Australian Baseball: A Brief History
Perspective is everything. The first peoples of America did not think that Christopher Columbus discovered it or them. Likewise for Australia, to which Americans think Albert Goodwill Spalding and his band of ball-playing tourists brought baseball in 1888–89. The Spalding Tour was undoubtedly important to the future of the game in Australia, as Columbus was to all that followed in his wake. But baseball had already arrived Down Under.
Baseball in Australia has come a long way, and now Major League Baseball has come a long way to open its season there. On March 22–23, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks will be staging their Opening Day games at the historic Sydney Cricket Ground—the same venue where, 125 years ago, Spalding’s Chicago White Stockings played three games against the All Americas, top-flight opponents (including three future Hall of Famers) selected for the voyage.
Also like America, Australian baseball has a creation myth with little or no basis in fact. The Aussie equivalent of Abner Doubleday and his Cooperstown pals of 1839 would be a bunch of expat miners playing baseball in the goldfields of Ballarat 1857. There’s no point in burying Abner Doubleday again, although he has proven to be a lively corpse. But the Ballarat tale is preceded by evidence two years earlier, in the Colonial Times [Hobart] of September 22, 1855:
Sabbath Desecration. – A correspondent requests us to call attention to the practice of a number of boys and young men, who congregate in Mr. Wilkinson’s paddock, near Patrick and Murray Streets, on Sunday afternoons, for playing at cricket, base-ball, &c., making a great noise, and offending the eyes and ears of persons of moral and religious feeling.
Far from the goldfields where Americans tended to congregate, Hobart is on the northern coast of the island that since 1856 has been known as Tasmania. And interestingly, like most of the many recent finds of baseball in the U.S. before Doubleday, this first Australian mention of baseball comes in the form of a complaint, of the sort that generally leads to a prohibition.
Australia’s first recorded game, as reported in Bell’s Life, was a February 28, 1857 three-inning match between Collingwood and Richmond. Though named “baseball,” it was a hybrid game in which it seems a run was recorded for each base secured. The final score: Collingwood 350, Richmond 230. Another significant report of baseball play (labeled the “first trial in the colonies”) survives in Melbourne’s Argus of June 5, 1869:
The first match of the Baseball Club will be played on the old Lonsdale Cricket ground, near the Botanical-gardens-bridge, at half-past two o’clock this afternoon. This game is as popular in America as cricket is here, and as to-day will witness its first trial in the colonies it will no doubt prove attractive to lovers of out-door sports.
Another baseball club was formed in Sydney in 1878. On June 17 the Argus reported: “The Base-ball Club formed here opened successfully at Moore-park on Saturday.” A month later the Gippsland Times reported the formation of another Sydney club: “The New South Wales base ball club has fairly started; practice matches have commenced.”
But the most important early Australian baseball club was the St. Kilda. On May 12, 1879, three days after an organizational meeting at Jewett’s Hotel in Clyde Street, the club conducted its first intramural game:
The first practice of the St. Kilda Base Ball Club took place on Saturday, on their ground, at the corner of Chapel and Argyle streets. After a little desultory practice sides were chosen and a scratch match played, the teams being captained by Messrs Jewett and Campbell. It resulted in an easy victory for Campbell’s side, by 16 runs to 3.
By the following month the St Kilda BBC was ready to square off against a team of American performers, the Georgia Minstrels, comprised of ex-slaves who could play both music and baseball. Almost a decade before Spalding’s Tourists, the Argus reported: “The deciding game between the St. Kilda Base Ball Club and Georgia Minstrels will be played on St. Kilda Cricket Ground, this afternoon, at 2 o’clock sharp. As each club has won a game, an exciting contest is expected.” As a sidelight, the year 1879 also marked the first appearance of an African American in MLB: William Edward White with the Providence Greys.
Now to Spalding’s Australian Tour—for that was how the expedition was billed on its departure from San Francisco on November 11, 1888. Only on board the steamship Alameda did Spalding reveal to his passengers that he intended to head west from Australia, transforming the trip into a World Tour with stops in Asia, Africa, and Europe.
When the teams arrived in Sydney harbor on December 14, 1888—after a one-game stopover at Auckland—a flotilla draped in red, white, and blue sailed out to meet them. A large crowd at Woolloomooloo wharf cheered the tourists. On the next day, Spalding’s “baseballers”—as they were labeled in the local press—played their first game in Australia, reportedly drawing 5,500 curious spectators. After two more games in Sydney, the troupe traveled by rail to Melbourne.
Thanks to a Spalding advance man, the teams were greeted at Spencer Street Station by 500 flag-waving fans. They played two games at Melbourne Cricket Ground, on December 22–23, then three at Adelaide Oval, one at Ballarat’s Eastern Oval and, finally, another two in Melbourne at the turn of the New Year. Spalding’s World Tourists then steamed off for Colombo in today’s Sri Lanka, where they played their next game on January 26, 1889.
