American Cricket in the 1860s: Decade of Decline or New Start?

The article below, by Beth Hise, appeared in print in a  special issue of the journal Base Ball.  Ms. Hise is a top authority on the commonalities of and contrasts between baseball and cricket. Her 2010 book on the subject is Swinging Away: How Cricket and Baseball Connect (Scala Publishing). A social history museum curator trained at Yale, she curated special exhibits on the two games last year at both the MCC Museum in London and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Her article, like others from the special Protoball issue, appears courtesy of the publisher, McFarland and Company. Each article is keyed to the larger chronology appearing at Early Baseball Milestones at mlb.com. For example, the article below, indexed as 1862.3, reflects that it is the third entry for the year 1862. As the journal’s editor, I encourage you to consider subscribing. For details, see: http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/?page_id=934.

1862.3, American Cricket in the 1860s: Decade of Decline or New Start?

Beth Hise

Cricket is essentially an English game; a game in such favour with the English cannot well have much attraction for the American, the disposition of both people being as different as base ball is from cricket.

So proclaimed the Brooklyn Eagle on April 25, 1862. And yet, this same article goes on to preview, in glowing terms, the coming cricket season in Brooklyn: “from the preparations that are being made, and the interest manifested by the members, we have every reason to expect a brilliant season and many interesting matches.” Further, the “cricket clubs have been strengthened by several acquisitions of base ball players, as the latter have by cricketers.”[1] How to explain these contradictory statements? If, as the article asserts, cricket has little attraction for Americans, why go on to outline plans for an active season involving up to seven clubs in Brooklyn alone? And if cricket reflects an English disposition, how is it that this alien game attracted baseball players, and that cricketers took up the apparently completely different American game of baseball? The article simultaneously dooms the sport (the past season was “very dull” with few matches of “no great importance”) and promotes its future (“as the coming season advances, the more promising do matters appear”).

A few weeks earlier, cricket had brought out the same double-speak in the Eagle. Cricket “is not an American game” and will never be “in much vogue” . . . but all the same the season promises “very fair” and “we shall have more to say hereafter through the columns of the Eagle.”[2]

Such sentiments should come as no surprise from the Eagle’s Henry Chadwick, a well known English-born advocate of baseball who never stopped promoting and trying to reform cricket in America. But, such contradictions occur more widely in American press commentary on cricket in the 19th century. Indeed, this ambivalence seems to underline many aspects of the game in America from the 1840s to the 1870s and beyond. Cricket was an excellent game—it was interesting, strategic (scientific) and had many fine features—but as a British game it couldn’t be fully embraced in America without reservations.  And it is true that as cricket became established in the 1840s, influential clubs such as the St. George Cricket Club in New York and Philadelphia’s Union Club were deeply Anglocentric. Moreover, many early American cricket clubs were formed by resident Englishmen. But it would be a mistake to conclude that few Americans played the sport or did so only under English influence. Or that by the 1860s cricket was an English-dominated sport of rapidly declining interest to Americans.

The 1860s were in fact a pivotal time for cricket in America, one that reinforced a desire in some quarters to Americanize the game and build bridges between cricket and baseball. At the same time, cricket lost momentum during and after the Civil War, and by the end of the 1860s couldn’t hope to match baseball’s rapid growth and popularity. Yet, paradoxically, the decade set the stage for cricket’s revival in the 1870s as an established, if minor, American sport.

Americans had long been interested in cricket. As early as 1839 New York’s Spirit of the Times asked, “What can be done to naturalise this beautiful game in America?”[3] and press patronage in the 1840s, especially in New York, helped promote cricket as “fashionable” and “much in vogue.”[4] In 1843, the Spirit of the Times insisted that “this invigorating and manly game promises to become exceedingly popular” with new clubs “springing up in all directions.”[5] One was the New York Cricket Club, presided over by the Spirit’s editor, William Porter. This club encouraged more American-born and younger players to play and promoted American control of the organizational structure of the game, an example later emulated in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Newark.

