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Way Down South
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #12 - July 2001
Written by Ronald Price   

The 1889 Spalding tour -- the Gloucester leg of which is to detailed in Patrick Carroll's article -- also included matches at Leyton, used by Essex CCC, and the Kennington Oval, Surrey CCC's headquarters. The latter game took place in the presence of its royal landlord, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII. Yet the south of England did not respond to the tour as they did in the north and midlands. Down south, lacrosse, hockey, polo, and variant games based on cycling and roller skating had more prominence.

Unlike soccer and rugby league subsequently, who each prevented the use of their grounds by practitioners of the other sport, there is no evidence that cricket took similar action against baseball. The general consensus was that there was room for both sports in the summer months, although the significant expansion of cricket's County Championship in 1895, taking it from eight to 14 clubs, may owe something to the challenge presented by the American game.

There was a game staged at the Crystal Palace on Independence Day in 1896, where cricket's bowlers absorbed lessons of swing and swerve from baseball's pitchers. There were some experiments with time-limited cricket matches, too, which suggests there was underlying concern with the potential of baseball. But it was not until 1906 that the south had its first known league-based attempt at baseball. The inspiration for this is uncertain, although Julian Holland's history of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club indicates that Charles Roberts, who had become chairman of the limited company club in 1898, was "a local rugby player and one time pitcher for a Brooklyn baseball team".

Hotspur, indeed, were the first winners of the British Baseball Cup in 1906. By May 1907, a baseball season ticket for games at White Hart Lane was five shillings (about £13). Their first team played in a British League, their second team in a London League. Woolwich Arsenal (at Plumstead), Clapton Orient (at Homerton) and Leyton (at what is now Brisbane Road), all professional football clubs, had teams in both competitions. Fairbairn House and Erith also had teams in the London League, and there is evidence of Americans studying at Oxford playing their native sport. Patrick Morley reported that Fulham, in 1908, were the last traced winner of this British Baseball Cup. At a mere two months -- May and June -- he British baseball season was a short one, as groundsmen needed time to restore the pitch for the new soccer season that then started in the last week of August.

It was February 1914 when the champion baseball teams of America came to Stamford Bridge (home to Chelsea FC), fully recognising that without a participant base, it could only hope to spark an interest. King George V was in attendance, in so doing attending a major baseball game before he witnessed his first FA Cup Final. In 1918, Britain celebrated American Independence Day in recognition of American help in the Great War. These celebrations were marked by a further game at Stamford Bridge, watched by many dignitaries including members of the Royal Family (for the record, the American Navy defeated the American Army 2-1). More significantly, though, an Anglo American Baseball League began to operate, and there were more than 20 other games throughout the country.

However, a professional game needs good spectator facilities and permanent parks, and the attendances did not justify the outlay. This fact was reinforced in 1919 when chewing gum magnate William Wrigley paid the equivalent of £180,000 for the National League franchise in Chicago. The effect of World War I, the major loss of young life and the ensuing Depression set back the Victorian zeal for sports promotion, and many imported sports went into decline. It's possible, too, that the Black Sox scandal, exposed in 1920, may have had an effect on the British sense of fair play and integrity.

The next baseball activity in the south of England can be traced to 1933, when Loftus Road -- the home of Queens Park Rangers FC -- staged a short season of games under the auspices of the Anglo American Baseball Club. There were matches against the varsity and games billed as the British Empire versus the United States, though plans for the first varsity baseball match fell through.

As in 1906, quite what sparked the activity in 1935 is not wholly clear. The formation of a team in Streatham in south London came about from Canadians playing professional ice hockey at the local rink. East London may have owed the formation of its teams to the Canadian connections of the Brigg Motor Bodies Co, Ltd, or the fact that when the Ford Motor Company relocated to Dagenham in 1931, many of its employees, who came with them from Manchester, already had an interest in the game.The final at Shepherd's Bush Stadium in White City involved London and Liverpool, with the zone finals were club-based. The attendance was a healthy 8,600. The northerners led 5-3 after three innings, but ended up on the wrong side of a 15-5 scoreline.

