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Baseball in Graceland
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #12 - July 2001
Written by Patrick Carroll   


Ned Hanlon, who joined the tour

On March 15, 1889 the first competitive game was played at the newly-completed Gloucester County Cricket Ground at Ashley Down, Bishopston, in the historic English seaport city of Bristol. The contest was not a cricket match but, rather, an exhibition game between two teams of American professional base ball players. The press coverage given to the event -- including stories headlined "The American Base Ball Players in Bristol", which appeared in two separate journals -- indicate that the bemused incomprehension with which many Britons often react to the American National Pastime hasnÕt altered much in 112 years.
 
The visit came at the climax of a world tour which, having started in November 1888, had taken base ball to Australia, New Zealand, Ceylon, Egypt and continental Europe. The tour was, of course, the brainchild of Albert Goodwill Spalding, and the purposes of the venture were a typical mixture of that Gilded Age archetypeÕs passionate missionary zeal for the game, go-getting business "push", and his often Machiavellian politicking.
 
It had been intended that the tourists would play their first game in England at Bristol. The choice was no coincidence: both Spalding and his Gloucestershire hosts recognised the opportunity for some mutually beneficial commercial backscratching. The construction of the new cricket ground at Ashley Down had been under way since the previous year, a company having been formed for the express purpose of building and promoting it. The 26 acres of farmland was acquired at a cost of £6,500, with a further £2,000 set aside to prepare the site for first-class cricket. Dr WG Grace was the club's representative on the company board, and he and his fellow-directors obviously saw in the Americans' visit a fine chance for some pre-season marketing.
 
At the time, Grace was 40 years old, but though his effectiveness as a bowler of the top rank was on the decline, he was still easily the premier batsman in first-class cricket. Grace and Spalding, then 38, would have been a well matched pair. Both were physically imposing men -- Grace particularly so, standing 6'2" and boasting a long House of David beard -- and had outsized personalities to match. Spalding, naturally, realised the immense publicity value of associating the prestigious WG with his tourists.
 
In the event, as might have been predicted of an English March, the weather was uncooperative. The Clifton Chronicle noted: "They originally intended to play their first match in England... on the Gloucester County Ground in honour of Dr WG Grace, the champion cricketer, but the great floods forced the postponement at the last moment."
The Bristol Observer got in on the act, too:
"It was rather an honour that they should have consented to make their first English appearance in the County of the Graces, but the weather, which here flooded a quarter of the city... in the English Channel gave the base ballers such an unmerciful pitching and tossing as they crossed from France, that they admitted they landed at Victoria [the London railway terminus for boat trains] fairly done up, and could on Saturday last scarcely have done justice to a game which requires in the fullest sense the exercise of all the physical faculties and plenty of mental keenness."
In the face of these circumstances, the tourists played their first games in and near London. On March 15, six days later than the originally planned arrival in Bristol, the Western Daily Press ran this rather prickly and self-defensive paragraph.
"The base ball players yesterday raised their siege of London, and today advance upon the provinces, beginning at Ashley Down. We in the provinces are not going to take our opinions about base ball from London, any more than we take our opinions about cricket. The public assembled at Ashley Down today will be as competent to form an opinion upon the game as the critics at Lord's, or as the crowds at the Oval... But it seems worth noting that the base ball players seem to have interested London rather than converted it from a belief in cricket."
The Bristol Times & Mirror next day struck a less curmudgeonly note in its very full report, which commenced:
"The band of Americans who have been touring around the world giving exhibitions of their national game of base ball arrived in Bristol yesterday morning from London. They were met at the Joint Railway station by several gentlemen, with whom they drove to the Grand Hotel. Subsequently the teams and a few others interested in athletic sports in the city were entertained at luncheon by the directors of the County Ground Company. The Duke of Beaufort [a long-standing friend of Grace], to whom all the visitors had been introduced, presided."
After listing those in the party of about 50 present, including all the players and several local dignitaries, the report went on:
"At the conclusion of a well-served luncheon, The Chairman proposed 'The Queen' (applause). He said it was unnecessary for him, in the presence of visitors from the United States, to descant upon the virtues of the Queen and beneficence of her reign, for those were matters as well known to them as to those who lived under her rule (cheers). The Chairman next submitted 'The health of the President and Prosperity of the United States' and remarked that he was sure the base ballers would receive hearty welcome wherever they went in this country. They did not look upon the visitors as strangers, for though the sea separated them by thousands of miles, yet they were joined not only by the electric telegraph, but by the blood running in their veins (cheers).
"Mr Lathrop [the US Consul], after the toast had been most enthusiastically drunk, humorously returned thanks. Mr EG Clarke, in proposing 'American Base Ball Clubs', asked local athletes not to hastily form an opinion on the merits of the game they were about to witness, for like cricket, it had many fine points, which require some knowledge of the game to appreciate.
"Mr A Spalding, in acknowledging the compliment, referred to the kindness with which they had been received during their tour in every part of the world where they met Englishmen. He appealed to Bristolians not to prejudge the game, and said until they had seen it played two or three times it was impossible to form anything approaching a correct idea of its merits. He wished they had been able to fill their original engagement, for they would have considered it a great honour to have made their first appearance in this country in the home of the best-known Englishman in the world -- WG Grace (applause). Mr [Adrian 'Cap'] Anson (whom Mr Spalding described as the 'WG of America') called upon the Americans present to give three cheers for Dr WG Grace. This having been done, three more were given for the Duke of Beaufort, and the proceedings terminated. The party were then conveyed in breaks to the County Ground at Ashley-hill."
Under the sub-heading "How the game is played", the Times & Mirror report continued with a diagram of a baseball diamond and a 400-word digest of the rules, beginning, inevitably, "The game, which is a natural development of rounders... "
 
