The Forgotten Age of Northern English Professional Baseball

The small trophy in our possession clearly hints at a past glory, a time of professionalism for our sport that has long since passed and the likes we are almost certain to never see again on these shores.

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

Left to right: Bellafoire, Coward, Howard and Ritchie

In June 2021 we happened to stumble across a small, quite damaged little trophy engraved “N of E Baseball League – 1937- runners up” for sale, and in desperate need of rescue. In June 1935 the North of England Baseball League was already established and making headway with it’s then semi-professional arrangement. The Merseyside region had taken advantage of it’s heritage locally of the Welsh and English version of baseball to forge ahead with introducing the ‘American code’ of the game in recent years, and the North of England Baseball League had been the logical next step. The standout team of the 1935 season were the champions Oldham Greyhounds, though another team with big ambitions were the amateur Rochdale Greys, who uniquely had a roster made up entirely of Mormon missionaries from Utah, and whose players refused to accept payment for their talent.

The North of England Baseball League was primarily made up of clubs based in what is now Greater Manchester, many who held links to professional football (Association Football or soccer) clubs in the region. This new league was at times met with some disdain from residents of the Liverpool area, who held the opinion that they had spent years popularising the ‘American code’ whilst Manchester did not and yet their clubs were being overlooked. The driving force behind the rise of ‘American code’ baseball in Lancashire as a whole had long been Littlewoods Pools owner, John Moores, who had financially invested heavily into his dream of professionalism in northern England. Legend has it that Moores’ obsession stemmed from a chance meeting with John Heydler, the President of the National League, whilst in the United States. It was said that Moores made Heydler a one dollar bet that one day professionalism would exist in England and that England would defeat the United States (more on this later). From this his National Baseball Association in England was born.

By November of 1935 the defeated North of England Baseball League Cup finalists, Bradford Northern (the baseball arm of the illustrious Bradford Northern rugby league football club), made the logical move from the North of England Baseball League to the new fully professional Yorkshire league, joining other rugby league heavyweights such as Hull Kingston Rovers, Wakefield Trinity and Castleford who also had baseball arms of their clubs in that league. Northern’s place in the North of England Baseball League was taken up by the newly formed Liverpool Giants Baseball Club. The logic behind the new Yorkshire league was that the north would have two separate professional leagues, with the North of England Baseball League (now becoming fully professional) and the new Yorkshire league covering the north of England, with London to have the third professional league.

The driving force behind the rise of ‘American code’ baseball in Lancashire as a whole had long been Littlewoods Pools owner, John Moores, who had financially invested heavily into his dream of professionalism in northern England.

In December the new Liverpool Giants Baseball Club announced that they had signed their first players, James Cawley, a pitcher who had been plying his trade on the amateur circuit in the Merseyside area, with the Albion Baseball Club. Cawley was reputedly the bearer of one of the hottest fastballs in England. The club also acquired catcher Alf Coward, Sam Casey for left field and rather interestingly signed a local boxer, Ken Robinson, as first baseman. The secretary of the club was elected, Mr T Wilson, with his headquarters being at 51 Alverstone Road. The new club hired Jim Kelly to play short stop and coach.

By March 1936 the National Baseball Association had restructured it’s association entirely, with their headquarters moving to London. Notably representatives of both Liverpool and Everton football clubs were elected to leading roles, and John Moores acting as President:

G R Holmes (Liverpool Football Club) – Chairman
Ernest Green (Everton Football Club Director/Chairman) – Vice Chairman
John Charles Rouse (Liverpool Football Club Director) – Treasurer
G F Gledhill – Secretary
Theo Kelly (Everton Football Club Manager) – Executive
J F Langford (Liverpool County Football Association) – Executive
S B Bryan – Executive
P O’Grady – Executive

Also in March it was confirmed that the Giants would represent the city in the now professional North of England Baseball League, with the Giants to be based at Stanley Greyhound Stadium (Stanley Track). Stanley Track was located on Prescott Road in the City, and offered decent facilities, with standard admission being 6d (six pence) and admission to the stands being 1s (one shilling). In an effort to recruit families the admission for women was half price and for children just 2d. It is interesting to note that for the 1936 season, across the three professional leagues in Britain, there was an agreed salary cap of £2 10s per game for baseball players, with the average player starting three games per week.

