One of the main aims of BaseballGB is to provide coverage of all types of baseball that might interest a British fan. Comments on MLB trades sit side-by-side with news from the Great Britain national team and reports from the National Baseball League to create a unique mix of content.
However, there is a form of the game that we haven’t covered as yet: Welsh/British baseball. Separate from the baseball played elsewhere on the British Isles, this is a sport that has a distinct identity and a rich heritage. Andrew Weltch is making sure that it continues to be recognised thanks to the excellent Welsh Baseball website and he recently spent some time talking to BaseballGB about the sport.
While there is plenty to look at on WelshBaseball.co.uk, your attention is immediately caught by ‘The Game’ page that provides a copy of the full laws of the sport. The references to “bowlers”, the “batting crease”, “byes”, “extras” and “no balls” all show that this form of baseball has close links to cricket.
“People sometimes describe it as a hybrid of cricket and conventional (US-style) baseball and there are certainly elements of each game” Weltch explains. “Like cricket, there are eleven in a team and the whole team bats through until the end of the innings (note the ‘s’) – when either all eleven are out or stranded on base”.
“Visually, the most obvious difference is that the players wear soccer or rugby-style kit, with shorts, and have no protection – no helmets for batting, no pads, no gloves for catching – except for the backstop (equivalent of a wicketkeeper in cricket or catcher in US-type baseball) who may wear a face mask and gloves. The other visual difference is that bases are marked with posts, as in some forms of rounders”.
The current state of the game
Mention of the ‘r’ word might make a sensitive baseball fan grimace, but it’s important to remember the place rounders has in the development of the different forms of baseball. Welsh baseball, also referred to as British baseball, is clearly a game that celebrates its roots and, judging by the healthy number of teams involved in the Welsh league and cup competitions, it’s a factor that helps the sport remain appealing to potential participants.
“There are around twenty teams playing the three divisions of the men’s league, around twenty-five in four divisions of the women’s league, plus the youth league. There are also informal recreational teams, although nothing like the sport’s heyday, when virtually every church, chapel, pub, club, shop and factory had its own team”.
“The sport has declined in popularity over the last twenty-five years or so, but the south of Cardiff and south of Newport remain the real hotbeds, and there are signs of new interest. The website has helped with that too”.
All ‘minority’ sports have to battle for elbow room against the might of football, rugby and cricket. Welsh baseball is no different, but Weltch is convinced that the sport has a future.
“Cardiff, Newport and Liverpool have been the sport’s homes virtually since ‘day one’, back in 1892. At times in the past, it has been played in areas outside these cities, and there have been exhibition matches much further afield. There does seem to be a growing interest from schools in other parts of South Wales especially, who see British baseball as a very accessible sport that doesn’t need much equipment and has a great heritage and tradition. I believe the sport has the potential to spread outside these three cities, but it really needs to build steadily and ensure firm foundations first”.
The annual international game
For the last one hundred years, the marquee event of the Welsh baseball calendar has been the annual international game between England and Wales. The two countries have been fierce rivals in many respects over the years and in this particular by-product of the rivalry, the Welsh Dragon has consistently prevailed over the cross of St George. It’s a contest that has captured the imagination of many spectators in the past and continues to be keenly anticipated.
“The first international was held in Cardiff in 1908 at what is now St Peter’s RFC ground. I’m pleased to say the ground is also still used for baseball. That game was held under a compromise set of rules and reports suggest it wasn’t a great triumph. Although the crowd was well over 2,000, the two referees argued, and it sounds like a less than outstanding success. It took the governing bodies six years before they could arrange a second encounter and then the First World War ended most sport for several years”.
“Apart from the war years, the international has been held annually and has attracted crowds of more than 10,000. At its peak, it was a big event, and selectors held trials to help choose their squad. In recent years, the England team has suffered from the sport’s decline in Liverpool and Wales has tended to dominate. England last won in 1995 and hasn’t won in Wales since 1982”.
“There are signs of a revival in Liverpool, however, especially at youth level, and England could soon produce a winning team again”.
Those of you curious to find out more about this long-standing event will be interested to know that some classic footage from the internationals between 1980 and 1982 can be found on YouTube. As well as providing a flavour of how the game is played, the fact that this footage is from BBC Wales shows the level of media coverage that the sport has enjoyed over the years.
“The BBC Wales TV coverage usually consisted of highlights shown the day after the match, and I have seen brief reports in some London-based national newspapers from many years ago” said Weltch. “More recently, coverage has tended to be confined to regional newspapers in South Wales and to local radio. BBC Radio Wales usually provides live reports during the international match, and BBC Wales also has a good baseball web page”.
The history of Welsh Baseball
From the evolution of the sport to the long history of international matches, Welsh Baseball’s heritage is something worth learning more about. The statement that “further information on baseball’s origins will appear” on the WelshBaseball website “soon” suggests that interested parties will not lack for material to read.
“I created the site for my own interest in the history of the sport, so I do hope to expand on that more” said Weltch. “If it is possible, I hope to add a timeline history of major events in the story of Welsh baseball, and possibly also a directory of international players”.
As well as the developing content on WelshBaseball.co.uk, more details about the history of the sport are gradually being published in online resources such as the archive copies of William Morgan’s ‘Baseball Mercury’, now available on the web courtesy of Project Cobb.
Most impressively, Weltch brought the history of Welsh Baseball to the attention of members of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) last year, when his article about the game’s origins was published in Volume 28 of their journal: The National Pastime.
“I’m interested in the history of ‘conventional’ baseball (and most other sports) too, so I am a member of SABR. A couple of years ago, I asked the publications director if there would be any interest in an article on Welsh or British baseball. He was very keen, so I produced something which aimed to draw attention to this largely-unknown version of the game, with an emphasis on its history. I tried to ‘pitch’ it to a US readership, but still needed to make some revisions – for instance, the reviewers did not understand the term ‘knock-out cup’ “.
“Reaction among British baseball folk has been positive. I think they appreciate that getting the sport recognised in a prestigious journal has some value”.
A sport worth keeping your eye on
If SABR members from around the world have learned about the presence of this “curious version of the game”, baseball fans resident in the British Isles should know about it as well. However, Weltch passed on this useful piece of advice to anyone considering attending a game of Welsh Baseball for the first time.
“There is no boundary, so the ball remains in play wherever it goes (unless the teams have agreed otherwise). This means fielders may field the ball among the spectators! So you need to keep your eye on the ball”.
Apart from the potential to become the latest ‘Steve Bartman‘ by costing England or Wales a victory in the annual international game, there’s every reason to take an interest in Welsh Baseball. Why not start by checking out WelshBaseball.co.uk.