Friday, April 10, 2009

The Great Britain national baseball team: 1907-2007

From the Great Britain Baseball Scorers Association and Project Cobb, comes a look at the history of the national baseball team in Great Britain. It's a well-done, well-researched article, and shows that the game is a lot more popular over here than a lot of people think it is.

The Great Britain national baseball team: 1907-2007
Written by Josh Chetwynd

Some of the material covered here has been used elsewhere in other works on British baseball written by Josh.

As early as the 1890s, Great Britain baseball was taking on the world. In August 1892, a publication called English Sports wrote about a pair of matches between New York amateurs and Preston North End, a baseball team affiliated with football in that area. Three years later, teams from Derby and Stockton took on a squad from the US called "Boston Amateur" in what The Times dubbed "an international game of baseball between Englishmen and Americans."

Over time, Great Britain evolved from merely putting up club teams (or a combination of a couple of different clubs) against foreign foes to selecting a national team to represent the whole country. The early signs of a Great Britain representative squad emerged as early as 1907 when the British Baseball Association hosted a game between "English-born" and "American-born" players. In 1927, a series of games were contested at Stamford Bridge between an "All-British" team and an "All-American" squad.

In the 1930s, the sport began to flourish as professional leagues emerged in Yorkshire, Lancashire and London with some teams drawing more than 10,000 fans for big match-ups. Great Britain's crowning moment came in 1938, when Team England, which would later be referred to as a Great Britain side, beat the US on home soil by four games to one.

The 1938 triumph was a testament to the development of play in the country. The event was described in the 13 August 1938 edition of the Yorkshire Sports and Football Argus as "the first baseball test match" in the UK. Later, it would be dubbed the inaugural World Amateur Championships with Great Britain its winner. More baseball glory might have come Great Britain's way the following year when a team was selected to travel to Cuba to play in the second World Cup. But lack of funds forced Great Britain to stay at home. Any hope for an immediate return to the world baseball stage was, of course, dashed by the outbreak of World War II. Still, during the war, Americans stationed in the UK often played baseball and there were even some examples of Great Britain teams joining in. For example, in July 1943, there were ads placed in the Liverpool Echo publicizing a series of games between the "American Nite Sticks" and "Alf Hanson's All-England Nine" team. Nevertheless, the war clearly drew attention away from re-forming a true national squad.

Following the war, baseball remained part of the sports landscape but had lost some of its momentum. Chuck Cole, a player from that era, tells how baseball was included at the Festival of Britain exhibition in London in 1951. While baseball was demonstrated for some four to five weeks during that summer, he only remembers "one or two enquiries" about playing. Still, there were instances of representative squads playing in this decade. In 1952, there were three events between England (a Great Britain squad had yet to be formed) and foreign teams. This included a British representative squad going abroad to The Netherlands to play as part of the Dutch Jubilee Celebration. Because of the ongoing presence of Allied troops throughout Great Britain, baseball did continue to have vibrant domestic competition between clubs made up of mixed-nationality sides. So much so, that in the 16 July 1953 issue of Baseball News, "a News Sheet of Baseball, published by the South Eastern Baseball League," ran this editorial about the future of a national team:

International Future?
This progress of English baseball could enable us to hold our own with other countries in International games, and with the formation of the European Baseball Federation (in 1953), it is obvious that baseball is becoming internationally minded. As the birth-place of baseball in far off days, let it not be said that England is to be among the "also rans" of a sport that hopes to gain Olympic recognition.

But, by the latter half of the 1950s, international competitions mainly involved Great Britain clubs and all-star teams playing US military personnel. Teams from Hull, for instance, took on the US Navy (1958) and an American Air Force team called the Chelveston Cowboys (1959). In 1960, Great Britain joined the seven-year-old European Baseball Federation, which is today known as the Confederation of European Baseball. Great Britain was the eighth nation to enter the organization. Although at least one Great Britain squad played a friendly game in the five years following the country's entry into the federation, it wasn't until 1967 that a Great Britain national team competed in a European Championships. That team fared well, winning the silver medal in Belgium (albeit in the absence of European baseball powerhouses Italy and The Netherlands, who didn't participate).

Yet even after that triumph, British baseball was too regionally fragmented to put together a consistent, cohesive national squad. International play in 1969 was emblematic of the factional nature of the game in that period. Representative teams from both South Africa and Zambia travelled to Great Britain for a series of games. Instead of British baseball's governing body forming a single representative squad, various regions put up all-star teams against the foreign competition. When Zambia came, the country played all-star teams from the Midlands, the North-East and the North-West along with various club teams. The South Africans competed against the National League Southern All-Stars in London and then played against the National League Northern All-Stars in Hull.

The matter didn't seem to get much better throughout the 1970s. Schisms between organizers of baseball in the North and the South occurred, according to some officials of the time. A few of Great Britain's past national teams have reflected this as only players from one section of the country were represented. For instance, the squad that went out to Italy to compete in the 1971 European Championships essentially comprised players from just the North and the Midlands; a solitary victory, over Sweden, led to a seventh-place finish.

Nevertheless, there have been highlights - particularly once the Great Britain national programme became more organized in the 1980s. At that time, Don Smallwood, president of the British Amateur Baseball and Softball Federation, underscored the importance of a national team. "The need to have an International team is, I feel, very important for the growth of the sport," he wrote in First Base magazine's Autumn 1986 edition. "To wear the uniform of your country must be the pinnacle for every athlete and provides that incentive to achieve excellence in every sport."

Since then, Great Britain has won the European B-pool Championships twice - in 1988 and 1996 - and, in 2007, made an exemplary showing at the European Championships winning the silver medal ahead of such traditional powers as Italy and Spain. The squad has also included its share of stand-out individual performers. In 2001, pitcher Gavin Marshall, who represented Great Britain at the senior level from 1993 to 1999, became the first player born and bred in the UK to sign a professional contract in the US. Other players, like infielder Alan Bloomfield and pitcher Brian Thurston, have had long distinguished international careers for Great Britain.

Since 1999, the Great Britain team has increasingly included players with British passports who do not live in the UK. As a result, numerous players with impressive baseball résumés from the US, Canada and Australia have represented Great Britain. They have included Brant Ust, who has played at the Triple-A level of Minor League Baseball (and who was named tournament MVP at the 2007 Euros), and Eddie Delzer, who earned the win for Cal-State Fullerton in the Division I College World Series Finals in 1984 and then pitched in the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim organization. In addition a handful of players - such as Mike Nickeas and Ust (US), Simon Eissens (Australia) and Matt Stockman (Canada) - have played for other leading baseball countries' national teams before joining Great Britain.

To view the full Great Britain national baseball team history click here.

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