It was confirmed that the Giants would represent the city [of Liverpool] in the now professional North of England Baseball League, with the Giants to be based at Stanley Greyhound Stadium…

In the 1936 season the Giants believed that they had enough strength in depth to have a second team in the Division Two of the North of England Baseball League, the Liverpool Royals, whilst maintaining the Giants as genuine title contenders. Amongst the 1936 roster the Giants had a number of professional football players such as; Wolverhampton Wanderers goalkeeper Alec Scott, and Port Vale full-back Harry Griffiths. A number of North Americans such as Edinburgh University player Ben Geringer (a native of West Virginia), Edward (Eddie) O’Melia (of Kansas City), Allan Forrest (of Scarsdale) and Canadian Bob Schofield were also on their books.

As early as May the local Liverpool press were bemoaning the fact that the new North of England Baseball League’s professional status had drained the local region of it’s best talent, including Littlewoods Baseball Club, the ‘works club’ of National Baseball Association President John Moores. The level of development in ‘the American code’ was so high in the Liverpool area that the new Yorkshire league was also tapping up their umpires. Towards the end of May 1936 an arrangement between the North of England Baseball League and London Major League that placed limits of transfers and fees was abandoned, with the northern clubs unhappy that this would result in a drain of the best professional talent to the London clubs.

In June Liverpool Giants signed a new catcher to their roster, D Wagner of the Oregon State League, in doing so releasing P Murray who joined former Liverpool area umpire William Cleasby, now coaching Bradford City Sox. Wagner faced serious competition for the catcher’s spot, with former Edinbrough University baseball player W Bellafoire, likely another American, becoming the latest star for the Giants. In July 1936, with the professional North of England Baseball League well under way, the amateur Liverpool Caledonians decided to take their star man, Everton and England footballer Dixie Dean, to challenge London side Harringay to a battle. Despite Dixie playing well the Liverpool amateurs were taught a harsh lesson by the Londoners.

Bootle Baseball Club welcomed Japanese baseball team Toyooka Maru to Merseyside. The fully amateur Bootle easily defeated the Japanese touring side 20 to 4 and it was noted that baseball in the area was now of such a high standard that these touring international teams would no longer have the upper hand when they came to England.

Around this time in 1936 the National Baseball Association turned their attention to grass roots baseball again in Merseyside and arranged baseball coaching and classes for a number of local schools. Over recent years Moores’ money had also extended to inviting international teams to challenge Lancashire baseball sides in England and July Bootle Baseball Club welcomed Japanese baseball team Toyooka Maru to Merseyside. The fully amateur Bootle easily defeated the Japanese touring side 20 to 4 and it was noted that baseball in the area was now of such a high standard that these touring international teams would no longer have the upper hand when they came to England.

By late July it was becoming obvious that the Manchester region had stolen a march on Liverpool, and that the formation of Liverpool Giants had been a season too late, as most of the local baseball talent had already been taken by the Manchester clubs for the previous season. This left the Giants with the task of finding and training up potential new professional players mid-season, and locals were unhappy that professional players born and bred in their region were leading men for rival Manchester clubs. The Liverpool Echo also encouraged locals to attend Giants games, as attendances were below the 10,000 expectation. They reported that the player’s jerseys were clearly numbered and play by play announcements were a feature over the stadium loudspeaker, and the informative club programmes enabled new spectators to easily follow play.

In August the Giants, despite a spirited first season in the North of England Baseball League, saw the championship go to the Rochdale Greys and they were forced to settle for an acceptable third place. The nearing end of the season saw the Giants turn their attention to recruiting North American talent, with Canadian second baseman Jack Ritchie signed to the roster alongside star pitcher Jack Lands, arriving from the Montreal Intermediate Baseball League. Lands apparently was an ice hockey goaltender, as it was reported on his acquisition that he had previously won the Dave Kerr Trophy twice in Montreal. Lands arrived in Liverpool with his new bride, having married three months prior, and used his move to Britain as a honeymoon! Both players also agreed to combine their duties with the Giants with coaching clubs in the amateur leagues.

The Giants made the decision to move from Stanley Track to their own privately owned, purpose built baseball stadium on Church Road, in Wavertree. The new ‘Giants Baseball Stadium’ had a capacity of 12,000 and comfortably allowed all spectators to see the diamond from all areas.

In January 1937 the Giants were rocked by the tragic news that W Thomas, of the club’s Management Committee, had passed away. Club Manager, W F Steel, and Secretary, L Wilson, both lamented the loss of such a knowledgeable baseball man and it was noted that the loss of Thomas’ newspaper coverage of baseball nationally (using the moniker ‘Chiming Bells’) would damage the growth of the sport. In March the Giants made the decision to move from Stanley Track to their own privately owned, purpose built baseball stadium on Church Road, in Wavertree. The new ‘Giants Baseball Stadium’ had a capacity of 12,000 and comfortably allowed all spectators to see the diamond from all areas.

