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.