Cricket grew rapidly in America in the 1850s. In 1855, the New York Clipper estimated that there were 5000 match-playing cricketers in all of the United States. By 1859, when 300–400 clubs were active in at least 22 states, the Spirit of the Times estimated 6,000 active cricketers lived within 100 miles of New York City alone, including Philadelphia.[6] And pockets were decidedly American. The first all-American cricket match was played in August 1854 at Hoboken between a New York side, including many students from the Free Academy, and the Newark Club, a strong promoter of American-born players.[7] In Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Cricket Club fielded an American eleven from 1856, and membership in the Young America Cricket Club, formed in 1855, was restricted to American-born players. Exciting all-American matches brought the Philadelphia and Newark clubs together in both competition and in spirit, encouraging the New York Clipper in 1857 to lambast “certain ignorant and prejudiced parties” for insisting that cricket was only played by Englishmen, and to wonder why anyone would object to “making Cricket an American pastime.”[8]

North America was undoubtedly the stronghold of the game outside England at this time, and twelve of the best English professional players, eager “to promote and extend . . . that love for the noble game of Cricket,”[9] made their international debut here in October 1859. American cricket authorities hoped the series of highly anticipated matches would increase cricket’s profile in the face of baseball’s growing popularity. Yet, the English cricketers, all seasoned full-time professionals, were destined only to prove that cricket was, after all, the “great national game of England.”[10] Any hope that the English would “find their equal at Hoboken”[11] was quickly dashed. The great match of the tour saw the Americans, given the then traditional handicap of additional players, in this case 22 against the England eleven, humbled in front of 24,000 spectators over three days at St. George’s ground at Elysian Fields. It was a humiliating loss when it was all over by an innings and 64 runs—the English didn’t even need to bat their second innings because the American batting total was so low. This result was sadly indicative of all the matches the English tourists played on that tour.[12]

There have been many reasons put forward as to why cricket failed to capitalize on its promising start in America in the 1840s and ’50s and “lost out” to baseball as the premier bat and ball sport for the nation. One might presume that the disappointments of this lopsided tour, one of the most widely reported sporting events in antebellum America[13], might have harmed cricket’s viability. Certainly, the tour did little to captivate sustained popular enthusiasm, but many American cricketers, especially the Philadelphians, relished the opportunity to see and play the world’s best cricketers. The number of clubs and players did increase, including in schools and colleges, and, as only three of the 22 US players at Hoboken were born in America, that loss could be conveniently blamed on the amateur English residents playing against “English professional players, who make a living by it, and never do anything else.”[14]

Throughout the 1860s this distinction between American-born and English-resident players encouraged the idea that it was not cricket per se, but the way the English residents played cricket that was the problem. Henry Chadwick was a prominent critic of their “bad habits,” especially their lack of punctuality in a country where time “is almost literally money.”[15] The 1860s was a decade of shared grounds and shared players when the crossover between cricket and baseball was at its strongest.  Chadwick, through the pages of the Brooklyn Eagle, saw this as a positive, declaring in 1862 that “Americans improve the game in one respect, certainly; they blend the intricacies and necessary tardiness of cricket with the alacrity of base ball.” And so a game often “a bore to an American, who could not think of playing a match for two consecutive days,” could be finished up in six or seven hours.[16]

Likewise, Harry Wright, James Creighton, Asa Brainard, John Whiting and Thomas Dakin—all baseball players with strong cricketing backgrounds—founded the American Cricket Club in 1860 to infuse “an American spirit” into the game.[17] According to club president Dakin, they formed to make cricket “popular among Americans, by making it a quicker game.”[18] This short-lived club would be one of many attempts to “reform” cricket to suit the American temperament, and the injection of baseball players into cricket in the 1860s did speed up the game. One match in Long Island in 1860, the “shortest on record,” pitted the Americans of Long Island (including several Atlantic and Excelsior baseball players) against the Americans of Newark. The match commenced at 9 o’clock and took four hours and 50 minutes to play the full two innings.[19] The success of these kinds of matches brought calls for closer affiliations between cricket and baseball clubs, increased opportunities for younger and more novice players, and restrictions on players appearing for multiple clubs. Some players even formed the short-lived American Cricketers’ Convention to try to implement these changes fully.[20]

In 1868, Henry Chadwick was still advocating interclub play—that is between cricket and baseball clubs—to speed up and improve cricket.[21] When Edgar Willsher’s team of English professionals crossed the Atlantic that same year, they found baseball’s exploding popularity meant that cricket no longer enjoyed the same éclat that it did when the first English toured in 1859. A baseball game played between the English cricketers and the Union Base Ball Club of Morrisania brought the biggest crowd to the St. George ground in almost a decade—a situation only mildly alleviated by the pronouncement of the New York Times that the “good old game of cricket has not been entirely given up in New York, and our old citizens still delight in this manly sport.”[22]

So did baseball improve cricket for Americans? A cursory review of match results shows that many two day matches were played in one afternoon, the second innings left for another day that never came around.  American cricket clubs had earlier copied English traditions and employed professional players to bowl, coach and look after all aspects of their cricket grounds at a time when baseball was strictly amateur. Now, as baseball took its first steps toward full professionalization, cricket moved in the opposite direction. While the professional All-England players were “hardly ever without a bat or ball in their hands,” the best American players were “unable to spare more than a few leisure hours a week from their offices and ledgers.”[23] A combination of baseball’s influence early in the decade and the realities of amateurism meant that by the 1870s cricket matches were shorter, and, with less time to devote to the game, players did not achieve the highest skill.