The game report, under the further sub-heading "Chicago vs All America", estimated the crowd at just 3,000, attracted "by the novelty of the sport and the beautiful state of the weather", and noted that the ground, despite the recent severe rains was in "excellent condition". This may also be credited in some degree to Grace, who throughout the construction period had visited the site almost daily, apparently making life hell for the builders and groundsmen.
 
The teams were given as follows:

ALL AMERICA   CHICAGO
TL Brown Pitcher J Ryan
W Earle Catcher AC Anson
G Crane Long [sic] Stop TP Daly
FH Carroll 1st Base M Baldwin
J Manning 2nd Base FN Pfeffer
GA Wood 3rd Base T Burns
T Healy Left Field M Sullivan
E Hanlon Centre Field JK Tener
JG Fogarty Right Field R Pettitt

Both line-ups contain a few curiosities. The Times & Mirror wrote that "It will be observed by those who have read the accounts of the matches already played in this country, that several important alterations were made in the posts assigned to the various players. The most celebrated pitcher of each side was given a rest, and Daly, the great catcher of the Chicago team stood at short slip [sic], his usual position being occupied by Anson."

The rested pitchers were most likely to have been been Chicago's Mark Baldwin, who went 156-165 with 3.36 ERA during a career that started in 1887 and ended in 1893, and the All-Americans' John (not "T", as the Times & Mirror reported) Healy, who ended an eight-year career in 1892 with an ERA of 3.85 and a less than stellar record of 78-136. The All Americans' starting pitcher here was presumably the speedy Liverpool-born outfielder Tom Brown, whose middle initial was "T" (not the reported "L") and whose major league pitching career consisted of twelve games -- only one of which he started -- in which he went 2-2 with an ERA of 5.29. Jimmy Ryan, the Chicago starter, was also primarily an outfielder during his 18-year major league career -- and a good one, too, with a lifetime average of .313 and a fair measure of power to go with it -- but in the 24 games in which he pitched, he went 6-1 with a 3.62 ERA.
 
This chopping and changing of positions may have been a result of fatigue at the end of a long tour, but is odd when considered in the light of the locals' general complaint that, despite the final score -- at 10-3 to Chicago, higher than average for the period -- the pitchers enjoyed such a marked superiority over the batsmen as to render the game tedious. It is also worth considering the general quality of the All American team. The players were, in the main, journeymen, the likes of Tom Brown, who hit .265 over 17 seasons; Fred Carroll, who went .284 during an eight-year stint in the majors; and Ned Hanlon, a career .265 hitter who later managed his way to a 1253-1096 record and, in 1996, a posthumously awarded plaque in the Hall of Fame. Others, though, were downright nonentities. They may have been the best Spalding could get for the money he was willing to pay, but if he was passing this generally uninspiring bunch off to the unsuspecting Brits as some kind of elite All Star team, he must have been at one with PT Barnum in believing that there's a sucker born every minute.
 
Of course, one All American player -- a Banquo's ghost at the Grand Hotel luncheon, and a salient absentee from Ashley Down -- was John Montgomery Ward. This popular and charismatic star, possibly the most famous player of the era, had been asked by Spalding to captain the All America team. Ward was the moving force behind and within the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the three-year-old players' union, and more than one baseball historian has speculated that Spalding's motive in hiring Ward for the tour was to get him out of the US during the off-season while his fellow magnates drafted the infamous Brush Plan that formulated a draconian new standard contract designed to severely curtail players' rights and conditions. Early in the course of the tour, Ward became aware of the Brush Plan and Spalding's probable complicity in its framing and, upon landing in England, took the first available ship back to the US to see if any measures could be taken to counteract Spalding's and the other club-owners' machinations. All this cut-and-thrust ultimately culminated in the Players' League revolt of 1890.
 
