England: the first baseball World Champions

Mon 13 Aug 2018

To celebrate the week 80 years ago when an English All-Star Team defeated a team of American Olympians in a five-match “Test Series” to earn the title of the first Baseball Amateur World Champions, we offer below a summary of the event by British baseball historian Josh Chetwynd that was printed in The Observer newspaper some years ago.

Tomorrow, we will present an expanded version of the story written by former BBF Board member and National Team coach Ian Smyth.

On Wednesday, the latest Touching Base podcast will feature John Chetwynd and host Luke Stott talking about the origins of the 1938 “Test Series” and some of the stars of the event.

On Thursday, we’ll look at one of the pivotal figures in the 1938 series, England pitcher Ross Kendrick, and through him at the British baseball scene in the years before World War II.

Finally, on Friday, another Touching Base podcast, with Josh Chetwynd and Ben Carter from Batflips and Nerds, will chat about the history baseball in the UK and what the MLB London Series might mean for the domestic game.

Any country that boasts a domestic competition called the World Series, and that has produced baseball legends Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, would surely expect little challenge from a team of Limey amateurs.  But in 1938, when the United States took on England in what would later be dubbed the first World Amateur Baseball Championship, they found themselves beaten four games to one.

The strange-but-true tale of what is recognised as the American pastime’s First World Championship never had fans in New York or Chicago cursing their countrymen’s demise, though.  In fact, on 11 August 1938, when the US Olympic Baseball Team arrived in Plymouth for a five-game ‘Test Series’ there was no talk of World Championships.

The US squad was preparing for the Olympic Games that were planned for Tokyo in 1940.  The team was a combination of high school and college players picked the month before at the US Amateur Baseball Trials held in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Coached by Leslie Mann, a former Major Leaguer, the squad was formidable and even included a future Major League player, Mike Schemer, who went on to play for the New York Giants.

The bulk of the British team came from the Yorkshire-Lancashire league, a partially professional circuit.  Before the Second World War, baseball was thriving in England, attracting upwards of 10,000 spectators a game.  While all the players in the British team competed in England, the side was made up almost entirely of players born in the former British Empire outpost of Canada.  The team’s top player was pitcher Ross Kendrick, described in a game programme as “a pitcher with a very clean style of hooks, speed and endurance.”

The five-game series in Liverpool, Hull, Rochdale, Halifax and Leeds had fans flocking to the closely-contested matches.  In front of a crowd of 10,000 in Liverpool, Kendrick out-duelled curveball pitcher Virgil Thompson to lead England to a 3-0 first-game victory.  Kendrick conceded only two hits, striking out 16.  The performance was dubbed ‘brilliant’ by the Liverpool Evening Express.

Two days later, the teams engaged in the highest-scoring game of the series.  The US jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning, but England put up five runs in the fifth inning en route to an 8-6 triumph in front of 5,000 spectators in Hull.  The highlight was Sam Hanna, England’s shortstop, hitting a two-run home run in the fateful fifth inning.

The Americans took the next game 5-0 in Rochdale, but England clinched the series in Halifax on 19 August as Ross Kendrick returned to the mound, shutting out the visitors for the second time, 4-0.  In the final game, England prevailed for the fourth time, winning 5-3 in Leeds.

In retrospect, the defeats were not the biggest setbacks history had in store for the American squad.  The outbreak of war led to the cancellation of the 1940 Olympics. 

Time smiled more favourably on the winning England side, however, which in due course became referred to as a Great Britain representative squad.  Following the results of the series, the International Baseball Federation decided to designate the contests as the first World Championship and named Britain the inaugural World Amateur Champions.

With the British national team currently ranked 12th in Europe and needing to jump up the rankings to even have a chance of qualifying for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the 1938 triumph remains perhaps Britain’s greatest baseball victory.

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