England beats the US at baseball: the whole story

Tue 14 Aug 2018

It was a long time ago, and it was a different world, but it’s still hard to believe that in August 1938, a five-game series between a baseball team representing England and a team that represented the United States was played in the north of England, and ended in a 4-1 victory for the English team.

Later, it was decided that this would be designated as baseball’s first World Cup, and England was anointed by the International Baseball Federation as the “Inaugural World Amateur Champions”.

All this week, we’re presenting articles and podcasts related to the event, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the series, to make the details better known, and to put it in the context of British baseball today.

The following article, an expanded account of the series, was written by former BBF Board member and National Team Coach Ian Smyth.
 

USA

The United States Olympic Baseball Team, under the management of Leslie Mann, Secretary of the International Baseball Federation and a former National League player with Boston, Chicago, St Louis and New York, arrived in Plymouth, England on 11 August 1938 to compete in a five-match “Test Series” against England.

The American team had been selected from among the country’s best non-professional players at the National Amateur Baseball Trials held the previous month in Lincoln, Nebraska under the auspices of the US Baseball Congress.  The team was a mixture of college and high school players, and included Mike Schemer, who went on to play with the New York Giants.  The tour was in preparation for the 1940 Olympic Baseball Tournament to be played in Tokyo, Japan.

Once in England, the tourists’ schedule was hectic, comprising the five-game series against England and another five games against provincial opponents including Yorkshire, Lancashire, London, Birmingham and the Royal Air Force.  However, the main part of the tour was the “Test Series” against England.


England

The bulk of the England team came from the Yorkshire-Lancashire League, a professional circuit in the north of England.  For the series to be competitive, the England team included players from the British Empire, the result being a team consisting almost entirely of Canadians.  England was skippered by George “Chummy” McNeill.  The Yorkshire Evening News described MacNeil as “one of the most versatile fellows in the game … who has taken the trouble to master so perfectly the various phases of the baseball game.”

The rest of the England squad, many of whom had played semi-pro ball in Canadian leagues, are listed below (along with their clubs and league batting averages):

England Test Team
Robinson (Oldham)  .477
Ritchie (Liverpool Giants) .476
McNeill (Leeds Oaks)  .456
Marsh (York)   .456
Holden (Bradford City Sox) .432
Cadorette (Halifax)  .422
Wright (Halifax)   .403
Hanna (Halifax)   .437
Kendrick (Oldham)  .370
Bissett (Birmingham)  ----
Ruvinsky (London)  ----

The test games were scheduled from 13-19 August at Liverpool, Hull, Rochdale, Halifax and Leeds.  The press and baseball followers in England were excited about the prospect of seeing the “American Olympians”, and played up local interest by advertising the games as the first-ever “International Series”.


Game 1

This game was played at Wavertree Stadium in Liverpool on Saturday 13 August 1938.

In the build-up to the first Test, the Liverpool Evening Express predicted that pitching would be the deciding factor: “If Kendrick, the Oldham pitcher, shows anything like his form, American batters will need to be at their very best.”

However, the writer also noted that: “… the tourists will have three brilliant pitchers available: Virgil Thompson, a curve ball man; Clyde Dean, who favours the fast ball; and Wendell Ringland, who specialises in a sidearm delivery.”

Expectations for a pitchers’ duel between Kendrick and Thompson were satisfied, as the paper reported:

"The brilliant pitching of Ross Kendrick and great work of catcher Ivan Ruvinsky were the main features of the first baseball Test Match [as] England won 3-0.  There was no score until England’s seventh frame when Danny Wright hit the only home run of the match. Virgil Thompson, America’s opening pitcher, never found his real form.  He was benched in the eighth frame when Sam Hanna hit a double and brought in Sid Bissett for the second run."

England’s third run was scored by skipper McNeill on a single by Marsh in the eighth inning.  Despite the fact that the Americans were much quicker and surer “base throwers”, Kendrick’s pitching kept them off the bases.  He pitched a two-hit (both singles) complete game and struck out 16.  A crowd of 10,000 watched the game.

Game 1     1   2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9    Total
England    0    0    0    0    0    0    1    2    0       3
USA         0    0    0    0    0    0    0    0    0       0

This victory was clearly enjoyed by the press, which ran a cartoon poking fun at the Americans.


Game 2

This game was played at Craven Park in Hull on Monday 15 August 1938.

The visit of the “American Olympians” was undoubtedly a highlight for the people of Hull.  The Hull Daily Mail of 13 August noted: “There should be no qualms about the attendance at Craven Park on Monday night, because the finest baseball attraction ever staged in the city will be the fare then.  It will certainly be a red-letter day in as much as the city has never staged a Test Match between England and America.”

Craven Park, host to the Test, was the home of Hull Kingston Rovers Rugby Club, and had opened in 1922.

