British Baseball and the West Ham Club by Josh Chetwynd and Brian A. Belton, (McFarland, 2007), 262 pages
British baseball fans constantly have to battle against the prejudices and preconceptions of their fellow countrymen, not least of which is the belief that the sport has no history on these shores. The claim is often difficult to argue against because even a well-read Brit, who could tell you Ted Williams’ career batting average in a heartbeat, doesn’t know a great deal about their homeland’s relationship with the game. Thankfully, British Baseball and the West Ham Club provides the reader with all the information they will need to answer their critical compatriots.
The author Josh Chetwynd will be known to many as the co-presenter on Five’s coverage of MLB. Coupled with his experience playing in the British baseball league and for the national side, he is the perfect person to bring the history of British baseball to life. With the assistance of Brian Belton, a considerable amount of research has been undertaken to piece together a story that has never been told in such detail before.
Although the title may lead you to believe this is a book about an individual team, it is in fact a more wide-ranging look at how British baseball has developed since the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The narrative allows Chetwynd to take a slight detour on two occasions; focusing on the 1936 Olympics and the U.S. Team’s visit to Britain, and the career of one Roland Gladu. The “Canadian Babe Ruth” played for the West Ham club in 1936 and 1937 and the description of his nomadic career provides a great insight into what life was like for ballplayers outside of the Majors in those times (Gladu did eventually make twenty-one appearances for the Boston Braves in 1944).
The history of British baseball is described by Chetwynd as “a story of historical campaigning by a courageous and committed few against huge sporting, economic, and social resistance set within a transatlantic struggle for status, wealth and power”. The tale can be split into three main periods: pre-WW1 promise, blossoming between the wars and stop-start meanderings after 1945.
Prior to 1914, baseball made its first tentative steps in Britain via a series of small initiatives. In 1874 and 1888, American major leaguers sailed to the U.K. with the intention of introducing their game to a new audience. Such efforts were followed by the growth of British participation in the sport, largely involving footballers who wanted to keep fit over the summer. Football fans today would perhaps be shocked to learn of baseball games being played in their stadiums and that they often could draw a very respectable crowd. Around 4,000 fans descended on Tottenham’s White Hart Lane to watch Spurs’s baseball team win the British Championship in 1906 and when the U.S. Army and Navy played a game in July 1918, a crowd of 38,000, including King George V, filled Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground.
Baseball’s ‘golden’ period in Britain took place between the wars as various leagues were formed and proved to be popular. Chetwynd focuses particularly on the London Major Baseball League, providing a comprehensive overview of the teams involved, how they were formed, where they played and a detailed account of the two seasons that the league was at its height: 1936 and 1937. Teams such as the West Ham club, the Romford Wasps, the Hackney Royals, the Catford Saints, and White City all played in a league that could regularly draw between 4,000 to 8,000 fans. Baseball was also popular in the north (most notably with the Yorkshire baseball league), to the extent that 11,000 locals packed out Hull’s Craven Park to witness the home town team defeat the Romford Wasps in the 1937 Challenge Cup Final. There were definite signs that baseball was beginning to win over communities in certain areas and that foundations were being laid for a promising future.
Sadly, World War Two intervened and British baseball has never really recovered. Local leagues have started brightly before petering out due to lack of funds and other obstacles. The pattern of hope followed by disappointment was exemplified in 2005 by London being awarded the 2012 Olympics, only for the International Olympic Committee to throw baseball and softball out of the Games two days later.
Yet British Baseball and the West Ham Club shows what can be achieved and that the idea of baseball teams drawing crowds (even on a small scale) is not far fetched. Two key factors helped the sport to grow in the thirties and they are equally relevant today.
Firstly, British baseball benefited from several entrepreneurs who had the necessary vision and funding to put an organized and entertaining product on the field. John Moores, L.D. Wood, and Alf Grogan provided essential leadership and enthusiasm to allow teams to become part of their local communities, forming leagues that produced regular ball games for fans to watch and giving local youngsters the opportunity to play the game themselves.
Secondly, British baseball was able to utilise venues such as football stadiums and, particularly in London, greyhound stadiums to showcase the sport (one of the many excellent photos in this book shows an aerial view of Romford Stadium replete with a baseball diamond on the grass within the racing oval). They were far from perfect, but they provided a more professional and appealing venue to potential spectators than an all-grass diamond in a park. To evoke the spirit of Field of Dreams, building more baseball diamonds would greatly help the sport’s development in this country. A series of diamonds around the British Isles could act as local hubs where youngsters could play the game on ‘real’ ballfields and families could spend an afternoon doing something different from going to the cinema or paying £100+ to watch ninety minutes of football. Maybe it’s a dream (I doubt there are many people out there willing to provide funding), but it’s one worth fighting for.
There is a quote in this book from 1910 by a reporter in The County of Middlesex Independent newspaper in which he states: “baseball is not glorified rounders; it is a scientific game for men. Don’t think it is what one would call a ‘kid’s game’, because it isn’t”. Nearly one hundred years on, many Brits still haven’t adapted to this way of thinking, but British Baseball and the West Ham Club proves that it is possible for baseball to flourish, even as a minority sport.
As comprehensively as the sources allow, Chetwynd provides a fascinating overview of baseball’s history in Britain, while using the case study of West Ham to afford the reader a more detailed understanding of baseball in the 1930s. As something of a specialist book, it is slightly on the expensive side, but the knowledge a British baseball fan will gain about the sport’s heritage in their homeland makes it worth the investment.
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