Maxwell Kates: John Bull Played The Game

JOHN BULL PLAYED THE GAME:

SABR AND BASEBALL IN THE UNITED KINGDOM

By Maxwell Kates

Maxwell Kates in London, 2018.

In the tradition of British-born television personality Richard Dawson, we asked 100 people the following. “What do people wear to a SABR convention?” Here are some of the answers:

“Baseball jerseys.”            32 points!

“Hawaiian shirts.”              21 points!

“Cargo shorts.”                  14 points!

“British fedoras.”

British fedoras????? What are you talking about? This is a question about American baseball. If you want to count British fedoras, kindly move your survey to the nearest British cricket match.

Richard Dawson on Family Feud.

There was, in fact, one SABR convention where a delegate was spotted wearing a British fedora. I know the legend to be true because I was that delegate. It was at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Houston back in 2014. When a fellow delegate asked why I bought the hat, my reply to him was, of course, “To match the jacket.”

Maxwell Kates in London, 2012.

This is the jacket, which I purchased from British tailor Leonard Jay. The London haberdasher had about a half-dozen shops to his name, including one where I shopped on Southampton Row. Leonard had a ritual that was somewhat unusual in England. Each year around the Jewish High Holy Days, Leonard and his wife closed up shop and spent three weeks’ holiday in Chicago. Why Chicago? “Because, in actual fact,” Leonard replied, “I like to be close to my Chicago Cubs.” Leonard even convinced me that ‘Cubs’ was an acronym for ‘Completely Useless By September.’

Leonard Jay Tailor
London, England

Leonard was a rarity amongst his countrymen, a baseball fan. Although baseball traces its origins to England, the sport never captivated a following the way football and rugby have. Even though organized baseball leagues elsewhere in Europe, Italy and the Netherlands to name two, have thrived, any attempts at professional baseball in England have not been successful. A high school drama teacher from England named Mr. Saunders even inscribed in my yearbook that “Too many books about baseball are bad for the brain!”

Still, baseball does have a history in the United Kingdom. Much of the story of baseball in England has been brought to life by SABR, as it has on this side of a small pond called the Atlantic. What you are about to read is not only a narrative of four centuries of baseball in England, but also how SABR served to intermediate between Major League Baseball and the British public.

David Block, San Francisco SABR
Researcher of Baseball in England

Back in 2013, David Block, a SABR member from San Francisco, unearthed the following text from the Whitehall Evening Post dated September 19, 1749:

“On Tuesday last, his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and Lord Middlesex, played at Bass-Ball (sic), at Walton in Surry (sic); notwithstanding the Weather was extreme (sic) bad, they continued playing several Hours.”

Now Pitching, Prince Frederick!

What may be most intriguing about the passage from the Whitehall Evening Post is that Prince Frederick was 42 years old at the time while Charles Sackville was 38. Earlier discoveries suggest that the game was played by juvenile participants in 18th century England. Prior to the David Block revelation, the earliest reference to baseball was an entry in William Bray’s diary that he played the game on Easter Sunday in 1755. Although earlier research traces baseball’s ancestry to a British sport called rounders, this assertion is considered to be problematic. The earliest reference to rounders by that name dates back only to 1828. When in fact some thirty years before, when Jane Austen wrote Wuthering Heights, she described protagonist Catherine Morland as having preferred “cricket, base-ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country…to books.” A second and distinct sport known as ‘British baseball’ does in fact trace its origins to rounders.

Rubbish!

In 1874, the Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics embarked on a midseason tour of England. Boston manager Harry Wright was, in fact, a native of Sheffield, England. The first and only professional baseball league in England was established in 1890 by Derbyshire industrialist Sir Francis Ley and former American pitching star Albert Spalding. Although the National Baseball League of Great Britain and Ireland folded after only one season, the Derby County Football Club continued to play at Baseball Grounds for over a century.

British Baseball and the West Ham Club.

Baseball reached its zenith in popularity in the United Kingdom in the 1930s. By the middle of the decade, three semi-professional circuits were established: two in the north and a third in London. Many of the players were American or Canadian, including Quebec’s Roland Gladu who starred at 1st base for West Ham in London. In 1938, the United Kingdom defeated the United States in a series of five tests which today is considered to be baseball’s first World Cup. Some of the matches drew up to 10,000 spectators and baseball appeared to be on the rise when the Second World War broke out. Although there is no professional baseball in the United Kingdom today, the game has survived on an amateur level with 74 teams participating in 2017. There have been a handful of British-born players in the major leagues, including former Astro Keith Lampard, but most learned to play baseball in the United States or Australia.