Pitching again paved the way for an England victory, according to the Hull Daily Mail:

"After a shaky start England gained their second Test Match victory over America when they met at Craven Park last night.  There was only one change in the England team – this was the inclusion of Jerry Strong, the Hull captain and pitcher, who recorded 12 strikeouts.  The 5,000 spectators were entertained to a game which could have been anybody’s until the closing frame.  America scored two runs in the opening frame, Buger and O’Rourke scoring.  England were shut out in their first attempt, but in the second frame Cadorette lessened the margin by scoring on an error by Buger.  There was no further scoring until the fifth innings, when England’s batsmen had a hectic time and scored five runs before they were dismissed.  First Robinson and Ritchie came in on a hit by Bissett, who was brought around when McNeill hit a great “two-bagger”.  To crown all this, Sam Hanna hit a glorious homer, which also brought in McNeill.  This appeared to have put England in a sound position, but in America’s seventh and eighth innings they ran in four runs through Dean, Benson, Buger and O’Rourke.  England scored one run in each of the seventh and eighth innings, Bissett and Robinson reaching the plate amid great excitement.  England received a shut out in the ninth, and with two men on base, O’Rourke was caught out to dismiss the Americans, and England had won by eight runs to six."

Strong, the England pitcher, recorded 12 strikeouts.  Schemer, the American pitcher, had five.

Game 2     1   2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9    Total
England    0    1    0    0    5    0    1    1    0       8
USA         2    0    0    0    0    0    2    2    0       6


Game 3

This game was played at Spotlands, Rochdale on Tuesday 16 August 1938.

As in Hull, the local press was looking forward to the visit of the “American Olympians”.

The game was played at the home of Rochdale Football Club, and attracted only about 1,000 spectators.  The uncertain weather and the lack of Rochdale’s US-born players in the England team was held responsible by the Rochdale Observer for the low turnout:

"It was a poor night for England, for not only did they fail to record a run, they did not even manage to occupy third base on a single occasion.  Whereas the American players made only one fielding error, the England side were responsible for five.  The Americans also enjoyed an advantage in the pitching department.  Sid Bissett, a reserve pitcher utilised by England, had only five strikeouts, whilst Clyde Dean scored seven for America."

"The work of the American players was a joy to behold, and … provided the chief feature of the match.  Time and again the ball was picked up with remarkable celerity and hurled to a base with unerring accuracy and enormous power.  On two occasions there was a perfectly dizzy switching about of the ball from man to man with consequent paralysing results to the England innings."

America scored in each of the first two innings, then three runs in a two-out rally in the seventh, which included two England errors.

Game 3     1   2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9    Total
England    0    0    0    0    0    0    0    0    0       0
USA         1    1    0    0    0    0    3    0    0       5

The series now moved to Halifax.  The American team had improved with every game.  However, England now had their ace, Ross Kendrick, pitching, where a win would clinch the series.


Game 4

This game was played at The Shay, Halifax on Thursday 18 August 1938.

The Shay was the home of Halifax Town Football Club.  Despite hopes of the biggest crowd to date, only 5,000 spectators turned up.  England bombed America in this game, out-hitting them 10 to three, behind the pitching of Kendrick.  The next day’s Halifax Guardian reported: “England took the lead in the second when their captain, McNeill, roused the crowd by hitting a magnificent home run.  In the fourth, three more runs were scored.  Hanna walked, Kendrick singled, Cadorette got on base through an error.  Wright singled to bring home Hanna and Kendrick, then Benson singled to score Cadorette.”

Controversially, the game was called during the ninth inning due to bad light, giving England the game and the series.  Kendrick recorded his second shutout of the series, striking out 12 batters while allowing only three singles.

Game 4     1   2    3    4    5    6    7    8    9    Total
England    0    1    0    3    0    0    0    0    0       4
USA         0    0    0    0    0    0    0    0    0       0


Game 5

This game was played at Headingly, Leeds on Friday 19 August 1938.

The fifth Test was staged at the home stadium of Leeds Rugby League Club.  The game did not attract much interest, and the Leeds papers gave it little coverage.

In a rain-shortened game, England won by five runs to three in six innings.  This victory gave England a 4-1 winning margin in the series, which delighted all concerned with the game in England.  The Liverpool Evening Express noted that, “The National Baseball Association must be feeling well satisfied with the fillip the American game has received this last few weeks.”

Subsequently, due to the success of the England team, the International Baseball Federation crowned them as Inaugural World Amateur Champions.


Afterwards

After the Test series, the American Olympians played five exhibition games throughout the country, winning them all.  They then headed off to the Continent to play games in Belgium, France, Italy and Holland.

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 a lack of funds forced Great Britain to stay at home. 

Unfortunately, due to the Sino-Japanese conflict, the 1940 Olympic Games were initially moved from Tokyo, then cancelled altogether with the outbreak of World War II.

During the war, Americans stationed in the UK often played baseball, and there were some examples of Great Britain teams joining in.  For example, in July 1943, there were advertisements placed in the Liverpool Echo publicising 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.

The war also brought about a severe dimunition of the game in England.  Baseball in Europe was brought to a standstill for over six years.  Regrettably, the game had not developed strong enough roots in the England sporting psyche, and to this day has not regained its pre-war popularity.

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