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The Last Game
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #5 - January 1995
Written by Patrick Morley   

More than 50 years ago, in 1944, we were in the middle of a World War. Britain was packed with thousands of American troops all waiting to go over to join the fighting in newly invaded France, once the breakout had been achieved from the invasion bridgeheads. Yet amazingly, some of those troops found time to stage an exhibition baseball game for several thousand bemused English spectators in a Midlands town.

The final match at the Baseball Ground.

It was probably the last baseball game ever played at the Baseball Ground in Derby, home of Derby County Football Club. The Americans, stationed at a huge army camp several miles out of the town, had been intrigued as to how a football stadium, as they called it, came to be named after their national sport.

The answer lay in a factory whose chimneys poured out smoke right next to the Baseball Ground. Ley's Malleable Castings had been founded by a Victorian industrialist, Sir Francis Ley. In 1888 he went to America on a business trip and became so enamoured of baseball he decided to support those who were trying to introduce the game over here. His money and enthusiasm was a big factor in setting up an English league.

The Baseball Ground emerged from what had originally been a sports ground for the workers at the factory. Part of it was used by Derby County FC, whose players were to make up the nucleus of the baseball team. There were four teams in the league formed in 1890, all based on football clubs. Apart from Derby the others were Preston North End, Aston Villa and Stoke City. That first league lapsed after a couple of seasons but in 1894 a National Association was formed.

The most notable player in the Derby side was Steve Bloomer, the England international inside right, capped 23 times and a prolific goal scorer with over 350 goals during his soccer career. For the Derby baseball team he played second base but sadly the statistics of his performance on the diamond have not come down to us. The side also boasted another England soccer international, goalkeeper Jack Robinson, the third baseman.


The 1890 Derby Base Ball Club, with its president Sir Francis Ley (centre, back row).

The Derby team did amazingly well. Not only did they win the English Baseball Cup three years out of four, they also trounced a top American team, the 1897 National League Champions, the Boston Beaneaters, when they were unwise enough to pay a visit in what was intended as a triumphal tour of England.

By 1898 it was clear the public's enthusiasm for baseball didn't match that of Sir Francis Ley. The game rapidly declined over here but by then Derby County were playing football regularly at the Baseball Ground and the name stuck.

Now, after a lapse of over 40 years, baseball was back again at the Baseball Ground. The Americans had promised to show the people of Derby what baseball was about, and even though D-Day had arrived only six weeks before, they kept their word. The date was Saturday, July 22, 1944, and among the crowd of several thousand was an excited schoolboy who probably knew more about the game than any other Englishman there.

My passion for baseball began with the film Pride of the Yankees. I watched mystified but entranced as Gary Cooper, in the role of Lou Gehrig, tried to fulfill his promise to a crippled child to hit three home runs in the same game. The crouching man in the mask snarling exultantly every time Coop swung and missed was clearly the villain of the piece. But what was it all about? Why didn't Gary Cooper belabour the squatting growling figure by his side with his bat? I must know more about this fascinating ritual.

I began listening regularly to AFN, the American Forces Network set up in England for the growing army of Yanks flooding into the country for the invasion of Europe. AFN transmitted live or recorded commentaries on major league games most days and I listened to them avidly. I got the general drift of what was going on but most of the details escaped me. Equally baffling were the baseball reports in the American newspapers we occasionally got to see, with their incomprehensible box scores.

I wrote to the Office of War Information at the American Embassy in London for enlightenment. Considering there was a world war on, they were remarkably helpful. They could have given me a polite brush off but not a bit of it. They sent a long detailed letter, telling me precisely what every item on the box score signified, explaining a variety of baseball terms and also listing all the major league grounds.

Then an aunt who lived in America put me in touch with a boy of my own age who was an avid fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ships running the gauntlet of the U-boats to bring vital supplies across the Atlantic also carried his letters containing baseball magazines, newspaper cuttings, and even photographs he had taken himself at Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds. Before long I was the best informed 14-year-old on baseball in Britain. I was familiar with all the heroes of the day and their nicknames before they vanished to join the forces: Joltin' Joe DiMaggio , the Yankee Clipper; Hammerin' Hank Greenberg; Stan the Man Musial; Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter. I absorbed the jargon of the game with a speed and ease that surprised me. If only I could have mastered physics and algebra with the same thoroughness.

But nothing spurred my enthusiasm more than watching a real live baseball game. The Americans certainly did it in style. There was a full military band, an informed, radio-style commentary over the loudspeakers and even popcorn and chewing gum dished out free. I was enthralled. Every now and then, as I sat there I'd close my eyes and imagine I was in Yankee Stadium. Maybe when I opened them again I'd see not the usual grimy factory chimneys but the skyscrapers of New York.

Almost all of the crowd at the game was totally bemused by what they saw. But there was at least one spectator who understood and appreciated it all. I listened with amused condescension to the uncomprehending remarks of those around me and read with even more disdain the report in the local paper. Looked at now more than 50 years later I see it was actually quite an amusing piece.

"No girls, I'm sorry," the paper's reporter wrote, "you've got it wrong. When an American talks of squeeze play he's not thinking on the same lines as you but of an intricate situation on the baseball field. That was only one of the things I learned at the Baseball Ground on Saturday. Another was that all the players on the fielding side keep up a nonstop babel of shouting. It may be encouragement, it may be imprecation, it may be directed at the guy who happens to be listening. I don't know. What I do know is that it isn't cricket! I gathered from my Yankee guide, counsellor and friend that the Derby crowd, in its deplorable ignorance, applauded spectacular aerobatic catches when it should have taken these for granted but failed lamentably to show due appreciation of the squeeze play and another mystifying move known as making a double play."

Some things clearly have changed little over the years. The reporter (a woman, by the way) notes that: "the baseball umpire, that is the referee, is just as defective in vision and general mental capacity as in football." And after reporting that the game ended in a 3-3 tie, called after seven innings (why, I never discovered), she writes: "Very sportingly, the commentator offered to have the players demonstrate any particular point in the game when the match was over. That, girls, should have given you the opening coyly to inquire about 'squeeze play'."

Whatever the girls got up to after the game, I made my way home filled with starry eyed satisfaction. Carefully folded in my pocket was the special souvenir programme. I have it still, creased and faded now but a reminder of that distant happy day. It hadn't been the Yankees or the Giants, just two scratch teams of American servicemen. It didn't happen in Yankee Stadium or the Polo Grounds, which all my dreams said it should. But it had been my first live baseball game and that was satisfaction enough.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 17 June 2009 19:35