(White Boucke Publishing, 1995) 250 pages.
Review updated 20 February 2011
Many Americans have found themselves in Britain and been surprised to learn of the existence of organized baseball here, but few have become as involved in the game’s running as Jeff Archer did in the 1970s. Given the sparseness of literature on this, or any other, period of British baseball, I was delighted to be tipped off by a friend about Strike Four, which is a light-hearted account of Archer’s experiences that was published in 1995. The chronicle also covers the author’s subsequent trip to The Netherlands as a manager in the Hoofdklasse, the country’s top tier of competitive baseball, and the theme of cultural differences runs throughout the publication.
The book’s title refers to one of Archer’s many observations of weaknesses in the British understanding of baseball, specifically an article that appeared in a supplement to The Daily Telegraph in 1976 in which one of the rules was incorrectly reported:
“In baseball you are allowed three strikes. On the fourth you are out.”
Of course, the title is similar to that of one of the sport’s classic books, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, and this is unlikely to be coincidental.
Firstly, Archer is a self-described “advocate of the knuckler”, a pitch which was made immortal by Bouton’s book. Chapter 14 of Strike Four, which bears the name of this piece of pitching weaponry, contains the story of a 20-year-old Dutch player called Eric de Vries. As manager of HCAW, de Vries’ club, Archer saw the need in the player’s mound repertoire for a third, off-speed pitch. The knuckleball was that pitch, and it turned de Vries from an ordinary player into a pitcher good enough to make his nation’s roster for the mid-season European Championships. And if you are a fan of the knuckleball, you’ll be happy to learn that the pitch sparked a Dutch come-from-behind triumph in the best-of-five finals against Italy.
A second, and much more pervasive, parallel with Ball Four is the willingness to put in print perceived ineptitude among those running clubs and leagues, both in Britain and in The Netherlands. Indeed, the book is billed in its preface as a “salty exposé”. In the spirit of Bouton, Archer goes as far as describing the calamitous infidelity of an engaged American brought over to play third base for HCAW. And there is even mention of the outlawed Vaseline spitball being taught. The name of the teacher: Jeff Archer.
Thirdly, like Ball Four, Archer’s book is crammed with amusing, well-crafted depictions of what it is like to be part of a baseball team, a number of them beautifully crude, if such a thing is possible.
With the similarities to another book now covered, it is time to turn to the question of why this book is really worth reading. The answer is something mentioned in the opening paragraph of this review, namely the rarity of literature of any form on Britain’s baseball history – this is thus a very important work, and one that happens to be very entertaining to read. In the first half of the book, before he moves on to the topic of his Dutch endeavours, Archer weaves together first-hand descriptions of the people he felt were helping or hindering British baseball in the 1970s. Compliments and criticism are dished out in similar portions, although it should be noted that much praise is for Archer himself, as exemplified below:
“My accomplishments in five years of British baseball were formidable – night baseball, international baseball, playground and sports center programs. Thousands of people were now playing baseball solely because of my involvement.”
Passages like this might detract from the enjoyment of British readers, but since Archer seems sufficiently astute to pick up on a plethora of cultural differences between here, The Netherlands, and his homeland of the States, this will probably come as no surprise to him. Moreover, it is worth noting that gratitude may not have been flowing from the taps during this prickly period of internal politics, and thus much good work may well have been undervalued at the time.
For anyone with an interest in what baseball was like in the past in Britain, this book is highly recommended.
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