In April it was announced that Liverpool football club winger Alf Hanson had signed for the Giants for the 1937 North of England Baseball League season, with Hanson reportedly then being one of the finest batters in the Merseyside area. The 1937 season began with the Giants retaining locally developed youth such as John Howard and Colin Grove, alongside established players such as catcher Eddie O’Melia, first baseman Bob Schofield and William (Billy) Brown. Canadian Albert (Al) Haley, a pitcher, was acquired by the Giants from Manchester Blue Sox, with John Howard, Jack Lands and Al Haley expected to be the three leading Giants starting pitchers in their rotation. Leading Merseyside amateurs, Liverpool Caledonians, were admitted to the league with Everton football great Dixie Dean combining professionalism in both sports. It was decided that clubs would no longer run reserve teams across the professional leagues.

In early May 1937 Liverpool football club threw a spanner in the works for the Giants, by declaring that Alf Hanson was barred from continuing in professional baseball, following the lead of Manchester City in banning dual sporting players due to the risk of injury. Everton though were to allow superstar Dixie Dean to continue to play for the Caledonians. In response the Giants signed former Liverpool player Lance Carr, a Blackpool Seagulls short stop who was then playing football for Newport County. The new Giants baseball stadium on Church Road was proving to be quite the draw, and it was announced that the Littlewoods works team would also use the new facility as their home ground, with Giants’ Jack Ritchie to act as their Coach, alongside former Liverpool footballer Cyrill Gilhespy.

Leading Merseyside amateurs, Liverpool Caledonians, were admitted to the [North of England] league with Everton football great Dixie Dean combining professionalism in both sports.

On the opening day of the 1937 season the Giants defeated Blackpool Seagulls easily, with new star pitcher Al Haley making light work of the Seagulls batters to the delight of the crowd at the new baseball ground in Wavertree. Towards the end of June the Giants were comfortably top of the North of England Baseball League but by mid-July their grip on the title had loosened significantly. Jack Lands, by now a relief pitcher, was traded to Blackpool Seagulls and the Giants acquired first baseman L Godin from Wakefield Cubs, of the Yorkshire league. In the season’s title run in the Giants ironically placed their hopes of overhauling leaders Oldham Greyhounds in the hands of their Merseyside rivals, the Liverpool Caledonians, who took on the Greyhounds in their final match of the season. Sadly for the Giants the Greyhounds proved their bogey side, in both league and cup competitions, and they had to settle for the North of England Baseball League runners-up spot.

In February 1938 it was announced that the North of England League and the Yorkshire league were making plans to amalgamate both professional competitions into one, with limits on professionalism. The thinking was that this would encourage greater attendances and interest from locals, though it must have been some disappointment to the Giants, who had seen their attendances improve since their move to their new stadium in Wavertree. Indeed the prophecy of Moores’ came true in 1938, when 10,000 excited fans packed into the new stadium to see the Giants’ own Jack Ritchie feature for England, against the USA touring side, which had arrived in Britain in preparation for the 1940 Olympics. In defeating the US team over the test the English became the first Baseball World Champions and Moores won his bet.

This new Yorkshire-Lancashire league came to fruition, with the Giants as members, but the interruption of World War Two destroyed baseball in England and the Liverpool Giants as a professional baseball club died with it. The USA team selected for the Olympics and defeated by England in the Baseball World Cup also saw their Olympic dream vanish. In fact it took the USA until 1974 to win their one and only amateur Baseball World Cup title. In July 1941 former North of England Baseball League players arranged to put a number of the league’s stars to work in an exhibition game, to assist the War Relief Fund, in Birmingham. In January 1950 representatives of clubs from Hull, Halifax, Liverpool, Oldham, Rochdale and Swinton met in Manchester and decided to revive a new North of England Baseball League but to no avail.

The small trophy in our possession clearly hints at a past glory, a time of professionalism for our sport that has long since passed and the likes we are almost certain to never see again on these shores. The trophy with base stands at a diminutive 15cm high (the trophy itself actually is slightly less than 11cm and clearly has been crushed at some point) and has been (badly) polished to within an inch of it’s life in the past. It’s importance would be unseen by the majority of the English population, who hold no interest in our game of baseball or it’s heritage. The Electro Plated Nickel Silver trophy was in quite a state when we acquired it, the black wooden base appears to be a later marriage and after us lightly cleaning and trying to preserve the trophy it became evident that at some time, after-the-fact, someone had crudely scratched the name ‘W E Pearce’ under the engraving. At the time of writing there is no evident player of this name for the Giants in the 1937 North of England Baseball League.

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.

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