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Here's how baseball has grown in England, from factory towns to London Stadium

When the Red Sox and Yankees compete in the London Series this weekend, it might seem like baseball’s equivalent of landing on the moon – two iconic baseball franchises setting foot on a strange and alien surface. But that’s not exactly true. There is baseball in England, it’s just not quite as pervasive as it is over on this side of the pond.

Baseball in Britain is led by a small, yet passionate group of baseball freaks that care deeply about the game -- even when they’re surrounded by people who don’t. There are fan groups for MLB teams. There are blogs and podcasts. There are people like Baseball Brit that come to America to follow the action.

But that wasn’t always the case.

In fact, the story of modern baseball in Britain is over 120 years old and can be traced back to one man: Sir Francis Ley.

A wealthy industrialist, Ley traveled to America in the late 19th century where he fell in love with the sport of baseball. He was a noted cricket fan, but county cricket would take days to play meaning only the idle rich could play such a sport. But, Ley learned, the faster and more intense baseball games could be played in just a few hours – making them a cricket relative that Ley and his employees could take part in.

So, when Ley returned to Derby County in England, he went and built an actual baseball field for his workers to use in 1889 -- the first of its kind in the country. While there had been a few failed American tours of the sport before this date, nothing ignited the modern game of baseball among the country quite like Ley’s league.

But he didn’t stop with a modest company team and small stadium. Soon, Ley brought in an American coach to help teach his employees the game more intimately. He also imported American players to boost their on-field talents (Ley was pragmatic and made sure they had the necessary skills to work in his factory, too.)

Put that all together and it made Ley’s team a cornerstone for the first ever professional baseball season in Britain in 1890. Partially funded by American baseball magnate A.G. Spalding, the league included teams run by traditional soccer team owners, with Ley’s unaffiliated Derby club joining in.

While the other clubs were filled with experienced professional soccer players, Ley’s team of plucky Americans and factory workers decimated the rest of the league.

Ley’s team had the league title wrapped up by the middle of the season, so they were asked by the other teams to rest their best pitcher for the season’s end. After refusing to do so, Ley’s team withdrew from the league. That meant that even though they were so dominant, the league title was officially awarded to another team.

That’s obviously not a great start to a nascent league. However, there was reason for optimism: Some of the biggest rivalry games that year were able to bring in over 5,000 fans. There were clearly baseball fans to be found in England, but someone just needed to find them and stoke their passion.

Following Ley’s team’s departure, that professional league would fold after its lone season. But, amateur leagues began popping up around the country -- from Newcastle to Derby to South Wales, Lancashire and London. The sport was growing, and Ley’s team was at its heart: His now-amateur team went on to win three baseball championships through 1899.

But then, around the turn of the century, the amateur leagues just … disappeared.

No one is really sure why. There are few records to explain their disappearance. Ley’s team would eventually sell its field, The Baseball Ground, to Derby County FC, a soccer team that would go on to play there until 1997. But thanks to their manager ordering the disposal of all the old memorabilia, there’s nothing left that ties back to the stadium’s baseball-playing days.

After a few years, the amateur leagues would reappear every so often – particularly when soccer teams remembered baseball offered a good way to keep their players fit in the offseason. Major League teams would make occasional sojourns to the nation on goodwill tours, but baseball couldn’t recapture the county’s imagination in a grassroots way quite like it had during Ley’s peak.

In fact, it would take until the 1930s for the sport to truly catch on, but once it did, it would reach its greatest height.

To understand why, you first have to meet John Moores.

Moores was, like Ley before him, a wealthy man who traveled to America and fell in love with the game -- even meeting the president of the National League and Babe Ruth along the way. Those are the kind of meetings that could turn anyone into a baseball fan.

When he got back to England, Moores did everything he could to convert 1930s England into fans of the sport that he said had a bit more “pep” than cricket. But, seemingly learning the lessons of Ley’s failed league before him, Moores offered a different approach.

You see, Moores wasn’t just another wealthy man – he was the operator of a massive gambling empire. His home base was in the town of Liverpool, where there already was a popular version of baseball being played, although it was quite different from the American idea of the sport. Moores simply paid teams 100 pounds (about $9,000 in today’s currency) to convert to playing the American style of the game.