On the other hand, the Bristol spectators may not have been so easily had, the Times & Mirror pointing out that "the appearance of the men upon the field was the occasion for the only cheering heard during the afternoon". In contrast to the Times & Mirror's generally even-handed report was that of the Western Daily Press, which continued in the waspish vein of its previous day's note under the headline "Cricket's competitor":
"Probably out of the thousands of people who went to Ashley Down yesterday to watch the match between the Chicago and All American base ball players there would not be very many who were sufficiently 'enthused', as the Americans would say, to witness a return match if one had been arranged. It is necessary, indeed, to guard against excessive deprecation of a game which is clearly more interesting to play than it is to watch. It is very likely extremely fascinating to the striker to try to hit balls delivered with great skill by the pitcher, but the spectator must require to have his sympathies quickened by partisanship in order to be roused from the depressing effects which the repeated failures to hit produce in his mind."
The piece -- it would be inaccurate to call it a report, being more of an essay meant to disparage baseball and highlight its marked inferiority to the English game -- continues with the same tone of frank prejudice and lofty patronisation that only ignorance can perfectly produce. It seems only fair to point out, though, that I have heard American sportscasters -- notably, on one particularly toe-curling occasion, the late Harry Caray -- treat cricket with the same brand of fatuous facetiousness that is always the mark of the truly ill-informed.
 
The Times & Mirror, while more restrained and less obnoxious in tone, did have the same faults and virtues to find in the American game. It remarked: "The Americans deserve all the praise they have received for their marvellous fielding. Certainly cricketers could learn much from them in throwing, though doubtless with a little practice our county men would make just as brilliant deep-field catches." But the reporter did join in the discontent at the apparent superiority of pitchers over batters: the regular failure of the latter was found monotonous and an admitted inability to appreciate the subtleties of the former made the spectators restless, and it was noticed that the crowd of 3,000 to 4,000 had thinned out considerably by the end of the seven-inning game. There may have been a certain prescience in this reaction to the perceived imbalance between pitchers and hitters, a constant in baseball right up to the present day: four seasons later, the rules were changed to the overall advantage of the offence.
 
Those who did leave the Chicago--All America exhibition early missed what must have been an entertaining post- game diversion, wherein -- as the Bristol Observer put it -- "a few of the chief members of the Gloucestershire team [had] a chance to bat against [the Americans'] peculiar delivery". The cricketers, with one or two exceptions, were conspicuously unsuccessful in dealing with the American pitchers. WG Grace was not one of the exceptions. The Western Daily Press man noted that: "Dr Grace, who would probably be able to hit most full pitches with only a broom-stick, was not able to stop many of the balls delivered to him." Easily the most effective of the cricketers was WG's elder brother, Dr EM Grace. EM was known as "The Coroner", although I am unable to say if this sobriquet referred to his medical or his sporting activities. He was not anything like his brother's equal as an all-round cricketer, but was renowned for the prodigious length of his hitting. He was what cricketers call a "slogger"; such was the force and velocity of his strokes -- many of which were, in the parlance of the English game, "cross-bat" shots -- that at one period he was banned from playing at a number of village cricket grounds as a danger to both players and property.
 
The final verdict of the more or less sympathetic Times & Mirror reporter was that base ball was unlikely to supplant cricket in the affections of the English, but would be more entertaining if the teams played fewer innings and if the batsmen were "armed with a larger club, or with an instrument more in the shape of the cricket bat". In other words, if it was more like cricket, people who liked cricket would like it better. The Western Daily Press ended its coverage in the same tone of magisterial patronage which had infused its entire article: "The experience gained yesterday confirms the impressions which descriptions of the game produced, that is that base ball is an admirable game -- for Americans". I don't know if Al Spalding -- who, generally speaking, had the scruples of a stoat and, to quote the great AJ Leibling's friend, Colonel Stingo, "the soul of Jimmy Hope the bank robber" -- lifted and reversed this phrase directly from the Bristol writer, or whether it was a general usage, but he wrote in his 1911 autobiography: "Cricket is splendid game -- for Britons... Cricket is an Athletic Sociable... Base Ball is an Athletic Turmoil. Base Ball is War!"
 
In the Act III, "Don Juan In Hell" portion of Bernard Shaw's play, Man & Superman, the Devil refers to the Biblical "Great Gulf" fixed between Heaven and Hell not as a "mere physical gulf" between the Blessed and the Damned -- "which they could bridge, or I could bridge it for them: the earth is full of Devil's Bridges" -- but as a metaphor symbolising the difference between the angelic and the diabolic temperament, and "the gulf of dislike, which is impassable and eternal". Thus, historically, has been the attitude of most Americans toward cricket and most Englishmen to baseball.
 
It is telling to note that two recent, voluminous and apparently thorough biographies of WG Grace, while mentioning the building of the Gloucestershire County Ground, make not the slightest reference to this episode in its inauguration, and their respective indices contain no entries for either baseball or Spalding. Alas, the combination of airy ignorance, blinkered chauvinism and complacent prejudice that has left two great (mainly) English-speaking nations anaesthetic to each other's traditional versions of two bat, ball and running games, both with a common ancestry, also leaves those who have a genuine love and appreciation of baseball and cricket to sit in the stands -- either at Ashley Down or Shea Stadium -- pondering questions such as: "Why didn't Al Spalding and Harry Wright scout 'The Coroner' Grace when they toured England back in '89? He would've been a helluva prospect."
Last Updated on Monday, 06 April 2009 19:42