Matt’s Derby Explorations #4: Take Me Out To The Ball Game

800px-Derby2BASEBALLAsk anyone: I’m not sporty. Never have been, mainly due to me being overweight and possibly dyspraxic. About the only thing I know about sport is that I’m British, and therefore my national sports are football and cricket. I know this because, when I was in Toronto a few years ago, everyone seemed to hear my accent and immediately ask me about Manchester United. There I stood, making positive noises and trying to remember if I knew any player who wasn’t Beckham, Rooney or dead.

Baseball, however, is American. Always has been.

Except for eight years in Derby.

I’ve lived here around a year, and now I’m over the initial culture shock, I’m asking questions like “Why was the old Derby County ground called the Baseball Ground when they’re a football team?”

The story begins in 1888, when local industrialist Francis Ley visited America. He’d established Ley’s Malleable Castings Company Ltd in 1874, and during his trip to the States, he was impressed by how companies provided sport facilities to ensure a healthy, productive workforce. On returning home, he built Ley’s Baseball Ground, a 12 acre park partly designed to promote Ley’s newly discovered interest in America’s national past-time.

This coincided with another attempt to give baseball a foothold in the UK. In 1888, baseball professional Albert Goodwill Spalding decided that what his sport needed was a spot of international promotion, and so he embarked upon a tour, taking a group of Major League players around the world for a series of exhibition matches. One of his stops was in England, which lead to a flurry of interest in baseball in the UK and the founding of the National Baseball League of Great Britain and Ireland. One of the first four teams to take part in the League was Derby County, alongside Aston Villa, Stoke and Preston North End, all of whom are now far better known for football.

And Derby County were pretty good, dominating the League in 1890. However, this was controversial, as Derby had hired three Americans as part of the team – Will Bryan, John Reidenbach and Sim Bullas (although there’s a theory that Sim was actually born in my birthtown of Dudley. Which is bizarre, frankly.) All three had played professionally in the US, and Bullas and Reidenbach had been transferred from a foundry in Cleveland to Ley’s factory as part of the activities following Spalding’s initial tour. This extensive professional experience was considered to give Derby an unfair advantage, and after a series of arguments and disagreements, Ley withdrew his team from the League. The Americans returned home at the end of the season; the club itself hung on until 1898, when it folded; the initial version of the Baseball League of Great Britain hung on till the early 20th century. Despite Spalding’s optimism, baseball never really took off in England. Its biggest influence may have been in inspiring Aston Villa’s William McGregor to start the world’s first associated Football League in 1888, based on the baseball system and ensuring a clear fixture list for the newly professionalised football clubs.

And maybe that’s not a bad thing, because the history of 19th century baseball in the UK is really the history of cultural identities and the building of empires.

See, Spalding’s tour had something of an ulterior motive – in promoting baseball, he was promoting American culture, with all the complicated issues that implies. Certainly he had a complex relationship with international baseball – sure he wanted the sport to take off in other countries, but on his own terms. When it was suggested that baseball had actually evolved from British rounders, Spalding was furious – he established the Mills Commission to investigate the origins of the sport, and when they reported back in 1907, they found that baseball had been invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York, 1839. This has pretty much been proven to be a creation myth, but thanks to Spalding favouring commissioners who promoted the Doubleday story, the myth took hold.

This early attempt at cultural imperialism ran into a problem in the UK – football. While baseball had enjoyed a flurry of popularity in the 1890s, it was football that was really taking hold. Derby County FC is a good example of this – founded in 1884, they’d started to share the Baseball Ground when they couldn’t use the local racecourse, moving there permanently in 1895. This showed how the wind was blowing – the baseball club was slowly dying, and the ground was adapted to make it more suitable for football’s growing popularity – all it cost was £500 and a gypsy curse preventing the Rams from ever winning the FA Cup.

The Baseball Ground finally passed into the possession of the football club in 1924, remaining the team’s home until its move to Pride Park in 1997. The Baseball Ground was demolished and replaced by housing in 2003. By that time, football had been established as the national game for well over a hundred years – baseball was simply something Americans did.

And so Derby County Baseball Club was at the forefront of a struggle for the identity of two nations and the emergence of organised, professionalised working class sport in the UK. And that’s why Derby County’s home used to be called the Baseball Ground, and why I’ve written a longer post on sport than I ever thought I was capable of.

Other posts in this series:

Buffalo Bill Comes to Town

St. Alkmund’s Well

The Days of the Plague

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