Moores didn’t stop there -- his vision was much larger. He donated equipment to Cardiff schools to get children into the game. And he spent money -- lots of money -- to get the sport up off the ground and ensure its continuing popularity. In one year alone, he spent close to half-a-million pounds on the venture. He didn’t only love baseball – he was willing to bet big that he could make England love it too.

After a few years of this boundless enthusiasm, the semi-pro North of England League came to life in 1935. Nine teams took part and -- in a rarity for baseball in the UK -- even got some positive press. One reporter wrote “The public interest has certainly been fired, and there is every reason to believe the game will ‘catch on.’” It seemed like Moores just might get his wish of a baseball mad England.

The next year, Moores helped launch two more leagues in the Yorkshire area and in London. For baseball to succeed, it obviously needed to grow and make inroads into England’s largest city. Like before, crowds were hit and miss -- some areas saw small crowds, but big games could draw in over 10,000 fans. The energy, though, was different.

(image courtesy Anthony Taylor / Project Cobb)

The newspapers covered the games and offered explanations to readers for newfound baseball slang. That included how you could refer to a batter hitting the ball as:

“Slugs the pellet, spanks the pill, wallops the sphere, smacks the tomato, whacks the apple, rams the egg, belts the agate or jabs the nugget. You may mix these any way you choose.”

All of that enthusiasm would lead to Britain’s greatest moment in its baseball history – one which shocked England, America and the world.

In 1938, the United States national baseball team was preparing for the 1940 Olympics. Sensing an opportunity, Moores arranged a five-game test series pitting a team of England’s All-Stars against America’s. While England was a burgeoning baseball nation, this was a golden era of American baseball. It should have been a bloodbath, with the far more experienced and talented American side decimating their British opposition.

It wasn’t. Not even close.

(image courtesy Anthony Taylor / Project Cobb)

England easily won the series, 4 games to 1, even shutting out the USA in the first game. It was such a spectacular moment for English baseball that Moores donated a special trophy just for the occasion. The John Moores Trophy featured baseball bat support beams, a giant baseball in the center, a heroic figure standing atop and, naturally, Moores’ own face. England was its first recipient.

(image courtesy SCP Auctions)

British baseball seemed to be heading in the right direction. Following the incredible upset, England was invited to the next World Cup of Baseball to be held in Cuba. The win over the Americans gave the sport the legitimacy it needed to secure better funding. The sky was the limit.

And then World War II broke out.

All of those plans were dashed. Air raids decimated Britain and brought sports in the country to a halt. Many of the best players were killed in battle. The 1940 Olympics were cancelled, as were the 1944 Olympics. Americans found themselves stationed in England, but they weren’t there to play baseball on factory teams. They were waiting to cross into Europe to fight Germany or Italy. Baseball wasn’t just secondary, it was totally irrelevant when compared to the fight.

When the war was over, Britain began rebuilding. But, the efforts that Moores and his contemporaries made seemingly had evaporated. The semi-pro leagues ceased to exist, and Moores own attention had moved elsewhere.

But, even in the wake of Europe’s last major war, baseball didn’t go away entirely.

Sure, it didn’t have a major backer like it had in the past -- but a spark had been lit and wouldn’t be extinguished. British children learned baseball with the gear John Moores bought them so many years earlier. British soldiers played baseball during the war alongside those US troops, and many of them caught the bug.

The amateur leagues would survive, and the game would live on in small pockets throughout England – pockets which draw their lineage back to people like Ley and Moores.

The Liverpool Trojans, likely influenced by Moores’ involvement in the area, have been playing the sport continuously since 1946. A small twilight baseball league operated in parts of England in the 1970s. None of these attempts matched those halcyon 1930s days, but they were there -- staffed, run and directed by baseball fanatics who wanted to play the game.

That legacy lives on today, with the London Series serving as the same kind of legitimizing moment England experienced when it defeated Team USA in 1938.

One of the current stewards of that legacy is Josh Chetwynd. Chetwynd, born in England but raised in Los Angeles, has authored two books on baseball in Europe. He played for the Great Britain National Team, and he won three British Baseball League championships with the London Mets and Bracknell Blazers. He worked for MLB’s UK office, and he covered the very-late-night games that were shown on television in England, where he served as a baseball expert teaching the British public about the game. Chetwynd has seen it all, done it all and had his hand in nearly every part of the game.

