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Baseball in Britain

a guest post by Lisa Porter

Baseball, the sport which somehow most exemplifies the American Dream, is often sexy to other nations for this very reason.  It is one of the most popular sports in Japan and feels akin to the modern Japanese culture with its magpie tendencies.  It makes sense that there should be spill-over between the US and UK where baseball is concerned.  Britain is the country that gave us David Beckham, who has played American sporting celebrities at their game of blending sporting prowess, glamour, and fame and probably beat them at it.

American baseball is still struggling to attain the status of rugby, cricket and football in the UK in the same way that soccer struggled in the US before Beckham, but it is around to stay and may yet see a rebirth one day.

The history of baseball in the UK

The game is not new to Britain.  It was introduced in 1890 by the sporting goods tycoon Albert Goodwill Spalding and Francis Ley, a native of Derby who had become fond of baseball during a stay in the US.  In 1938, when Britain beat the US at the first (now discontinued) World Cup of Baseball, baseball seemed to have a bright future in Ol’ Blighty.  However, the British press did not give baseball the welcome that the businessmen behind the first exhibition games were hoping for, perhaps because they saw it as a symbol of American imperialism in the days of the world wars and American servicemen.  Today, there is a national team that plays in international tournaments, and there are hopes for expansion of Little League teams in the UK.  There is also new discussion among those working in baseball in the UK about how to promote and market baseball in the UK.  Is it a matter of time before things graduate to merchandise and sports products adorned with the odd UK baseball team or player on caps and T-shirts across London, keeping company with the Beckham jerseys?

British or Welsh baseball

There may well also be potential for an uniquely British version of baseball.  This game, called Welsh baseball or British baseball, comes from the old British game of rounders.  It is played with a paddle instead of a bat and with 11 players.  No substitutions are allowed.  Balls are pitched underarm instead of overarm.  The game is over in two innings, which are defined differently.  A run is given for each base reached after the ball is hit, racking the score far higher than in American baseball.  The diamond, although resembling the American baseball diamond, is smaller. Welsh baseball was very popular in working-class sections of Merseyside in England and in south Wales, among people who did not have enough money to play cricket or thought of it as a rich man’s game.  In its heyday, it drew crowds of 20,000 or more.  A number of British and Welsh football and rugby stars, including Dixie Dean, Terry Yorath, and Jim Sullivan, also played this type of baseball.

Children still play the game in school, but the expansion of this game bit the dust because of the difficulty of finding land suitable for baseball fields and finding the funds for the clubs.  The game has largely died out in England, but is going stronger in Wales where there are increasing numbers of women’s teams and ongoing discussion about how to push it.  There is still a Wales v. England match every year, which may help to keep interest alive.  Again, supporters of Welsh baseball feel that the key is to explore ways to successfully market it in the UK.

Alfred & George Lawson

In a neat piece of cross-fertilisation, some very British eccentrics have entered the history of American baseball.  Alfred and George Lawson, born in London, between them worked in vaudeville, early aviation, physics, hypnotism, and evangelism.  Alfred is often credited as the inventor of the airliner.  During his lifetime, he promoted his own philosophy, branch of physics, university, and religion, all of which he named after himself.  His brother George attempted to racially integrate baseball in the United States.   Both Lawsons had long careers as players and managers in minor league baseball in America, and both set up their own baseball leagues in America.

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