. Paul Western League baseball club. Barnes’ plan was to introduce lecturers to promote the ball game academically, before establishing American style syndicates in London, Birmingham and other key principle cities. It was not until February 1889 that the immense wealth of Spalding began to buy up column inches in Britain for the upcoming world tour by the Chicago White Stockings and other elite American players, funded of course by Spalding.

Rather telling though was a letter to the Liverpool Echo, published on the 1st of March 1889, where a local resident called for Stanford Perry, Secretary of the local Liverpool baseball clubs, to put together an all-star Liverpool team from local baseball and rounders clubs to challenge the Chicago White Stockings, when they arrived in Liverpool. This again shows that baseball, or archaic regional variants of it, were fully established in some regions of the United Kingdom, prior to the all-conquering Spalding tour. Amusingly, despite this, a writer for the Manchester Times, on the 2nd of March 1889, claimed that no baseball clubs existed in the United Kingdom! Was the game so localised that clubs in Liverpool were not known by residents of Manchester? Or was the writer simply ignorant? The ties to the 1874 tour were inescapable, the teams relied heavily on cricket grounds and attracting cricket fans and players and George Wright, the brother of Harry Wright, was the umpire!

Spalding knew all too well that he was standing on the shoulders of the Wright family, as was made clear by the fact that he paid tribute to W.G. Grace as “the best known Englishman in the world”, on arrival at Gloucester Cricket Ground, on the 9th of March 1889. On the 13th of March 1889 the Sporting Life produced an in depth piece, covering the exhibition match at the Oval, and questioned exactly why the American visitors had placed so much emphasis on London and the south for their early games, when the people of Liverpool would be the best judge of a sport which they clearly would recognise as a development of their own locally played game, whereas baseball to Londoners was nothing short of a complete mystery. Spalding’s tour was given some added gravitas through the attendance of the Prince of Wales at the Oval and attendances were adequate, with over 8,000 fans attending the exhibition at Lords, on the 13th of March 1889. As the tour progressed the people of Yorkshire were given exhibitions in Sheffield and Bradford, and the tour did reach Liverpool eventually too.

On the 13th of March 1889 the Sporting Life… questioned exactly why the American visitors had placed so much emphasis on London and the south for their early games, when the people of Liverpool would be the best judge of a sport which they clearly would recognise as a development of their own locally played game, whereas baseball to Londoners was nothing short of a complete mystery.

The people of Yorkshire were clearly enthused about this new form of baseball, and on the 30th of March 1889 a large crowd amassed at Stott’s Refreshment Rooms on Parliament Street, in York, to form a new baseball club for the city, along the lines of the ‘American principle’. It was not until the 26th of March 1890, a full year later, that Ley began to develop his Ley’s Recreation Club into a baseball club, proper, at Ley’s Recreation Centre. Regardless of this fact Ley used his wealth to persuade the people of Britain that “we were really the first club formed in Great Britain” when discussing Derby, in 1890, to various media outlets. In fact a more accurate reflection of his part in the development of the ball game in Britain was published on the 10th October 1889, when the Derby Daily Telegraph reported that Ley had “introduced baseball amongst his employees”. It is without any doubt that Ley used his financial clout to make his Ley’s Recreation Centre the best purpose built baseball facility in Britain, it went on to become the Baseball Gound, home of Derby County Football Club.

It is equally important to note that Ley was not even present when the new National League of Baseball of Great Britain met at the Criterion, London, to formally establish the new baseball association in October 1889, though he was elected as a provisional officer. Representatives of Preston North End, Gloucester County Cricket Club, Essex County Cricket Club, Staffordshire County Cricket Club, Aston Villa and the National Rounders Association all were represented and elected as officers to the association, with Newton Crane elected to the chair. By July 1890 it was reported in various media outlets that over 90 baseball clubs had been formed in the wake of the Spalding tour, with the Dundee Courier reporting that “there are more baseball clubs in Yorkshire than in any other county”.

It is a thing of wonderment then that by the time the first fully professional National League of Baseball of Great Britain got underway only four clubs were permitted to compete for the championship, none of them in Yorkshire, Liverpool or even London. On the 5th of March 1890 the Sporting Life reported that the new association had appealed to Spalding to seed the new clubs with American professionals, and on the 6th of March 1890 the Leicester Daily Post reported that a twelve club National League would be formed, with teams to be based at Wolverhampton, Liverpool, Accrington, Manchester, Bolton, Stoke and Birmingham and that Ley would convert his existing Ley’s Recreation Club to become Derby Baseball Club. On the 6th of June 1890 the first annual meeting of the National League of Baseball of Great Britain was held at the Queens Hotel, Birmingham, with the constitution being drawn up and agreed upon.

