Today (August 3) in London History – First Baseball Game in London

The first-ever baseball game in London took place on August 3, 1874 at Lord’s Cricket Ground. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

And here’s another one that’s out of left field. 

Aside here, for any Brits listening, “out of left field” is American slang meaning unexpected, odd or strange.

It’s baseball terminology.

And boy is it ever appropriate for this podcast.

Because not only is the subject matter of this one unexpected, odd and strange – it’s about baseball in London. 

The first baseball game in London took place on August 3, 1874. The venue was Lord’s Cricket Ground. Which is where you’d want London’s first ever baseball game to take place – because, not to put too fine a point on it, Lords is the Yankee Stadium of cricket. Turns out there was quite a bit of interest – a crowd of 4,000 turned out to see the latest American peculiarity, this “baseball” phenomenon. Dear me, those swivel-eyed Americans, what will they think of next?

And that was all I had. A date. Lords. And the attendance figure.

Well, needless to say, I wanted to know more.

So I did some digging. Made a beeline for any number of London newspapers that were telling the London story that summer, the summer of 1874. 

The press clippings are priceless.

For example, this letter to the Times: Sir, Some American athletes are trying to introduce us to their game of baseball, as if it were a novelty; whereas the fact is that it is an ancient English game, long ago discarded in favour of cricket.” The letter is signed: Grandmother.

Another contemporary piece has this to say about the American national game: “Baseball we may observe is a kind of rounders, robbed of the fun which was inherent in the boyish practice of throwing the ball at the runner.”

Or try this bit of English snobbery:

“This American innovation has been witnessed by hundreds of our professional cricketers, and also by not a few of our public schoolboys who are proficient in the use of the willow and the cricket ball. They have come to a unanimous decision that baseball is more fit for boys under twelve or fourteen than for men and is never likely to find favour with English adults.”

Wonderfully patronising, isn’t it.

Shifting our point of view for a minute, what I, as an American – an American who played baseball as a kid – what this Yank found particularly fascinating was what was essentially eye-witness testimony as to how the game was played in 1874. We learn for example that – I’m quoting here – “One of the most difficult positions to occupy in the field is that of catcher, who stands from six to fifty feet behind the batsman, according to the style of the bowling and striking.” It is, needless to say,  inconceivable today that the catcher would ever be any more than about five feet behind home plate. 

Our eye witness to 1874 baseball goes on to tell us “the catcher must be a man of pluck and nerve, for, though the bowling he has to face is all underhand, it is still remarkably swift.” 

All underhand. My goodness. That’s jaw-dropping. Pitching – what the English newspaperman drawing on his cricket background calls bowling – pitching today is all overhand and has been for probably 130 years. 

Another 1874 baseball rule that equally tells us the past is not just another country but a freakish other country is that the catcher could out the batter by catching the ball on the first rebound from the ground. No less bizarre – to the modern baseballer – spectator or player – was that the batter in 1874 would signify to the umpire whether he desires the bowling – the pitch – to be high or low and the pitcher must accommodate his bowling to the wishes of the batsman. I’m not sure we’d recognise the game if we went back to 1874. Nor would those 1874 players recognise it if they were to time-travel to 2022.

Anyway, that’s all by way of the pre-game warm-up, batting practice, fielding practice, etc.

Let’s get to the game itself.

Here’s what the Times for August 4th, 1874 had to say about that first ever baseball game in London.

The story is headlined: Twelve of the Marylebone Club versus eighteen of America.

The Times reports: The appearance of the American cricketers in the Metropolis attracted a more than usually large company at Lord’s yesterday. Only two hours and a half were devoted to cricket, as the main object of the visit was to exemplify the mode in which the Americans played their national game of baseball.”

So we learn that the show got on the road with the American baseball players trying their hand at cricket. And not faring very well, it seems. The Times article goes on to say, “Doubtless the exertions of the Americans at baseball caused their fielding, which had hitherto been first-class, to decline, and consequently runs came quickly.”

