The Dodgers and Diamondbacks will open the 2014 schedule with a pair of games at the Sydney Cricket Grounds. It will be the first time Major League Baseball has started the regular season in Australia, part of its continuing effort to spread the game around the globe.
Though a very good idea, it's not an entirely new one, or for that matter, the first time the best professional ballplayers from the United States were featured Down Under.
In fact, this year is the 125th anniversary of baseball pioneer and early Hall of Fame inductee Albert Spalding's historic world tour that played in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide beginning on Dec. 14, 1888. The tour featured Spalding's White Stockings against a team of selected "All-Americas" in a series of exhibitions; the game on Dec. 15, 1888, attracted 5,500 spectators.
And a century ago, the Giants and White Sox also played in Australia. Both tours included games at the Sydney Cricket Ground, where the Dodgers and D-backs will meet next year.
Then, as now, the goal was to internationalize baseball. According to "Spalding's World Tour" by Mark Lamster, back then, there was already speculation that the sport would quickly catch on in Australia.
"When it came time for toasts," Lamster wrote, "[Sydney Mayor John] Harris happily suggested that his Australian brethren were sure to pick up baseball, and that it wouldn't be long before a touring team of Aussies would be heading back across the Pacific to challenge the Americans at their own national game."
That didn't happen. While there have been 31 Australian Major Leaguers, including 28 who were born in the country, most have arrived in recent years. Current D-backs assistant to the general manager Craig Shipley pioneered the most recent wave when he broke in with the Dodgers in 1986. In all, there are now more than 60 Australian natives under contract to Major League clubs.
There were as many differences as similarities, though -- and not just the fact that 125 years ago, the players traveled by ocean liner, rigging up makeshift batting cages on the deck so they could try to stay sharp.
In order to make the exhibitions more attractive, the baseball games were sometimes paired with cricket matches that the Americans were required to participate in. After the fifth inning of the first game in Sydney, the game was halted for a brief champagne toast so the visitors could have an audience with Lord Carrington, the governor of New South Wales.
Spalding's games were played against a backdrop of player unrest. Some stars refused to participate, believing they should be paid more than they were being offered. Today, baseball is enjoying unprecedented labor peace, and undertakings such as the Opening Series and the World Baseball Classic are accomplished with the full cooperation of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
An interesting side note: While Spalding's traveling party was in the middle of the ocean on the way to Australia, he let it be known that he'd decided to expand the barnstorming trip. Ultimately, there would be stops in Cairo, London, Paris, Rome, Naples and many other ports of call. There are wonderful pictures of the players posing in front of the Sphinx while in Egypt. The group left Chicago on Oct. 20, 1988, and it didn't return to the United States until just before the start of the 1889 season after playing 56 games in 13 countries.
The Giants and White Sox landed in Brisbane on Dec. 31, 1913, and played the first modern MLB exhibition on New Year's Day. The Giants won, 2-1. Moving on to Sydney, the White Sox rebounded with a 5-4 win on Jan. 4, 1914. That game drew a packed house of 10,000.
Both teams also played games against local clubs and, again, cricket exhibitions to help boost baseball's popularity. According to "The Tour to End All Tours" by James E. Elfers, in order to even up a game against a team representing New South Wales, the Giants and White Sox loaned them a battery of Ivy Wingo and Walter Leverenz.
Again, there were predictions that baseball would soon take root in Australia. Elfers cites a passage from the Sydney Morning Herald: "Many, no doubt, were attracted merely by curiosity, but there was a large gathering of local votaries, who could appreciate the finesse of the game, and were bubbling with enthusiasm for a sport that not a few think may be in the near future a rival to our own national game of cricket."
Even before those exhibitions, baseball had been introduced to Australia by miners and prospectors who rushed to the country during its gold rush of 1870, bringing bats and baseballs with them. The sport then grew out of the cricket clubs, whose players were looking for a way to stay in shape during their offseason.
All of this only enhances the upcoming visit by the Dodgers and D-backs. Baseball historian Keith Spalding Robbins lectured on the subject at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in May, noting that Major League Baseball is the world's oldest organized professional sports league. The establishment of the National League in 1876 predates England's Football Association by 12 years.
So having the Dodgers and Diamondbacks play regular-season games in Australia is both a "double anniversary" and "part of the 125-year continuum of International Baseball," he said, concluding simply: "This [2014 Opening Series] is a big deal."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com.