What’s In A Name? The Curious History of Archaic British Baseball

As Britain prepared itself for the arrival of the Spalding funded 1889 Chicago White Stockings tour, bemused readers of the newspaper articles covering the efforts were quick to point out that baseball was not just British, but that we were rather good at it.

Angels in the UK Editor Matt Thomas, writes on the fascinating heritage of British baseball.

Sport in Great Britain has a curious habit of inventing rival codified rules and regulations that lead to the emergence of sports with distinctively different identities but a shared heritage, and baseball is one such example. Often cited as being American as apple pie, the actual earliest known mention and illustration of baseball were published in John Newbery’s A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, in 1744, and on the 31st of March 1755 William Bray, an English diarist, recorded that he had played “base ball” that day. Even the distinct American professional rules and leagues were largely influenced by a cricketing family from Sheffield, England, facts that A. G. Spalding largely ignored in his attempts to credit Abner Doubleday with the invention.

In May 2022, as part of our attempt to preserve domestic British baseball heritage, we added to our collection this 1897 cloth patch, that is a reminder of the golden era of British rules baseball. With roots in rounders, the game emerged in Wales and parts of North West England, particularly Merseyside, leading to the establishment of two rival national teams. The popularity of the game grew massively in these regions, in tandem with the rise of professionalism in American rules baseball in the United States. Professionalism in the United States was spearheaded by Englishman Harry Wright, who was central to the first professional ball club, the Cincinnati Red Stockings and the latter Boston Red Stockings, who he brought over to the United Kingdom as part of efforts to root the American rules on these shores, in 1874.

A Merseyside resident called for Stanford Perry, Secretary of the local Liverpool baseball clubs, to put together a team from local baseball and rounders clubs to challenge the Chicago White Stockings, when they arrived in Liverpool.

A member of Wright’s touring side was none other than A. G. Spalding, who was prominent amongst a number of figures who later were determined to establish professional baseball in Britain under the American rules. As Britain prepared itself for the arrival of the Spalding funded 1889 Chicago White Stockings tour, bemused readers of the newspaper articles covering the efforts were quick to point out that baseball was not just British, but that we were rather good at it. In a letter to the Liverpool Echo, published on the 1st of March 1889, a Merseyside resident called for Stanford Perry, Secretary of the local Liverpool baseball clubs, to put together a team from local baseball and rounders clubs to challenge the Chicago White Stockings, when they arrived in Liverpool. Indeed, the English Baseball Association archive (now inaccessible) once included correspondence and literature that suggested baseball playing dockworkers from Liverpool were the ones who originally exported the game to the United States.

In October 1889 the National League of Baseball of Great Britain met at the Criterion, London, to formally establish the new American rules baseball association. In June 1890 a constitution for a new professional league, under American rules, was drawn up at the first annual meeting of the National League of Baseball of Great Britain, held at the Queens Hotel, Birmingham. This American revolution in British baseball forced the archaic British rules playing English and Welsh teams to adopt their own distinct codified rules. In May 1892 the Gloucestershire Rounders Association (the National Rounders Association) changed its name to the English Baseball Association, though in June 1892 it was reported in the Liverpool Mercury that the clubs were curiously still playing the game of rounders, not baseball. The Welsh quickly followed suit, but for a number of years there were still some distinct differences between Welsh rules and English rules variations with British baseball itself.

By the 1920’s women’s leagues were established, as were women’s international teams and attendances for key international games peaked at between 10,000 and 16,000.

By 1908 the American form of baseball had failed to achieve the full professional aspirations of Spalding (and others such as Francis Ley) but the British rules game had blossomed in amateurism, and the first international fixture between England and Wales had taken place. By the 1920’s women’s leagues were established, as were women’s international teams and attendances for key international games peaked at between 10,000 and 16,000. This rapid growth of the game (and confusion over English and Welsh minor variations) brought the need for the formation of the International Baseball Board to oversee international fixtures and finally establish a British codified set of rules, in 1927. As British baseball of both codes reached its zenith sports stars from Rugby and football were found regularly playing the game, in an effort to keep fit, and famous stadia of the era from such sports hosted games.

The inter-war period saw a renewed attempt at popularisation of the American rules and professionalism in that code finally took hold, leading again to fears that the archaic British rules game would be lost. It was not uncommon for touring American teams to be challenged to play games made up of innings from both codes, during this time, though ironically as American and Canadian armed forces came to Britain for the Second World War the American rules domestic game in Britain fell into decline and the British rules game once again flourished, particularly in Wales. Sadly in 2015 England were forced to withdraw from the annual international games as the number of people playing British baseball could no longer sustain an international roster. In 2017 the Welsh league almost capitulated, but the Welsh Baseball Union has managed to preserve a domestic league and has been working hard to reintroduce the archaic game in Wales. The English Baseball Association survives, but with teams only in the Liverpool area. As our own love of Major League Baseball grows in the United Kingdom, and our own domestic game under those auspices is supported to bloom, it is essential we similarly find a way to preserve and fund the British code.

If you would like to share your own memories of how you became an Angels fan, about Britain’s own baseball heritage or your view on anything Angels related for Views Over the Pond please get in touch.

Published by Matt Thomas - Editor

Editor of the Yorkshire Baseball Journal and Archive, Editor and Chair of Angels Over the Pond.

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