By Ryan Ferguson
In mainstream Britain, there seems to be a stigma attached to baseball. Many people view it as glorified rounders, with men in pyjamas playing a childish game for exorbitant amounts of money. On the surface, those perceptions may even be true, but baseball is a game of greater history and tactical nuance than is often acknowledged. It was the first sport to gain mass popularity in America, and has secured a place in the very fabric of that diverse culture. However, the game also has an interesting heritage on British shores, including one glorious summer when our beloved Tranmere Rovers fielded two teams at Prenton Park.
Bat and ball sports have long captivated British minds. Cricket originated in the sixteenth century, and tennis can be traced back even further. Although distinctly American in every way, recent evidence appears to substantiate Britain’s claim to the origins of baseball, too. Indeed, one of the earliest references to the sport came from Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, written in 1798.
“It was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, base ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books,” wrote Austen, introducing her main character. Such a fleeting reference is often cited as evidence of British familiarity with baseball at that early stage, even before it rose to prominence across the Atlantic.
Many decades later, when the game had been thoroughly indoctrinated into the American way of life, baseball returned to Britain in the form of exhibition games. In 1874, the Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics played games in London, Dublin, Liverpool and Manchester. In 1888/89, Albert Goodwill Spalding orchestrated another tour of star players around the world, hoping to open new markets for his sports apparel empire. On 12th March 1889, the future King Edward VII even watched a game at the Oval, although he immediately deemed cricket to be superior.
Nevertheless, the seeds of baseball growth were sprinkled, and several leagues sprouted up across the country in the wake of Spalding’s tour. Seeking an option for summer recreation, many football teams became interested, with Aston Villa, Preston North End and Stoke City fielding baseball teams. A British form of the game was spawned, with a flattened bat and underarm pitching, but the bloodline was decidedly American.
The powerhouse of this early period was undoubtedly Derby County, which adopted baseball when Sir Francis Ley encountered the game on a trip to America. Derby were the first national baseball champions of Britain, and the football team was later invited to share their home field, known as the Baseball Ground. Football was played there right up until 1997, although the baseball team folded in 1898.
Trying to establish professional baseball leagues in Britain proved exceptionally troublesome. Problems with advertising and general fan apathy proved too difficult to overcome. However, the amateur game continued to thrive, and football clubs such as Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Nottingham Forest had baseball incarnations. A second glory period came in the thirties and forties, when West Ham became a dominant force. The Hammers routinely drew over 4,000 fans for baseball games, while teams in Hull touched 9,000 and Sheffield attracted 6,000 occasionally. The BBC even aired its first baseball game via radio in 1936, as hopes percolated for further expansion.
While national interest could be hard to conjure, baseball thrived at a regional level during this era. Sir John Moores was a major player in developing northern baseball, and he bankrolled several ill-fated pro leagues that stimulated participation. Under his guise, Merseyside became quite a hotbed for both American and British baseball, with the Liverpool Giants becoming a popular team. Former Tranmere and Everton great Dixie Dean played baseball for the Caledonians team, and legend states that he even met Babe Ruth, the famous New York Yankees hero, around this time.
Goodison Park played host to several important baseball games, most notably an exhibition between the Chicago White Sox and New York Giants in 1924. This legacy was reawakened in the forties, when US soldiers were stationed in Liverpool while preparing for the D-Day Landings of 1944. A thirst for Americana bloomed anew, and baseball was played casually as a reminder of home.
In April of ’44, that passion was codified in the Merseyside National Baseball League, an eight-team circuit featuring clubs from Liverpool and Wirral. Everton entered a team that would play at Goodison, while the Caledonians were invited to take part alongside clubs from Formby and Widnes. Two rather obscure teams, named Roote and Liverpool Police, also took part, before the league was rounded out with two entrants from Tranmere Rovers: the Tranmere Rovers Baseball Team and Birkenhead.
At the time, Rovers chairman Bob Trueman was keen to find opportunities to utilise Prenton Park in the summer, after football season had concluded. Baseball seemed an ideal project, and plans developed swiftly to field two teams, both using the hallowed turf on Borough Road as their base. A new sound system was installed to allow announcements of each batter, while the pitch was altered to accommodate baseball. Tranmere also recruited well, as Colin Grove and Cecil Rutherford became notable additions from America.
Rovers won their first game 18-7 against Roote before a small crowd at Prenton Park. Birkenhead were defeated 14-9 in the second contest, although the overall quality of play wasn’t great. Tranmere tried to recruit players of better quality, namely Canadian pitcher AC Haley, and improvement was felt as a result. However, when several major players joined the war effort, Tranmere’s baseball fortunes took a turn for the worse. Hopes of winning the league title faded and were effectively demolished when Everton triumphed 25-3 in one particularly disastrous game.
Interestingly, Tranmere manager Bill Ridding played for the Birkenhead baseball team, and he proved a solid addition. A few Everton footballers played for their baseball side, but the craze never really took off. Interest in baseball waned as the new football season approached, and the Merseyside National Baseball League slowly petered out. Moores launched a North of England Baseball League in 1935, and that soaked up much of the residual interest on a regional level.
The relationship between football and baseball has been difficult to quantify ever since. Ajax Amsterdam famously adopted baseball as a summer alternative, with Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens proving particularly skilled exponents. But America’s national pastime has otherwise been overwhelmed by football throughout the continent.
Baseball is still played on Merseyside, with the Liverpool Trojans competing at the Triple-A level. This year, the Bootle-based team is celebrating its seventieth anniversary, and is widely considered to be the oldest existing baseball team in Britain. A day out to watch them is highly recommended.
As for Tranmere’s relationship with American sports? Well, the Wirral Wolves American football team played at Prenton Park between 1987-88, regularly attracting crowds of up to 1,000. One notable fixture came against the Washington Presidents, when the Wolves mounted an incredible comeback only to lose narrowly in one of the greatest American football games ever played on British soil.
Ultimately, any experimentation with American sports has been fleeting at Prenton Park. Yet as a loyal baseball fan since childhood and a keen advocate of Tranmere history, it’s gratifying to know that my two greatest passions were once entwined in Birkenhead. For one dreamy summer, baseball was played by Tranmere Rovers, and that’s enough to inspire pride in my heart.