Major League Baseball is coming to Australia! Yep, you read right. The Arizona Diamondbacks and the Los Angeles Dodgers will be playing a couple of games at the Sydney Cricket Ground this weekend. But these aren’t simply exhibition friendlies – these innings are for real points, so keep tuned!
And if you think playing baseball in Sydney is all clever and entrepreneurial, I’ve got an even more out there suggestion to any bigwigs at MLB. What about baseball at the pyramids? It’s old meets new, antiquity meets modernity, movement and stasis. It could be AWWWWEEEEESSSOOOOOOOME!
What was that?
What do you mean, its been done?
I think my awesome just got awkward. Oops.
So it seems that a grand baseball tour of the old and ancient worlds happened in 1888 and 1889. It was funded and organised by the baseballer/sporting good magnate/player union busting Albert Spalding. He took his team – the Chicago White Stockings – and an All American side to Australia, Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), Arabia, Egypt, Italy, France and England in order to promote the game (and maybe sell a few baseballs?). There were some big names in both the teams including Adrian ‘Cap’ Anson (the first player to make 3,000 hits) and John Montgomery Ward from the New York Giants. Ironically it was Ward who lead players in the 1889 campaign against the reserve clause which had been instituted by Spalding and the other team owners. I wonder if there was much tension on the slow boat across the Pacific?
Spalding’s were not the first baseball tourists to travel to Australia. In 1879 a group of “real coloured men” played some games in the colonies. The Original Georgia Minstrels performed a show that included singing, banjo playing, comedy and a “realistic sketch” about “Slave Life in the South”. Away from the theatres, the Minstrels also played baseball, and competed against local teams such as the St Kilda Baseball Club – yes, Australia has had baseball clubs for a long time – since the 1850s in fact. But compared to the 1879 exhibitions, the 1888-9 tour had baseball at its heart rather than as a sideshow. And, sad as it is to admit, there was probably a feeling that Australians might be more inclined to take-up baseball seriously if they saw it played by white guys. Sorry folks, but I reckon that’s on the money.
But once in Australia it seems that Spalding and his troupe were met with polite curiosity. The Australian press were interested in the baseballers’ physique and “gentlemanly conduct”. Crowds that went to the games – 12,000 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground saw a match between the All Americans and the Melbourne Baseball Club – were reportedly drawn to the “novelty of the thing” rather than as potential converts. There were even some who mused over the branding of the tour, given that almost every piece of equipment the players wielded carried Spalding’s name. And whilst there were polite civic receptions and toasts to the Queen and the President of the USA at dinners, responses to the game were mixed. There was an effort to present baseball on a programme with other events. In Sydney, for example, one contest was preceded by a game of cricket between the Americans and the Sydney CC and was followed by the inflation of a hot air balloon. On this occasion, however, the crowd were let down – the balloon didn’t inflate and the games were described by one observer as “dull”. And although the baseballers were in Australia to promote their game, Melbourne’s Australian rules football community didn’t let the opportunity slip to show off their homegrown product to the Americans, and Carlton played St Kilda in an exhibition game of two twenty-minute quarters on New Years Eve 1888.
Baseball did enjoy a bit of a fillip after the grand tour. In 1890, a Spalding Cup was inaugurated in Melbourne and a fixture of local teams competed. This, however, occurred in the winter months – baseball in the United States is a warm weather game. And this scheduling hints at some of the barriers to baseball getting foothold in Australia: in summer, cricket was king. And as king, cricket took priority over sporting spaces – believe it or not, a monarch with no time for diamonds!
And why was cricket king? Well I am sure there are some amongst you who would happily argue over which is the better game. But I don’t think Australian ambivalence towards baseball can be simply boiled down to that. The tours of the American baseball teams – there were others in 1906 and 1913 – reveal so much about Australia and the United States – what they shared and what made them different. They were both countries of the “New World”, settler communities, who defined themselves as progressive, modern and forward thinking. Yet America was (and is), a product of revolutionary upheaval. Australia wasn’t – and isn’t. Indeed, in 1888 Australia wasn’t even…Australia, rather a connection of colonies still governed as British outposts of Empire. So many of those who watched the baseball tour of 1888 did so as colonials, as Britons, in a country still feeling their way towards nationhood and as what it meant to be Australian.
I’m not sure if the Diamondbacks and Dodgers will get to Cairo this time. But I hope they put on a good show in Sydney – I think – after one hundred and sixteen years – we are ready for it.