Spalding left behind his young aide Harry Simpson, charged with capitalizing on the trip by forming baseball clubs for the Victoria Baseball League of 1890—including the Metropolitan, Melbourne, Ferguson, Fitzroy, Victoria, and Richmond—as well as these clubs in the South Australian League: North Adelaide, Post and Telegraph, Norwood, Goodwood, and Kent Town. Simpson also travelled to New Zealand to promote baseball. Simpson died of typhus in September 1891, after setting up the New South Wales Baseball League. He was inducted into the Baseball Australia Hall of Fame in its inaugural class of 2005.
In 1897 players from Victoria and South Australia made a somewhat slapdash tour of the United States, winning eight games and losing fourteen. A highlight occurred on June 21, when the Aussies challenged a team of old-time Boston players, including the now rotund Spalding. Henry Chadwick threw out the first ball and officially scored the contest. Despite the additional draw of Princeton Professor Charles Hinton and his new mechanical pitching machine, only about 500 fans attended. Hinton’s “cannon” pitched the last two innings against Australia. According to the Boston Globe, the first pitch “appeared so suddenly that the batsman ducked, the catcher made a wild leap to one side while the ball sailed directly over the plate and up against the backstop with a resounding crack.” After the game, George Wright organized a banquet in the visitors’ honor.
On New Year’s Day 1914, two American teams returned to Australia—nominally the New York Giants and Chicago White Sox, but also including many players from other major league teams, such as Buck Weaver, Tris Speaker, Sam Crawford, Germany Schaefer, Fred Merkle, and Jim Thorpe. Following games in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Manila, the teams played their first game in Australia on the very day they landed at Brisbane. Their last contest was on the 8th, in Melbourne, with two dates in Sydney in between; one of these, on January 3, drew 10,000 spectators.
These visits—along with two more in the late 1920s by, respectively, the Stanford and Multnomah Athletic Association nines—spurred interest in the game, which had continued in Australia all along but without the rising popularity of, say, Australian Rules Football, let alone cricket. The concept for Australia’s first national competition—known as the Claxton Shield—emerged in 1934 as the idea of all-around athlete Norm Claxton, who was also president of the South Australian Baseball League. The shield would be awarded annually to the winner of the annual interstate series between New South Wales, South Australia, and Victoria; the first to win the shield three times in a row would keep it. In something of an upset, former laggard South Australia captured the shield in the competition’s first year, and then again in 1935 and 1936.
It was then decided to award the shield annually. Except for the war years, the Claxton Shield was played annually until the Australian Baseball League (ABL) superseded State competition in 1989–90. The original eight-team ABL competition permitted up to four American minor league players per team and lasted ten years. The Claxton Shield reemerged briefly, but baseball languished despite a high point in 2004, when at the Athens Olympics Australia took the silver medal to Cuba’s gold.
In 2009 Major League Baseball and the Australian Baseball Federation (ABF) announced they were resurrecting the national baseball league. The new ABL would be jointly owned by MLB (75 percent) and ABF (25 percent). The six-team league features homegrown talent, including professionals who compete in North America and Asia, and many players who hail from outside Australia. The league’s 40-game season runs from November through January.
The ABL not only revived a strong baseball following in Australia but also provided a launch pad for young Australian talent and international players in their U.S. offseason. Of Australia’s 28-man roster for the 2013 World Baseball Classic (WBC), 21 competed in the ABL during the Australian summer.
The Australian National Baseball Team has participated in all three installments of the WBC, in 2006, 2009, and 2013. The club has been managed by Jon Deeble, the Pacific Rim Scouting Coordinator of the Boston Red Sox. In their opening game in 2009, Team Australia defeated Mexico 17–7 and set a new tournament record for hits in a game with 22, including four home runs. Australia currently has 57 players under contract with MLB organizations.
Over the years 28 Australians have played in MLB, 20 of them pitchers. The first was Joe Quinn, born in Sydney in 1864, who started his 17-year big-league career in 1884 with St. Louis of the Union Association. Playing mostly second base, he went on to play for five clubs in the National League and, in his final year in the majors, with Washington of the new American League. He also managed St. Louis in 1895 and Cleveland in 1899.
It took more than a century from Quinn’s debut until another Aussie reached the majors—infielder Craig Shipley, born in Parramatta. Among the five clubs for whom he played over his 11 years in the majors, one was the Dodgers, whom Australian fans will see this month. Today he represents their opponents, the Diamondbacks, as an assistant to general manager Kevin Towers.
Other Australian-born players of note and longevity include relief pitcher Grant Balfour, newly installed as the closer for Tampa Bay, and Graeme Lloyd, who pitched for several clubs in middle relief, most notably with the New York Yankees. Dave Nilsson of Queensland enjoyed eight highly productive years with the Milwaukee Brewers, including an All-Star Game selection in 1999. In 1987, while still in Australia, the 17-year-old won the Helms Award / Ron Sharpe Medal as the Most Valuable Player in the Australian Baseball League.