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A Brief History of UK Baseball
Written by Patrick Morely   

Organised baseball came to Britain in 1890. That year saw the founding of the National Baseball League of Great Britain and Ireland. Four teams were involved: all in England, despite the League's grand title, and all with close links to association football clubs: Derby County, Preston North End, Aston Villa and Stoke City.

One of the leading figures in the setting up of the League was Mr (later Sir) Francis Ley, a Derby industrialist who had become interested in the game on business trips to the United States. Also heavily involved was the American sporting goods magnate and former baseball star AG Spalding, who had hopes of expanding his already thriving business by selling baseball not only to Britain but the whole British Empire.

That first season ended in a certain amount of acrimony with Derby withdrawing, after having won enough games to be assured of the championship, because of protests about the number of experienced American players it was using. Nevertheless, the attendance figures were regarded as thoroughly satisfactory, with crowds as good as those who watched the average minor league clubs in the States.

From then on the game spread, with more clubs joining in. Baseball flourished particularly in the north-east with clubs in Middlesbrough, Darlington, Stockton and Thornaby. By 1899, the Spalding Baseball Guide felt confident enough to write that the game looked set for a bright future in Britain. But it was not to be and although organised baseball continued, on and off, with a baseball trophy being competed for annually between the years 1906 and 1911, gradually the public's interest waned and newspaper coverage was usually poor and uninformed. The bright future that had been forecast for the game never materialised.

Ballplayers in the Yorkshire League.

The years leading up to World War II saw another revival of baseball, mostly in the north of England and again thanks to a business magnate, Sir John Moores of the Littlewood Pools firm. His financial backing led to the founding in 1933 of a National Baseball Association and professional leagues were formed in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The first professional games got under way in 1936, with the Yorkshire League made up of sides from Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Hull, Dewsbury, Wakefield and Scarborough. Games regularly attracted 5,000 spectators - and, on occasion, as many as 10,000 - during a period of high unemployment with jobless men looking for ways of passing their time. Along with the professional game came a parallel development of amateur sides, and before long the sport was introduced to schools in the region. Baseball was heralded - once again - as the new growth sport. But it all came to a halt with the outbreak of war in 1939.

The war saw Britain invaded by a million and a half American servicemen and once more baseball was widely seen over here. Several exhibition games at Wembley Stadium attracted large crowds and the Baseball Ground in Derby once again resounded to the crack of the bat as two US service sides played the game that gave the ground its name. After the war, a baseball cup competition was revived in 1948 and continued, with gaps, in the years that followed. Ultimately the British Baseball Federation came into being and now organises a variety of amateur leagues up and down the country. With baseball now screened regularly on television, once again the future of the game in Britain seems to have taken an upward turn...

Patrick Morley is the Chairman of the British Baseball Historical Committee.

Last Updated on Thursday, 02 April 2009 20:26