Well, that was just the first innings so to speak – we’re talking cricket here now – and it was the English side, the Marylebone Club batting. And one gathers, they did all right against their visitors from across the pond.

The story goes on to say – under the headline – BASEBALL – “Immediately after luncheon the two leading baseball clubs of America gave an exposition of their game. The play however was somewhat disappointing, compared with the previous tourneys at Liverpool and Manchester, as the Philadelphia Athletics threw many chances away by bad fielding, of which their opponents took most judicious advantage. The game, which commenced at 3.35 concluded at 5.45 in favour of the Bostons by 17 runs, as may be gathered from the following official score. Well, the following official score was 24 runs for the Boston Bostons and just 7 runs for the Philadelphia Athletics.

Now there’s some intriguing stuff there for anyone who’s interested in the early days of baseball. First of all, it turns out that first ever baseball game played on these shores took place in Liverpool. And as the story indicates – and other sources bear out – these two teams were touring – Liverpool, Manchester, London and other cities, including Dublin. Now let’s keep in mind, they crossed the Atlantic by ship, they obviously were here for several weeks…here in late July and August. Right in the middle of baseball season, in other words. So what that points to is that in 1874 there wasn’t anything like the April to October baseball season that’s been the norm for well over a century. 

I also of course noted that the Boston team – who were the forerunners of the Boston Red Stockings – and thus the forerunners of the Atlanta Braves – well, it looks as though they weren’t called the Red Stockings in 1874. Or certainly their English hosts didn’t know them as the Red Stockings. They were the Boston Bostons. The which name presumably evolved into the Boston Red Stockings. 

But what really jumped out at me was one of the names on the scorecard. The scorecard was very basic, very primitive – but I was so glad the Times produced one and printed it. This is what ka-pow’d me. The pitcher for the Boston Bostons was named Spalding.

Now anybody who’s even vaguely familiar with baseball will recognise that name. Spalding is one of the largest sporting‐goods manufacturers in America – and much more to the point the firm has supplied every baseball ever used by the baseball major leagues in a relationship that goes back well over a century.

Well, turns out that Albert Spalding was a star baseball player – a star pitcher – for the Boston Bostons – and when his playing days were over he started what became an extremely successful sporting goods company.

And what do you know, Albert Spalding took part in – was the pitcher for the victorious Boston Bostons – in the first baseball game ever played in London.

Because I’m interested in sport, I did a bit more digging and discovered that three years after he was in London Albert Spalding started to wear a glove to protect his catching hand. Really started something there, didn’t he. But it’s interesting to reflect that in that first ever baseball game in London on August 3rd, 1874 those American baseball players will have been as bare-handed as their cricket-playing English hosts were.

And one last seriously bizarre connection. 

Thinking about dates – thinking about the 1870s – it suddenly occurred to me that in 1874 when that baseball game was being played, Custer’s Last Stand – the Battle of the Little Big Horn – was still two years in the future. American baseball players were showcasing their talents and their game to Londoners at Lord’s Cricket Ground 23 months before Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and their fellow Lakota Sioux warriors annihilated the Boy General – Custer – known to the Sioux as Long Hair. Annihilated him and five companies of the vaunted 7th cavalry there on a little rise up from the banks of the Little Bighorn River in southeastern Montana. Baseball at Lords in the summer of 1874 and slaughter and scalping two years later in that corner of the Montana territory. It’s a juxtaposition that leaves one’s mouth hanging open.

And a Today in London recommendation. Surely it has to be a visit to the world’s oldest sporting museum – the MCC at Lord’s Cricket Ground. MCC of course stands for Marylebone Cricket Club.

If you get there before I do, please drop me a line and let me know if our baseball game figures anywhere in the MCC Museum

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

One response to “Today (August 3) in London History – First Baseball Game in London”

  1. Ron Harrell says:

    Fascinating podcast with lots of surprises for this “Yankee”.
    You might have mentioned the Boston Braves and Milwaukee Braves before you arrived at the Atlanta Braves, but that’s understandable.
    The Spalding connection was superb. Didn’t know all that.
    Keep up the good work, former Yank!

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