The constitution broadly followed the rules and regulations of the American leagues, Thomas Slaney (President) and Harry Lockett (Administrator) of the Stoke Baseball Club, Francis Ley (President of Derby Baseball Club), William McGregor (President of the Aston Villa Baseball Club) and James Allard on behalf of the absent William Sudell (President of the Preston North End Baseball Club) were all in attendance, Morton Betts was in the chair. A National League schedule was confirmed for the four clubs, with Aston Villa hosting Stoke on the 21st of June on opening day of a 42-game season, as agreed upon. It is clear, in retrospect, that for whatever reason the initial plan for a fully national league had been side-tracked by a mainly Midlands based core of teams. With Ley supplying the pennants and badges for the winning club and his self-publicity as the man who brought baseball to Britain, it is not hard to see where this influence may have come from.

This league did not take long to descend into chaos, with accusations of cheating and unsportsmanlike behaviour before, on the 4th of August 1890, the Secretary of Derby Baseball Club officially ‘retired’ the club from the National League, with immediate effect, citing financial losses and low attendances. Curiously, also on the 4th of August 1890, in a meeting at the Athenaeum, Derby, a new baseball club for the town of Derby was formed, with Ley elected as Chairman of the new club, and it was announced that his old club had been dissolved. Ley agreed to the new Derby Baseball Club being tenants of the Ley’s Recreation Centre (the Baseball Ground) rent free until the club was making a profit and it was reported that “for all practical purposes it (the dissolved club) was Ley’s Recreation Club” and the new club would be the real Derby Baseball club. Ley also maintained his claim that his dissolved works club had actually won the 1890 National League pennant, that he had kindly funded the trophies for, and not Aston Villa.

It is important to realise, with the advent of modern research and access to digital files and archives, that we must revisit the influence of Spalding and Ley and the popularly held claim that Ley introduced baseball to Britain, accept that Derby County Baseball Club were not the first baseball club in Britain and look again at how the wealth and influence of Spalding left us with a narrative that went unchallenged for decades…

It is important, at this point, to make it clear that Ley’s Derby Baseball Club were not Derby County Baseball Club as is commonly believed, they were nothing more than Ley’s own works team, as is clearly documented. In fact, earlier in February 1889 the Athletic News, on covering Ley’s call for football clubs in Britain to form baseball clubs, reported that Derby County Football Club had made their own plans for a club of their own, to challenge Ley’s Derby club. On the 8th of August 1890 the Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal stated that Ley had confirmed that he intended to cease the activities of the club, and had refused Spalding’s request for Derby Baseball Club to finish their National League fixtures and it was confirmed that Reidenbach and Bullas, American professionals at Derby were in the employ of Ley, in order to allow them to play for Derby. This was important, as the fall out between the clubs centred around the use of fully professional baseball players by Derby, with other clubs claiming it was an unfair advantage.

On the 8th of August 1890 Morton Betts, Secretary of the National League of Baseball of Great Britain issued a statement, in response to continued “incorrect statements” given to regional press by Ley, on events leading up to Derby Baseball Club ‘retiring‘ from the National League. It was stated that on the 9th of July Ley had agreed to only use his professional American pitchers in games versus Aston Villa, and that under this new arrangement Derby lost four out of their six matches, harming their championship prospects to the degree that Ley broke a number of bye-laws under threat of his Derby club withdrawing from the league, including refusing to field a nine on the 6th of August 1890 and giving the League Board no option but to erase the National League record of Derby. On the 11th of August 1890 the Birmingham Daily Post reported that three of the four National League clubs were being financed by Spalding Bros, whereby Derby Baseball Club were financed by Ley himself and it was this that lead to various financial disagreements as the two wealthy individuals fought to control the British game.

By March 1890 Spalding had turned his attentions towards the north, with a number of clubs popping up across Scotland, some with Spalding’s financial backing. In August 1890 the Spalding 50 Guinea Cup was established in Aberdeen, and eventually Spalding began to pursue a failed attempt at creating a British collegiate baseball system, as was popular in the United States. It is important to realise, with the advent of modern research and access to digital files and archives, that we must revisit the influence of Spalding and Ley and the popularly held claim that Ley introduced baseball to Britain, accept that Derby County Baseball Club were not the first baseball club in Britain and look again at how the wealth and influence of Spalding left us with a narrative that went unchallenged for decades, as the popularity of baseball in the United Kingdom waned in the post war era. Clearly, there are inaccuracies that require revision as a new national interest in the sport develops in the 21st Century. We should rightfully be proud of our role as a sporting nation in celebrating our part in baseball heritage and use this as a basis to build a stronger baseball identity on this side of the pond.

If you would like to share your own memories of how you became an Angels fan, about Britain’s own baseball heritage or your view on anything Angels related for Views Over the Pond please get in touch.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: