Domestic baseball in Britain at least as early as 1876

NOTE: The same discovery, of domestic baseball in Britain being played 13 years earlier than what was previously thought to be the genesis season, was independently made at almost the same time by David Block, an American baseball historian with more than a passing interest in Britain’s ties with the early game.

To avoid any confusion among readers unfamiliar with the game’s early history, I’m calling it “baseball” here, but really it was still mostly referred to as two words (i.e. “base ball”) back then.

While I was conducting the research for What about the Villa? back in late 2009 and early 2010, one of the topics I was interested to delve into was the question of whether the ramping up of baseball activity in 1889 and 1890 represented the first domestic baseball in Britain. Like other researchers who had looked into this area, I came to the conclusion that this indeed appeared to be the case.

I had carried out my pre-1889 research using online searches of the British Library’s digitized collection of 19th Century newspapers. Shortly after I had moved from the research phase into the writing phase, the collection was supplemented with a batch of 22 additional titles. I didn’t realize this until I very recently went back to carry out some searches on a different topic.

After establishing that the collection I was searching had increased in richness, I decided, on a hunch, to return to the question of early domestic baseball in Britain. As it happened, one of the added titles — the Leicester Courier — carried mentions of baseball being played in Leicester as early as 1876.

The 11 March 1876 edition offered the earliest match report, a brief description of the Leicester Baseball Club’s first ever game, played the previous Saturday. This was an intra-club game at Victoria Park in which the victors triumphed by a score of 32-26. The next account I can find is from 8 April 1876, and it describes a game in which “Mr H. Walter’s nine” saw off “Mr A. J. Hamel’s nine” by 29 runs to 21. A 9-inning line score is included, as is a list of players. The line-ups contain many names that also appeared in cricket match reports from that locality and era. The link to cricket is cemented by a 9 December 1876 article in which it is noted that the Oxford Cricket Club had just formed a baseball team.

It seems that the games may have attracted a crowd and that a gate fee may have been charged, since the 14 October 1876 issue of the paper carries a breakdown of the Leicester borough’s accounts for the year up to 31 August, with an income line allotted to “Receipts for Cricket, Football, and Baseball”. (Update on 03/12/2011: I think I may have got over-excited here. I present a more sensible suggestion for what the income refers to in comment 2 below.)

I have identified two further mentions of baseball matches in 1877, but after the latter of those, which was published at the end of March, the discussion of baseball activity appears to dry up in that paper.

This discovery raises many questions. Firstly, how did baseball in Leicester get started? Two years earlier, the Boston Red Stocking and Philadelphia Athletics had played a series of games in the British Isles, although Leicester’s region of the Midlands was missed off the itinerary. Nevertheless, a lengthy introduction to baseball published in the Manchester Guardian on the back of a tour game in Liverpool was reproduced in the Leicester Courier on 8 August 1874. Later that year, on 28 November to be exact, the Courier ran an article listing donations to the Leicester Free Library. Among the new books added to the library’s holdings was a copy of Henry Chadwick’s American Base Ball Manual, with the donor being an MP named Peter Alfred Taylor (who seems to have had some family connections with the US). But is the existence of a local newspaper article providing an introduction to the game and the existence of a baseball manual in a local library sufficient to explain baseball’s appearance on Leicester’s domestic sporting scene a couple of years later?

I suspect there must be more to the story. I’m determined to find out the answer to this and other questions (How many clubs existsed? Was there any structured competition? When and why did it disappear?) by visiting the newspaper repository at Colindale, where microfilms for other papers published in Leicester during that period lie among the wealth of resources of avaiable to readers.

I also intend to continue with a thorough re-search of the online newspaper collection to see if any other localities saw domestic baseball spring up between 1874 and 1889.

However, I was so excited by my initial discovery that I wanted to publish this brief article immediately.

11 Responses to Domestic baseball in Britain at least as early as 1876

  1. Joe Gray December 2, 2011 at 11:10 pm #

    I’ve just been taking a quick look into AJ Hamel’s cricket activity on the truly excellent Cricket Archive website:

    http://www.cricketarchive.com/Archive/Players/277/277146/Other_matches.html

    There are three games listed for him, all of them interesting contests in which his Leicestershire side used far more than the standard 11 players to take on a high-quality south of England team.

    On each occasion that Hamel batted, he was either bowled or caught by the legendary WG Grace. In one of the games Grace had a return of 14-for-35. Any cricket fans should be rubbing their eyes at those bowling figures.

  2. Joe Gray December 3, 2011 at 7:46 am #

    On reflection, it’s more likely that the “Receipts for Cricket, Football, and Baseball” were for fees charged by the borough for ground rental (e.g. at Victoria Park).

    Joe

  3. Joe Gray December 3, 2011 at 7:32 pm #

    I spent some time today, along with fellow BaseballGB writers Matt Smith and Mark George, looking through microfilms of other Leicester newspapers from 1876 and between us we didn’t spot a single mention of baseball.

    • Matt Smith December 3, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

      Spotted some tips on horses to bet on, the price of corn and various other capers (anyone who thinks it’s just today’s papers full of murders, assaults and other crimes is mistaken!), but no baseball unfortunately. Maybe a discovery for another day though?

    • L Barton March 13, 2014 at 2:58 pm #

      Hello MR Gray I wonder if you could possibly help my wife has a England international cap for baseball it belonged to her late uncle his name was Richard Allen born in Liverpool in the late 1800s .I have tried to find out more information regarding this man and the history of Englsh international baseball.I would be grateful if you could give me some advise on this matter

      • Joe Gray March 14, 2014 at 8:57 am #

        Hi,

        Thank you for the comment.

        I suspect this is baseball of the English/Welsh variety, rather than the American form described here. That version, too, has a fascinating history. Here may be a good starting point:
        http://www.welshbaseball.co.uk/history/

        Joe

  4. Joe Gray December 6, 2011 at 11:13 pm #

    I completed a scan through the rest of the newer batch of newspapers in the 19th Century online archive. There was no further news of domestic baseball that I spotted, but the Sheffield & Rotherham Independent did throw up a couple of interesting articles.

    On 30 October 1879, a box score was provided for a game of baseball between professional English cricketers and a US team, in the States. The cricketers were lent a battery and were given 5 outs per inning, but fell 15-1 in a 5-inning contest.

    Then, on 12 May 1883, it was noted that the touring “Lights o’ London” theatre company had an accomplished baseball team. No information was provided, though, as to whether they played any games while over here.

  5. Matthew Crawshaw December 9, 2011 at 7:02 am #

    Great find guys!

    The story echoes a lot of what happens in Leicester in modern day baseball.

    Victoria Park was the home of the Leicester Green Sox in the 1980s/90s.

    When Leicester Blue Sox lost their first field in 2007, we were pencilled in for a return to Victoria Park only for it to be scuppered by red tape at the eleventh hour and Western Park was thrown up as a last minute replacement.

    Intra club Baseball has also been firmly on the menu in recent years with both Blue Sox 1 & 2 competing in the same Midlands league.

    Matt

  6. Giovanni Ciotti December 9, 2011 at 11:24 am #

    Very interesting stuff, Joe & Matt..

    I’ve also come across some Leicester baseball history in the form of black American soldiers playing in Abbey Park during WWII. These events seem loosely connected to a 28 Feb 1944 “race war” that broke out in Leicester among black & white Allied troops.

    The 29 Sep 2011 Leicester Chronicle (page 3) has a photo of black servicemen from the bench of a baseball game while hundreds of onlookers take in the game. The caption mentions both baseball, Abbey Park, and the “race war” where at least a dozen soldiers were knived.

    I can only imagine what the announcers sounded like for those games. :-)

    Giovanni

  7. Joe Gray December 14, 2011 at 8:02 pm #

    Matt C and Giovanni,

    Many thanks for the interesting comments.

    I hope everything’s well with the Blue Sox and elsewhere.

    Cheers,

    Joe

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. New findings upturn previous beliefs on American baseball’s introduction to British shores | BaseballGB - June 17, 2013

    […] Then, in late 2011, following an upload of new material to the British Library’s online searchable database of 19th Century British newspapers, I began running my searches again. I was stunned to find that domestic baseball had been played in Leicester in 1876, fully 13 years before teams were being founded in Derby and Birmingham. At an almost identical time that I was reading through these newly emerged cuttings, the discovery was also being made by a researcher on the other side of the Atlantic: San Francisco resident David Block. More can be read about this joint finding in its announcement on BaseballGB here. […]

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