Australia, Baseball’s Diamond in Rough

SCG looking like a major league ball park at last

SCG looking like a major league ball park at last

By Rick Burton/nytimes.com

When Albert Spalding arranged a world tour for his Chicago White Stockings and a team of all-stars that included stops in Australia in December 1888, the baseball writer Henry Chadwick hailed it as “the great event in the modern history of athletic sports.”

As the baseball historian Joe Clark later wrote: “Here was a top-class professional sporting tour bringing the trappings of legendary Americana, which Australians had only read or heard about. Even skeptics in the sporting and wider communities did not dare shun the tour. No journalist could avoid it. Spalding’s Tour was too big and newsworthy, too rare and unique, too important for the colony. One might criticize it, but no one could ignore it.”

The same might be said for Major League Baseball’s latest foray into Australia. Sydney Cricket Ground, which hosted three games in 1888, will be configured for baseball again this month as the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Los Angeles Dodgers play two exhibition games and a two-game, season-opening series there.

Spalding, a former player and part owner of the Chicago team who had recently begun manufacturing sporting goods, filled the tour rosters with some of the biggest stars of the day, including the future Hall of Famers Cap Anson, John Montgomery Ward, Ned Hanlon and George Wright, who went as a coach and umpire. The plan called for games in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Ballarat, and most of them were accompanied by a dancer and baton twirler and a daredevil stunt performer.

The tour’s final game in Australia was played in Melbourne before a crowd of nearly 12,000, including an opening contest featuring American players against the Melbourne Baseball Club. The game, however, was ended after five innings to stage a long-distance throwing contest. This sideshow was won by the New York Giants’ star pitcher Eddie Crane, who set what was then believed to be an Australian record when he tossed a baseball about 385 feet.

Spalding’s entourage then embarked on a baseball sojourn to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Arabia, Egypt, Italy, France, England, Scotland and Ireland.

Upon their return to the United States in April 1889, Spalding and the teams were honored with a dinner at Delmonico’s restaurant in Manhattan. The guest speaker was Mark Twain, who entertained the crowd, which included the future President Theodore Roosevelt, and called baseball “the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive, and push, and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing booming 19th century.”

Twain had just published his novel “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” which placed his favorite sport in the sixth century. He was enamored with baseball and attended games in Hartford. He first watched Spalding pitching for the Boston Red Stockings against his beloved Hartford Dark Blues.

In December 1885, Twain started work on “A Connecticut Yankee.” In that time-traveling story, Twain’s protagonist, Hank Morgan, is transported to Arthur’s castle, where he stages a baseball contest.

In Morgan’s voice, Twain wrote: “In order to give the thing vogue from the start, and place it out of the reach of criticism, I chose my nines by rank, not capacity. There wasn’t a knight in either team who wasn’t a sceptered sovereign. As for material of this sort, there was a glut of it always around Arthur. You couldn’t throw a brick in any direction and not cripple a king. Of course, I couldn’t get these people to leave off their armor; they wouldn’t do that when they bathed. They consented to differentiate the armor so that a body could tell one team from the other, but that was the most they would do.”

He went on to list the names of the starting nines for his two fictional teams, the Bessemers and the Ulsters. Twain finished his baseball-specific prose with what seems like a reference to Spalding’s venture: “The first public game would certainly draw 50,000 people; and for solid fun would be worth going around the world to see. Everything would be favorable.”

Twain appears to have been so taken by Spalding’s exploits that he booked a trip to Australia in September 1895. During his visit, Twain was interviewed about “A Connecticut Yankee” and commented to journalists that “some very powerful political and social lessons are cleverly interleaved with the satire of the story.”

By the time Twain arrived there, baseball had gained a foothold. Harry Simpson, Spalding’s assistant who had gone to Australia for Spalding before the tour and stayed when it departed, started organizing games in 1889. Simpson had assembled and guided the Newark Baseball and Cricket Association in New Jersey in 1883, Clark said, before signing on as the captain and manager of a semiprofessional team in Asbury Park in 1887.

From 1889 to 1891, Simpson arranged numerous games, including interstate contests between South Australia and Victoria. Simpson even wrote to The Sporting News in 1890 to express his belief that baseball in Australia was making good progress and that he intended to bring another American team there to play his rapidly improving teams. But Simpson died of typhoid fever in September 1891 before he could do so.

For his part, Twain kept supporting baseball. The South Australian Register reported that he would attend a four-team, opening day doubleheader in October 1895, featuring North Adelaide versus Goodwood and Norwood versus South Adelaide if his business schedule permitted. (He did not go.)

Still, baseball grew significantly in Australia during the next century and produced a handful of major league players, most notably Joe Quinn, a player-manager for the St. Louis Browns in 1895, and the more contemporary All-Stars Grant Balfour and David Nilsson. But baseball never overtook cricket as Australia’s principal summer game, despite the efforts of those who followed Spalding and Simpson.

Now Major League Baseball aims to spread its wings by playing in Sydney. Stan Kasten, the Dodgers’ president and chief executive, has said his club is “committed to growing the game of baseball internationally” and eager to start the season in “one of the most exciting and rapidly developing baseball markets on earth” and “one of the greatest cities in the world.”

If Twain were alive, he might start a sequel.

Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and a former commissioner of Australia’s National Basketball League.

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