In 2013, baseball clubs from 25 European countries will take part in competitions sanctioned by the continent’s baseball federation. The highest-ranked European nation absent from this list is Great Britain (#21 in the world), and the only other ranked countries not sending a team are Israel (#28), Sweden (#34), Slovenia (#58), Ireland (#61), Hungary (#63), and Latvia (#72).
It is eight years since any British teams competed in a European club competition. Among the prohibitive factors contributing to this are the increasing strictness of the stipulations by the Confederation of European Baseball (CEB) against non-passport holders (see Rule 7a, for example) and the difficulty of self-funding travel at a time of growing economic strain.
The last season that British clubs competed was 2005, when: the Edinburgh Diamond Devils went 0-and-4 in the CEB Cup Qualifier; a GB Juniors squad, playing under the moniker of Greater Berkshire 1938, finished fourth out of the eight teams in their half of the European Cup B-Pool; and the Croydon Pirates competed in the Cupwinners Cup.
The year 2005 marked the 40th anniversary of Britain’s first foray into European club competition.
The early years
Josh Chetwynd’s still-indispensable chronicle Baseball in Europe, which I have gratefully drawn on in this article, records the first European Cup — historically, the continent’s premier club competition — as having taken place in 1963 and been won by Picadero Jockey Club, a Spanish side.
A record of British clubs in major European club competitions (kindly compiled by Mark Tobin for the now-defunct British Baseball Data website and currently housed online by Project COBB) reveals the first British entry into the competition to have occurred in 1965. That year, the Stretford Saints — despite the best efforts of ace pitcher Wally O’Neil – went winless in their two games in the event’s northern section.
In the closer of the Saints’ two contests in 1965, against Belgian outfit Luchtbal, they fell 6-5. This became all the more respectable when the Hull Aces — the Saint’s great rivals — were unable to score a single run in their three trips later in the decade. After the last of Hull’s trips to the Continent, in 1969, there was an 18-year span with no British clubs sides at all in major European competition.
The return of British baseball to European club competition came with the Southglade Hornets’ entry into the 1988 European Cup B-Pool tournament. They finished fourth of seven teams, with their solitary victory coming over the Zürich Lions.
Over the next five seasons, two additional club competitions were launched by the European federation. In 1990 came the Cupwinners Cup and in 1993 the CEB Cup, which are described by Chetwynd as the most and second-most prestigious events, respectively, after the European Cup. The Leeds City Royals were the first British team to compete in the A-Pool of one of these events, which they did in 1993 (going 0-and-3 in their group and losing their positional play-off too).
However, in both competitions, as with the European Cup, there have been B-Pool events run.
Across the three competitions, a host of other British teams besides the Hornets have competed in B-Pool events, including the Birmingham Bandits, Birmingham Braves, Brighton Buccaneers, Edinburgh Diamond Devils, Enfield Spartans, Hounslow Rangers, Hessle Warriors, Hull Mets, Kingston Cobras, London Warriors, Menwith Hill Patriots, Richmond Flames, and Windsor Bears. Only the last listed of these teams enjoyed real tournament success.
In 2003, the Windsor Bears were victorious in their half of the European Cupwinners Cup B-Pool, compiling a 5-0 record in the round-robin competition. This earned Britain a berth in the Cupwinners Cup A-Pool in 2004, which the Bears won their way back to fill. In play-offs for the lower placings in the 2004 tournament, Windsor’s 10-6 victory over the French representatives Savigny (the first ever win by a British team in an A-Pool event) preserved Britain’s spot on the upper rung.
A couple of months after the Bears defended Britain’s A-Pool berth, they met the Croydon Pirates in the domestic national final, which would determine the qualifier for the Cupwinners Cup in 2005. The Pirates were underdogs, not least because they had used all of their regular arms to get to the winner-takes-all showdown. In contrast, Windsor still had ace hurler Ryan Koback in reserve; an indication of his pedigree was given by his six regular-season shutouts the previous year.
Croydon settled on part-time knuckleballer Jeff McDonald for the biggest game in the club’s 20-plus-year history up to that point. He gave up five home runs, including a grand slam to former Pirate Roddi Liebenberg, but still picked up a complete-game, 12-10 victory.
Four Croydon players had multi-hit games. The Canadian pairing of Ian Bates and Charlie Caskey went 4-for-5 and 2-for-5, respectively, while the Australian Rhys Dixon (whose brother played professionally in the States) was 3-for-4 and there was a 3-or-5 performance from Brett Willemburg (whose .500 batting average for South Africa at the 2006 World Baseball Classic placed him behind only Adam Stern and one Ken Griffey Jr at that inaugural event).
Part 2 of this article will tell the story of what happened to Croydon in the 2005 European Cupwinners Cup A-Pool.