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Derby's Baseball Ground Closes
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #8 - May 1997
Written by Patrick Morley   

This year sees the end of one of Britain's most enduring links with the great surge of interest in baseball that took place during the latter years of the 19th century. The Baseball Ground in Derby, the only sports stadium in the country bearing that name, is being closed down as Derby County Football Club move to a new home. Given Derby's important contribution to the history of the game in Britain it ought to be a rich source for the baseball historian.

Yet surprisingly, source material on this aspect of sporting history is seriously lacking, confined to a few extracts from reports in local newspapers. For example, this from the Derby Mercury of over a century ago: "The first gate at baseball ever seen at Derby was played on Ley's Recreation Ground on Saturday when the Derby Club play the Erdington Club Birmingham." The date was May 3 1890. The paper records that Derby won by 23 to 11 and were so superior to their opponents they had to lend them several of their players in order to make a game of it.

That historic encounter was by way of a practice match for the real baseball season which lay ahead. An English league had been set up, originally with the intention of eight clubs participating. But the organisers decided they could rely on only four sides regularly taking part, all of them associated with association football clubs. As well as Derby, the others were Preston North End (playing at the Deepdale soccer ground), Aston Villa (whose home was at Perry Barr before the move in 1897 to Villa Park), and Stoke (playing on the football ground adjoining the Staffordshire County Cricket Ground).

Derby, of course, played on what is now the Baseball Ground and was then the recreation ground for workers at the Ley's Malleable Castings Vulcan Ironworks. The Derby Mercury reported that "the new pavilions and stands on Mr Ley's ground are in a very forward state and will do the town great credit." Bryan, the team captain, called for young fellows about 21 to 24, weighing 10 to 12 stone "able to field smartly and throw well" to join the side. It already had a full complement but injuries were expected during the season and reserves were essential.

The very first league game was played at Derby on Saturday June 28 1890. It was, says the Derby Mercury, "watched with interest and appreciation by several thousand spectators." This time the opposition was Preston North End, much tougher competition than the earlier opponents. Derby's winning margin was only 6 runs to 4, but it was their fourth successive victory. On Monday, Derby played at home again beating Aston Villa by 4 runs to 1 "before a large number of people". As the local paper reports: "The Derby team it will be seen have done splendidly and they are very nearly certain to be the League champions at the end of the season."

While the league teams were battling it out, a Baseball Council was being set up to represent both amateur and professional clubs. It was established at a meeting in Birmingham on July 9. By then 36 baseball clubs were already flourishing in Britain. One of the leading figures on the new body was the Derby industrialist Mr (later Sir Francis) Ley. It was he who played a major role in establishing baseball in England and in doing so ensured that Derby would play a leading part in the new sport.

He had become interested in the game on business visits to the United States. As he was to recount later: "Having seen the game played on numerous occasions in the United States it occurred to me it would be really a first class game to introduce in Derby." The previous year (1889), two top American sides had come to Britain and played a series of games which had been widely reported in the newspapers and illustrated magazines. When they played at the Oval, the Prince of Wales himself watched the game and met the players on both sides. That tour was arranged by AG Spalding, an American sports goods magnate who decided England was ripe for baseball and not only sent over experts to educate the natives on the subtleties of the game but was prepared to invest money as well.

At the end of the successful 1890 introductory season, Francis Ley presided at a well attended meeting in the Athenaeum Rooms in Derby to set up a club on a permanent footing. He offered not only a 50 guineas challenge cup but the Ley's ground, uniforms, gear and a nucleus of skilled players, all at "charges which would not handicap the new club." In five weeks of the season just ended, he said, they had taken about £150 in gate money and expenses had not exceeded £20 a week, so clearly a club could be made to pay. There was plenty of local support, he said: "One has only to go any evening around Litchurch and other parts of the town to see boys playing baseball enthusiastically." Other local businessmen voiced their support and what the local paper calls a very successful meeting ended with the setting up of a committee to run the new club.

So at the end of the summer of 1890 the Derby baseball club was poised to do battle in an attempt to establish baseball as a serious sport. Yet there, astonishingly, the story ends, at any rate as far as the local papers are concerned. Though Derby won the league cup more than once with a team which included such famous Derby County players as Steve Bloomer (capped 23 times for England and the scorer of over 350 goals) and even defeated the American champions, the Boston Beaneaters, not one reference is to be found in the index of local newspapers at the Derby Local Studies Library. It seems most unlikely that none of these triumphs was reported in the Derby press. Clearly, then the index is far from comprehensive.

The only way to find the missing baseball reports is to go laboriously through all the local papers of the 1890s page by page. That would mean someone staying in Derby for probably two or three days, an expensive piece of research. So I have enlisted the aid of one of the local schools in the hope that some of their students who are keen on sports research might do the job for us, at the time of writing, I await results.

Earlier I had made contact with the descendants of Francis Ley. The family proved not only interested but very helpful. They searched all their family papers for any reference to baseball but, alas, without success. It appears that much of Sir Francis's business correspondence was destroyed when the family firm was wound up some years ago. So, no helpful leads there. I next tried Derby County Football Club, who simply didn't bother to respond. So I managed to persuade Radio Derby to give me a five minute slot on their main morning news programme and that did draw one valuable, though negative, response.

The former coach for Derby County, who was with the club for 30 years, heard my broadcast and rang me to say that when Brian Clough took over as manager he ordered that all mementos of the club's past should be disposed of. "Forget about the past," he ordered. "Derby County's history starts now." A general clear out began and in a cupboard that had not been opened for years was found a collection of baseball gear from the 1890s: bats, balls, gloves, a treasure house of baseball memorabilia. It was all disposed of. Also found was a collection of minute books and these apparently were handed over to the City Museum. So far I have not been able to track down their whereabouts. I also established that the Baseball Cup which Derby County won several times has not been seen at the club certainly since the Second World War.

You see therefore why I said at the beginning of this article that source material on baseball in Derby is sadly lacking. All the same, I am pressing on with my investigations in the Derby area and will report progress in a later Issue of the Examiner. I am also exploring one other promising source and that is the collection of baseball papers belonging to AG Spalding, the l9th century star and sports magnate. Here, I am enlisting the aid of our SABR colleagues across the Atlantic in the hope that his correspondence with Sir Francis Ley and other worthies who helped to form the England Baseball League will come to light and provide us with some valuable historical material. Watch this space!