Long before the Red Sox and Yankees went to London, two baseball teams played a game in front of the King
There's a long history of America and England sharing baseball. Major League teams toured the country in 1874, 1888-89 and 1912-13. Red Sox and Mets Minor Leaguers played at the Oval cricket ground in 1993, and next season, the Red Sox and Yankees will be playing a series in London.
At the announcement of the series, Red Sox owner John Henry mentioned one of the biggest ballgames to ever take place in London -- one in which King George V and Winston Churchill were in attendance.
Taking a break from the fighting of World War I on July 4, 1918, the US Army and US Navy met up for a baseball game at Stamford Bridge -- the home of Chelsea Football Club, though all English league soccer was suspended during the war.
Originally, the game was supposed to be a small holiday affair to mark the date of America's independence, played between the Army and Navy. The two forces actually fielded baseball teams that participated in the Anglo-American Baseball League, started that year by 30 ex-pat American businessmen in the London area. The league consisted of eight teams -- four American and four Canadian, including the US Army, US Navy, Canadian Pay Office, Canadian Records Office and others -- which played mostly to provide entertainment to the troops stationed there.
That's according to Jim Leeke, the co-founder of the Anglo-American Baseball Project and author of two books set in the period -- including "Nine Innings for the King," which is entirely about the July 4 game.
"The Army team was sitting around one day saying, 'What are we going to do on the Fourth of July?' And they thought an Army-Navy game would be a good thing to do," Leeke told MLB.com in a phone call. "Supposedly, the Army team manager said, 'Why don't we invite the king?' He spoke to some general who spoke to the admiral who spoke to somebody, and it took quite some time before they could figure out how to invite a king to a baseball game."
After that long game of telephone, King George V quickly accepted the invitation. "My theory is that [King George] was waiting for exactly that sort of opportunity to show his allegiance with the Yanks and make them feel welcome," Leeke said. "And when he said he was going to come, suddenly this little holiday game became internationally important."
Newspaper articles were written about the game, comic strips lampooned the lexicon of the sport and former big leaguer and Anglo-American League umpire Arlie Latham even visited King George before the event to help prepare him for the first pitch. "More speed!" was his advice for the monarch.
The American Red Cross even got involved, as they were responsible for stitching together the day's uniforms:
(Library of Congress)
And a young Churchill made a speech earlier in the day honoring America on the "142nd anniversary of the Declaration of American Independence" before taking his own seat at the game.
The fans witnessed the Navy pulling off a narrow 2-1 victory against the Army, with future Hall of Famer Herb Pennock outdueling former Tigers and Tip-Tops pitcher Ed "Doc" Lafitte. Plenty were on hand for the event, with reported attendance figures anywhere from 18,000 to 70,000. "Mike McNally of the Red Sox, who was the Navy team captain, estimated 50,000," Leeke said. "And he played in the World Series, so he ought to know."
The MLB players weren't ringers, either. "It was legit. They were all on active duty, they were all serving," Leeke pointed out. "It was just that the Army-Navy commanders -- at least in England -- had a way of nabbing good ballplayers for their clubs. In fact, Doc Lafitte was with an Army medical unit, and he helped repair soldiers' wounded faces."
The game was a hit -- even if the Anglo-American League and the sport of baseball didn't take off after the war. The 1919 Spalding Baseball Guide reported that, "One of the English writers told me that he had never seen their Majesties so delight with a sport as they were with Base Ball ..."
In honor of the 100-year anniversary of the game, Leeke and the AABP are planning to hold an Army-Navy game this summer. Follow @WW1Baseball for more.