Swinging away: How baseball and cricket connect

Baseball might have originated in England in 18th century and taken to the US by immigrants
Last Updated 16 July 2010, 16:35 IST

As evidence of how much has changed in English attitudes toward America’s national game, the exhibition is being jointly hosted by the Marylebone Cricket Club, for more than 200 years the rule maker in worldwide cricket, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The Hall of Fame will host the exhibit beginning in April, representing baseball’s own start on coming to terms with a game that many baseball enthusiasts have long loved to disparage.

For the English, cricket has always been the gentlemen’s game — played in whites, with decorum prized as highly as the grace of a batsman’s ‘strokes,’ and committees to codify ‘the spirit of the game,’ above all the principle that playing honourably is more important than winning. Baseball, by contrast, has been seen by most cricket lovers as a vulgarisation of the true bat-and-ball game, which Rudyard Kipling said defined what it was to be properly English.

Baseball, in this view, was a game for stoutly built men proud to be called ‘sluggers,’ uncouth players who said things like ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’ and chewed tobacco, and who, unlike barehanded outfielders in cricket, wore leather gloves to catch balls. Worse, there were baseball managers who kicked dirt at umpires.

For their part, most Americans have professed bewilderment at what has so enthralled the English and their former colonial subjects who took up cricket and, in many cases, learned to regularly thump their former masters. With Test matches between the main cricket nations lasting as long as five days, and then often ending in draws, it has been commonplace for Americans to say that watching a cricket match is as exciting as watching the grass grow.

Against this background, the Lord’s exhibition is a bid for a kind of standstill agreement, an effort to move the games beyond decades of chafing toward a new era of respect. At a time when BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill has engendered new trans-Atlantic tensions, the exhibition, titled ‘Swinging Away: How Cricket and Baseball Connect’, may carry a wider message about two countries that have traditionally combined admiration for each other with a degree of wariness and mostly good-natured disregard.

“Perhaps that’s because sports are a tribal thing, and cricket and baseball have been so absorbed into the respective national psyches,” said Adam Chadwick, an Oxford-educated classics scholar and curator of the Lord’s museum. “On both sides of the Atlantic, we like to celebrate the ‘special relationship’ between our two countries, but that tends to disguise the fact that we have such fundamentally different outlooks.”
The paradox is fully explored at the exhibit and demonstrated by a collection of memorabilia from both games. The baseball bat a fading Babe Ruth used to hit the final three home runs of his career — for the Boston Braves in a game with the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 25, 1935 — is displayed alongside the modern, heftier cricket bats built to empower the ‘slogging’ for the fences — the ‘boundary,’ in cricket terms — that is one of the baseball influences that have found their way into contemporary cricket.
Nearby, a cricket uniform from 1821 with a tight-waisted jacket of the kind used by Nelson’s midshipmen at Trafalgar sits alongside a far more comfortable-looking baseball outfit worn in 1866 by LeGrand Lippett, a famous player of his time.

The jersey Casey Stengel wore for a 1924 off-season tour of Europe with the New York Giants is displayed, along with the battered ‘Doubleday ball’ discovered in an attic in 1934 that is regarded as baseball’s most sacred relic.

But even as the exhibit shows how the games have evolved in parallel, it conveys the unmistakable theme that what many Americans view as their national game was originally an English sport, played by children nearly 300 years ago.

Beth Hise, a co-curator who is a Yale-educated Cleveland Indians fan living in Australia, addresses the issue head-on in the text she wrote for the exhibit, calling the idea that baseball was an American game in its origins ‘a powerful and popular myth.’

She attributes the myth to Albert G Spalding, a prominent 19th-century baseball player and founder of the sporting goods company named for him, who declared in 1908 that baseball was an American game invented in 1839 by Abner Doubleday. In fact, the curators say, baseball — or base-ball, as it was known then — originated in England at least as early as the first decades of the 18th century, perhaps even earlier, and was taken to the United States by 19th-century immigrants.

The exhibit also makes the case that cricket, played in America from as early as 1709, was America’s principal bat-and-ball game until the eve of the Civil War, with thriving cricket clubs in many major East Coast cities, including New York; Brooklyn; Newark, New Jersey; Boston; and, especially, Philadelphia.

But the story traced by the exhibit, like the arc of the two games as they are played today, is as much about baseball’s influence on cricket as the other way around. In recent years, as test match crowds have dwindled, the most popular forms of cricket have been the new, shorter varieties of the game, played within a single day, or, with an even more rambunctious following, the Twenty20 form that is played faster than many baseball games.

Cricket talk is now sprinkled with baseball terms — ‘batter’ (in place of batsman), ‘catcher,’ ‘pinch hitter,’ ‘outfield,’ ‘switch-hitter,’ ‘strike,’ and ‘home run derby,’ to cite examples overheard during a recent test match at Lord’s. Some of the best cricket teams — Australia’s, for one — have hired baseball coaches to improve throwing skills, one area where baseball has long had an edge.

“These days, in the shorter forms of cricket, it’s all attack, attack, attack, there’s no real time to defend, and that’s something we’ve taken from baseball,” said David Lloyd, one of the game’s most popular television commentators.

He added: “In the end, the games have a lot in common, starting with what’s basic: You go at the other team head to head, and you tell them, ‘OK, we’ll both have a go, and when it’s over we’ll have scored one more run than you.’ Simple, really.”

(Published 16 July 2010, 16:35 IST)

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