Ambivalence and feelings that cricket needed improvement lingered. In 1890, prominent Philadelphian cricketer John Thayer proposed a whole new code of rules that would adopt, among other radical changes, baseball’s “three out, side out” rule with each side retiring after three wickets had fallen. By alternating batting and fielding, with no more than four minutes between “turns,” the game would, he proposed, be more interesting. Players would also spend less time waiting for their turn at bat. Even with Chadwick’s backing, these changes were never seriously implemented.[24]

But that was still decades away and the end of the 1860s was a new beginning of sorts for American cricket after a lull early in that decade. The Clipper’s disappointment in 1862 at the meager attendance at an annual cricket convention should not be taken to mean the decline of the sport was nigh.[25] True, baseball had overtaken it in popularity at home, and the international game had passed it by when the Civil War made a follow-up tour to North America impossible. A professional English cricket team went instead to Australia, launching the nascent beginnings of the international game. But some of American cricket’s brightest moments were still to come. The American Cricketer was launched in 1877 and ran for over fifty years. Competitive leagues, like the Metropolitan District Cricket League of 1890, were formed and the Gentlemen of Philadelphia toured England five times between 1884 and 1908. The decades from 1870 to 1910 are now considered cricket’s golden age in America, with Philadelphia at its heart.

Notes

1. “Cricket Season for 1862,” Brooklyn Eagle: Apr. 25, 1862.

2. “The Incoming Base Ball Season,” Brooklyn Eagle: Apr. 7, 1862.

3. The American Cricketer: a Journal Devoted to the Noble Game of Cricket 1.9, p. 34.

4. New York Herald: 1845; “City Intellegence,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle: June 15, 1846.

5. “Cricket in America,” Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle: Dec. 3, 1843.

6. Kirsch, G. 2007. Baseball and Cricket: the Creation of American Team Sports, 1838–72 (p. 21).

7. New York Daily Times: Aug. 11, 1854.

8. New York Clipper: May 16, 1857, reprinted in: Sullivan, D. 1995. Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825–1908 (p. 25).

9. Lillywhite, F. 1860. The English Cricketers’ Trip to Canada and the United States (pp. v–vi).

10. “News of the Day,” New York Times:Oct. 3, 1859.

11. “The Cricketers,” Chicago Press and Tribune: Sept. 28, 1859.

12. “The International Cricket Match,” New York Times:Oct. 4, 1859; “The Great Cricket Match,” New York Times:Oct. 5, 1859.

13. Melville, T. 1998. The Tented Field: A History of Cricket in America (p. 43).

14. “The ‘International’ Game of Cricket—a Suggestion for a Game of Base Ball,” Chicago Press and Tribune: Oct. 12, 1859.

15. Chadwick, H. 1868. “The Game of Cricket in America,” The American Chronicle and Pastimes of Sports, Feb. 13, 1868.

16. “Cricket Season for 1862,” Brooklyn Eagle: Apr. 25, 1862.

17. Their first match was against the Satellite Club of Williamsburgh on Oct. 18, 1860. The American Club was victorious. See New York Times: Oct. 17, 1860, p. 1, and Oct. 20, 1860, p. 8.

18. New York Times: Oct. 20, 1860.

19. Spirit of the Times quoted in The American Cricketer, p. 45. See also New York Times: Sept. 4 1860.

20. Kirsch, G. 1989. The Creation of American Team Sports: Baseball and Cricket, 1838–72 (p. 106).

21. This was first tried almost by accident, when a snowstorm canceled an All-England cricket match in Rochester in 1859 and the touring English cricketers played a pick-up game of baseball instead. See Lillywhite 1860, 45–46; Rochester Union and Advertiser: Sept. 17, 1859; Rochester Express: Dec. 10, 1859.

22. New York Times: Sept. 3, 1868, and Oct. 21, 1868.

23. “Sporting News,” New York Times:Sept. 15, 1859.

24. Chadwick, H. 1890. “A Revolution in the Cricket Field,” Outing, June 1890, pp. 228–229.

25. New York Clipper: May 24, 1862, quoted in Protoball Cricket Chronology.

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