The National Baseball Association came into being for following year, with the professional launch of the Yorkshire League in 1936. A London Major League was in operation by 1937; of the six teams, two each were based at Browns Field, the home of Isthmian League amateur football club Nunhead, and at the greyhound stadiums of Romford and West Ham. Romford, the winners, progressed to the final of the NBA Professional Cup, where they lost 5-1 to Hull. However, the league was not successful: by 1938, many of the players from the previous year's professional league had parachuted down to the purely amateur London Senior League which became the area's top competition. There was also a national amateur competition under the auspices of the NBA.

For the first time, though, there was significant baseball activity among youngsters in and around London and the home counties. The inspiration came mainly from towns with Royal Air Force bases in its locality: the game was strongly encouraged by the RAF, and it was believed that the Army was also showing an interest. Chipping Norton had an eight-team league, spreading the gospel to Wycombe and Swindon, and Eltham were encouraged by the decision of the Kent physical education advisers to recognise the game. West London, meanwhile, was the centre of the Metropolitan League, which included several of the 1935 pioneers; though, with a senior and a junior competition, the East London League was the largest. The league contained several work-based club sides, plus clubs based in the Essex corridor of the Thames and even a team from Blackheath. The Essex Baseball Club announced its intention to play basketball in the winter to keep its members together.

The Daily Mirror had instituted a scheme that awarded bats for promising junior performances in 1937, and in 1938 provided a trophy, the design of which was a silver glove on a plinth, that strengthened its attachment to the sport. The league was organised in ten areas.As Ian Smyth has indicated, World War II halted the progress of the league, though it is known that the Southern Command of the Army implemented a major sports programme in 1940.

After 1945, the East London League gave way to the two-division South Eastern League, which, by 1953, was centred on the Dagenham area. The local authority was very supportive, providing 'parks' within several parks, and clubs continued to play in the Essex corridor of the Thames. In 1956, the senior division of six clubs included two teams from Surrey and one from north London. Intermediate divisions also operated: in 1948, Wormwood Scrubs provided a home for the West London Pioneers, who opposition included a team from Chipping Norton. By 1959, the South Eastern League had become the Southern League and expanded into the metropolitan area of Hertfordshire and Middlesex (there was, though, also an intermediate club in the Sussex town of Crawley). A side representing the league lost 7-4 to the full US Navy team.

Although the Ford Motor Company had brought Briggs Motor Bodies in 1953, it was not until 1960 that the two sporting sections merged, impetus for the founding of a British Baseball Federation. A National Baseball Club also came into existence, owing its inspiration to the motor company. It staged a one-day event, with semi- finals of five innings and a final of seven innings, at their Rush Green Road sports ground. Bromsgrove won the first three competitions (1959-1961), with the East Hull Aces taking the 1962 event. Regrettably, there are no Southern League tables published in the sources examined.

The league failed to promote a youth concept, despite the existence of the first ever playleadership scheme in Dagenham's parks. Instead, the new craze of ten-pin bowling grabbed the interest. By 1971, there did not appear to be any baseball in metropolitan Essex, but in 1982, the Southern England Baseball Association, despite suffering from a shortage of accredited umpires and scorers, had teams in Croydon, Sutton and Ashford (Kent).

Today, the sport is at it most organised level, with the advent of a national training centre at the former RAF/USAF base at Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire, and two regional conferences. There are two divisions in the south, which comes together with a top four play-off in early August. Unlike its predecessors, it's keen to ensure that youth has its opportunity. The league has launched the Play Ball initiative, along with many coaching opportunities; the best 60 local youngsters, aged between nine and 12, take part in a Junior League, using the titles of American franchises. Each area Junior League champion then competes in a mini World Series. Whether this set-up will eventually develop into a professional league in Britain will be one of the more interesting sporting questions worth following for the first decade of the new century.

Sources: Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Dagenham Post, Tottenham & Edmonton Herald, West London Observer, South London Press, and Croydon Advertiser. Thanks to Graham Williams.

Last Updated on Monday, 06 April 2009 19:27