You can hear his enthusiasm when you talk with him. He speaks excitedly, jumping from topic to topic, and he seems to never tire when talking about the game.

“One of the issues is a lot of the teams [in England are] driven by a cult of personality,” Chetwynd said. “You have someone who gets really enthusiastic about baseball run a team for a number of years and then family issues come up, or they just get tired of it and they [leave] with no one really to pick it up.”

While there are traditional areas of baseball fandom, like Liverpool and London -- where the amount of American and Japanese ex-pats means a game of baseball is easy to find -- it’s not as easy around the rest of the country.

The sport is “niche everywhere outside of London,” said Liam Carroll, the manager of the Great Britain National Team. “It’s the luck of the draw whether you happen to be in a town that has baseball.”

Carroll is in his 24th year with the national team program and is living proof of that statement. That he played baseball at all is thanks to his fanatical Brooklyn Dodgers father.

“I was only really able to play baseball where we lived because my Dad had actually started a men's team,” Carroll recalled. “When we lived in Somerset, there was no baseball in our town, and my dad started [the team] along with some buddies at the local pub … That evolved into baseball. And it was really the only baseball nearby.”

Carroll and Chetwynd both believe steadfastly in the sport’s ability to capture England’s imagination. For them, it’s not about becoming more popular than traditional English sports like cricket and soccer. Rather, they believe it can co-exist alongside them.

While the level of play may not be the highest, the British Baseball League and the British Baseball Federation's senior leagues are the most notable in the country today. Both feature multiple senior leagues, with 13 clubs vying for the title in the top-tier Northern Baseball League and four in the BBF's National Baseball League. The worst teams in each league are relegated to a lower tier at the end of each season, while the best teams in the lower league can earn promotion to the top league.

All of these clubs, including the current powerhouse London Mets, are volunteer run. They depend on donations for equipment, travel and even the games themselves. According to Carroll, that just shows the effect baseball can have on you. “People go out of their way to play because they love it,” he tells me.

Even the players on the English national team, who came one out shy of advancing to the World Baseball Classic in 2017, pay out of pocket for the right to wear “Great Britain” across their chest. That’s the harsh truth of a country with limited baseball programs and only one true baseball complex located at Farnham Park, not far from where the English version of “The Office” was set.

“All the tier one European countries in baseball -- that's Holland, Italy, Germany, Czech Republic, Belgium even, and some lower-tier countries like Lithuania and Moldova -- they've all had at least one player signed by Major League teams,” Chetwynd says. “Britain is yet to have a single player signed by a major league club.”

That’s a big part of Carroll’s vision for the National Team, exemplified by his mission statement of “Inspire, Develop, Perform.” But to get there, Carroll says they must get more children involved – echoing the foresight of English baseball forefather John Moores.

“I think getting into schools is the only achievable way to get more kids playing,” Carroll said. “I hope that opportunities like the MLB games here that can showcase the sport, too, so many kids can say, ‘Hey, look, there is another option.’ If you’re really good, you can earn as much money as you can playing any sport.”

While baseball’s history in England has ebbed and flowed, the future is as bright as can be. UK fan groups continue to pop up with followers staying up late into the night to follow their teams. A community of fans on Twitter has emerged. The game is growing in popularity on college campuses.

Chetwynd is particularly pleased about that last development. “They've done really well creating university baseball,” he says. “It’s become a kind of club sport. And they created a really vibrant university circuit.”

The London Series, featuring the iconic Red Sox and Yankees, might serve as another inflection point in the country’s baseball journey. To take the next step, English baseball might require the help of just one more one baseball-loving person, who doesn’t mind taking risks the country hasn’t seen since Ley and Moores.

“I’ve known the people who are involved with British baseball for nearly 20 years, and I know how much energy and drive they have for the sport. And I now know a lot of people who follow baseball in the U.K.,” Chetwynd said. “I believe that if someone gave them a little bit of a push, and then we had a little success on the field, that the combination could lead to something great.”

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