Harvey Sahker, Croydon Pirates_ Outfielder

The Harvey Sahker Baseball Collection.

Not surprisingly, ‘baseball as we know it’ in England is largely the work of SABR members. Toronto-born Harvey Sahker, who played outfield for the Croydon Pirates for thirteen seasons, has chronicled baseball in his adopted country in “The Blokes of Summer.” London-born lawyer and journalist Josh Chetwynd (who is also director Lionel Chetwynd’s son) has written specifically about one team in “British Baseball and the West Ham Club,” which he co-authored with Brian Belton. In 2008, SABR member Joe Gray founded Project COBB; unlike ‘Cubs,’ COBB actually is an acronym, meaning Chronicling of British Baseball. Not surprisingly, the Bobby Thomson Chapter is active in the Origins Committee and they have met regularly at the Three Kings Pub in Clerkenwell. Bruce Greenberg, an American expatriate from Alabama and an avid Astros fan, serves as its chair.

Models Wearing Ritva Man Sweaters, 1971.

Of course, no narrative about baseball in the United Kingdom would be complete without the accomplishments of Mike Ross. Mike is an American, born in Portland, Maine in 1936. After having graduated from Syracuse University, Mike bought a one-way steamship ticket and sailed to Britain in 1959. Trained as a graphic designer, Mike studied at the Royal College of Arts. He wore many hats over the course of his career. Along with a business partner, Mike owned a wool factory whose ‘The Ritva Man’ knitwear became a part of the fashion scene that characterized the ‘swinging sixties’ in London. Later Mike opened a general store selling American products in London, and later still he became a record company executive, sending Charlie Dore to stardom in 1979 with her hit single ‘Pilot of the Airwaves.’ Finally in 1982, Mike returned to his roots, devoting his career to his first love: baseball.

British Recording Artist Charlie Dore.

Mike’s baseball features and photographs were syndicates in sports pages throughout the United Kingdom, thereby educating a British audience on the game. For example, in 1991 in Baltimore, he covered Queen Elizabeth’s first ever baseball game at Memorial Stadium. Mike even photographed Her Majesty with Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa of the visiting Oakland Athletics. He covered several All-Star Games and World Series, including the 1992 Fall Classic between the Atlanta Braves and the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Mike Ross Baseball Collection.

In 1988, he wrote his first book entitled “Baseball.” Modelled after the Bill Mazeroski publication in the United States, “Baseball” provided a narrative on the history of each major league team, along with a composition of the contemporary roster. Eleven years later, in 1999, Mike teamed with fellow Boston Red Sox historians Bill Nowlin and Jim Prime to write “Fenway Saved.” Several of the photos in these two books were taken by Mike Ross. A third manuscript, a biography of Bobo Newsom, was never published. Mike was a regular attendee at the Nine Baseball Conference in Arizona and often travelled home via Houston in order to visit with a personal friend of his, Monte Irvin. The father of Maija Ross, Mike has lived for many years in the Little Venice section of London.

Mike Rpss, Stephen Laski, and “Monte,” in 2007.

SABR has been instrumental in unearthing and narrating the history of baseball in England, the country from where the game originated. Despite the lack of professional leagues in the United Kingdom, the game has retained a small following through newspaper coverage and more recently, the Internet. Today, baseball in England has become its own permanent exhibit. In 2014, two years after my most recent visit with Mike Ross, he donated his entire baseball collection to the British Library. The collection includes over 300 books, personal letters, and even artwork, such as a lithograph of Ted Williams signed and numbered by British pop artist Peter Blake. The collection is housed at the British Library on Euston Road, just a pop fly west of the landmark St. Pancras Station.

Two years later still, in 2016, Leonard Jay’s Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Now he has to come up with a new acronym.

Let’s end by congratulating this man on his retirement.

Congratulations, Bill!

 

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And thank you again, Maxwell Kates, for another beautifully written and informative article on baseball history and its roots in England. Now we also are primed to the amusing imagery of Prince Frederick of Great Britain pitching ~ and how he might look today, wearing that same 18th century garb, in a critical diamond encounter with Jose Altuve. ~ Man! ~ What a picture that is!

Your work excels and always teaches, friend. Thank you for all you do to bring greater light to the true full history of our game.

Bill McCurdy, The Pecan Park Eagle

 

******************** 

Bill McCurdy

Principal Writer, Editor, Publisher

The Pecan Park Eagle

 

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One Response to “Maxwell Kates: John Bull Played The Game”

  1. maxwell1901 Says:

    And thank you, Bill, for publishing the article. You can find the Charlie Dore song that Mike produced on Youtube; late 1970s country rock. Excellent use of the Morecambe and Wise “rubbish” caption, by the way.

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