Take Me Out To The Ball Game

It can be easy to think sometimes that the games and pastimes which are so ubiquitously a part of Irish life these days – Gaelic games, rugby, soccer – were forever the dominant sports. But, before the GAA, the IRFU or the FAI and long before teenagers donned their New Era flat-peaked caps, baseball was being played in Ireland. Not among the Irish people admittedly, but it was on view and in the public consciousness, however briefly. Of the sports that we associate with Ireland in the late nineteenth century,baseball isn’t likely to be one of them.

Yet, there it was. Nestled in among all the other amusements, exhibitions, athletics displays and all else in between, if you looked hard enough, you could find baseball. Typically, when we think of Irish sport in the late nineteenth century, we think of the revolution in sporting culture begun by the Gaelic Athletic Association from its founding in 1884 – but the story of Irish sport in this period is wide-ranging and frequently surprising. In March of 1889 there were a number of exhibition games of baseball played in our capital city, Dublin. These exhibitions were part of a wider trend that saw American businessmen attempt to bring the game to cities in Britain as well, where they had set up businesses and saw it as a viable market for the establishment of a British and Irish Baseball League. One of the most well known remnants of this attempt to spread America’s past-time is Derby County Football Club’s home, the Baseball Ground. This ground was part of a complex built by Sir Francis Ley for workers at the Ley Ironworks – it was used as baseball ground from 1890-98. Martin Johnes has noted that among the sports that South Wales’ municipal authorities provided pitches for in public parks included in the summer time cricket and baseball.[1] There are no obvious remnants of the game here in Ireland, but the games were well-reported on in the press of the day as curiosities and social occasions that brought out the great and the good, even if they didn’t entice very many to take up the game.

Spalding is a name synonymous with the development of professional baseball in the United States in the late nineteenth century.[2] And, in 1889 Albert Spalding, following a fine and established tradition of touring sides, arranged a baseball tour of the United Kingdom that made its way through both Belfast and Dublin. This advertisement appeared in the pages of the Irish Times on March 25th:

Baseball 1

The team came to Dublin by way of Belfast that week where they played an exhibition at the North of Ireland Cricket Club’s ground in apparently gusty and inclement weather. We are reliably informed that despite this ‘the lawn in front of the pavilion was filled with a fashionable assemblage, the fair sex, in particular, being well represented.’[3]  We are also told that the most striking feature of this keenly contested game, which All America won 9-8 over their Chicagoan counterparts, was the outfield catching. For the uninitiated there is an explanation of how the game operates given by the correspondent. When the teams made it to Dublin the game, watched by among others then Commander-in-Chief of Ireland, Prince Edward of Saxe-Weimar, the game was a less exciting one. This time the correspondent complained that the striking of the batters, which he notes is one of the key attractions of cricket, was decidedly lacking in this game but again he praised the fine catching of the outfield players who put on a fine display in front of the crowd of 2,000 spectators. The American-ness of the event was commented upon, the correspondent saying they ‘played for blood’ and complaining that the bickering and challenging of umpires’ decisions  ‘reminded one of the disputes and unpleasantness sometimes associated with a hotly-contested football match in Yorkshire.’[4] In the pages of the Freeman’s Journal there was a greater welcome for the men, whom they describe as ‘the nicest lot of fellows to have come here for a long time’.[5]

This though wasn’t the first ever visit of American baseballers to Irish shores. About fifteen years previously similar exhibitions games had been played. Here is the ad that appeared then on the front page of the Irish Times on that first occasion of the visit of the Philadelphia Athletics and a team from Boston in 1874:

Baseball 2

From the account given then in the Freeman’s Journal it sounds as though it was a less successful tour than that of 1889. This tour of 1874, and the later one of 1889 weren’t the end of baseball’s time in Dublin however. In 1917, with the world at war, baseball was once again called upon in Ireland. This time the game was held to raise funds for the Dublin Castle Red Cross Fund. The event, once more attended by all of Dublin’s great and good, was between a team of American soldiers and Canadian soldiers. The Canadians ran out clear winners of the game 10-6. As a fundraising appeal of some novelty, the game was a great success, raising £752.[6]  Meanwhile, in Cork by the Mardyke, some 4,000 spectators looked on as a game was played between crews from two ships docked in the harbour.[7] A similar game was also mentioned among the papers brieflets after the war had ended, when a game between University College Dublin’s American students was arranged against members of the Navy in the city at Terenure Park in 1919.[8] Even in the Free State era, baseball exhibitions came to town, though perhaps reflecting the shift in political power, this time the match was held in Croke Park, the jewel in the crown of the GAA even then. In 1924, only months after the country hosted it’s first Tailteann Games, Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants came to play in Dublin as part of a European tour. The game though was played in poor conditions in front of a small crowd – the game had been arranged to start in the afternoon but due to the bad weather conditions, it started in the mid-morning. On heavy ground, the Giants beat the White Sox in a low scoring game by 4-3.[9]

This was an era when such sporting tours were first becoming common, and there was even an Irish cricket team that toured the north-eastern United States to face teams in New Jersey, Philadelphia and New York in 1879, but that’s another story for another post. Despite the continued touring, the game never really established serious roots in Ireland, competing as it would have been in an already crowded sporting environment. During the tour of 1974, a reporter in the Freeman’s Journal wrote

The elite of American athletes, the bone and muscle of their country, had come across some thousands of miles of ocean and were to be seen within a half a mile of our city, wearing the same garb and playing the same game that they had so recently worn and played on American fields,, amidst the uproarious applause of American spectators. Yesterday the spectators at the ground seemed to have penetrated pretty deeply into the mysteries of the game, and to understand its varieties and vicissitudes, and we even had some talk of establishing a club for its promotion in Ireland… It would be well then for our city athletes would take the game fairly in hands and give it a reasonable trial…[10]

The hoped-for baseball craze never took off and events like those of 1874, 1889, 1917, 1924 only cemented it’s reputation as a touring novelty. Had such a call to baseball been heeded though, then we might have seen the baseball cap on Irish heads much sooner than we thought!


[1] Martin Johnes, Soccer and Society: South Wales, 1900-1939 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002), p.99; See also Martin Johnes, “‘Poor Man’s Cricket’: Baseball, Class and Community in South Wales c.1880-1950”International Journal of the History of Sport, 17:4 (December 2000), and Daryl Leeworthy, Fields of Play: The Sporting Heritage of Wales (Aberystwyth: Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments, 2012), pp. 22-23

[2] As good an introduction to the games early history as any is Peter Morris, But Didn’t We Have Fun? An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-1870 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008)

[3] Irish Times, 26 March 1889

[4] Irish Times, 28 March 1889

[5] Freeman’s Journal, 25 March 1889

[6] Irish Times, 29 October 1917; November 13 1917

[7] See John Borgonovo, ‘Exercising a Close Vigilance Over Their Daughters: Cork Women, American Sailors, and the Catholic Vigilantes of 1917-1918’, Irish Historical Studies, Spring 2012

[8] Irish Times, 14 May 1919

[9] Irish Times, 27 October 1924

[10] Freeman’s Journal, 27 August 1874

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