Baseball returns to its origins in London Series

Red Sox-Yankees rivalry travels overseas for first regular-season games in Europe

June 24th, 2019

In the coming days, you’re likely to be asked a variation of the following question: Why, exactly, are the Red Sox and Yankees playing in London?

Here’s one possible answer: Major League Baseball is bringing its preeminent rivalry to London because league officials believe the sport has a future there -- along with a past.

First, let’s look ahead: The Red Sox and Yankees will play MLB’s first regular-season games in Europe on Saturday and Sunday at London Stadium. Commissioner Rob Manfred already has announced the Cardinals and Cubs will return for the second MLB London Series next year on June 13-14.

In the days prior to the MLB London Series, MLB will host its Elite European Development Tournament in the London area; the top 90 teenage players from 13 European countries -- and the Ramstein Air Base in Germany -- will compete in a showcase for MLB scouts at the Farnham Park Baseball & Softball Complex.

Additionally, PLAY BALL PARK will operate at London Marathon Community Track, adjacent to London Stadium, as the nexus of youth baseball and softball activity surrounding the MLB London Series.

The inaugural London games represent the culmination of a busy international year that has seen MLB teams visit Japan and Mexico.

“I hope that the two games in London will be viewed as sort of a groundbreaking, artistic success,” Manfred told reporters following the recent Owners Meetings. “We have devoted a tremendous amount of resources. We’re taking probably the greatest rivalry -- certainly in baseball, if not in sports -- for two games.

“We sold like crazy right out of the gate in terms of tickets and sold the two games out in a very short period of time. And we’re hoping it generates buzz around the game that will give us a toehold into a very important market in Europe.”

As interest in playing (and watching) baseball grows in England over the coming days, weeks and months, London pubs could show more broadcasts or streams of Major League matinee games -- played in prime time for the European audience.

And while baseball’s growth potential in Europe will become apparent soon enough, the sport’s history there is quite clear.

In fact, baseball was born in England.

Let that sink in for a moment: America’s national pastime is a European immigrant.

So, it is not accurate to say that baseball evolved from the English game of rounders. (In fact, baseball is older than rounders.) The tale of Abner Doubleday creating the sport in Cooperstown, N.Y., isn’t true, either.

David Block, an American-born author and expert on baseball’s origins, discovered a 1749 newspaper account of the Prince of Wales and Earl of Middlesex playing baseball in Walton-on-Thames -- less than 25 miles away from London Stadium, the site of this weekend’s series.

Block also has documented an image and description of early “Base-Ball” in the “A Little Pretty Pocket-book,” an English children’s book first published in 1744. In this schoolyard version of the game, a boy strikes a ball, runs to a “Post,” and arrives “Home with Joy.”

Consider the practical meaning of those dates: The printed records of baseball from 1744 and '49 signify that the game existed -- in Europe -- more than a quarter-century before the United States of America gained independence. (Rounders, by the way, was not mentioned in printed records until the 1820s, Block says.)

Remember King George III, whom you learned about in the Revolutionary War portion of your first U.S. history class? His Majesty played an early version of baseball as a boy, according to Block’s research.

The author Jane Austen mentioned baseball in Northanger Abbey, a 19th-century novel. She played the game, too, many Austen scholars believe.

“Baseball started in England,” says Block, author of the new book Pastime Lost: The Humble, Original, and Now Completely Forgotten Game of English Baseball. “American baseball was clearly derived from this original English game.”

As baseball later evolved and gained popularity in the U.S. during the 19th century, Americans sent top professionals to (perhaps unwittingly) reintroduce the sport to Britons as far back as 1874.

A team from New England was part of that trip 145 years ago, too: The Boston Red Stockings, while not a direct ancestor of the modern Red Sox, toured the British Isles for a series of midsummer exhibitions against the Philadelphia Athletics. One common thread between the 1874 Red Stockings and 2019 Red Sox: Both had won America’s highest club championship in the previous season -- which today we call the World Series.

Fifteen years after the Red Stockings and Athletics, U.S. baseball players returned to London and performed for a royal audience. As the British-born author and former Great Britain national team baseball player Josh Chetwynd wrote, the Prince of Wales was in attendance at the Kennington Oval cricket ground on March 12, 1889, for a game among American professionals featuring the legendary Cap Anson.

Afterward, according to Chetwynd, the future King Edward VII issued this statement to a newspaper reporter: “The Prince of Wales has witnessed the game of Base Ball with great interest and though he considers it an excellent game he considers cricket as superior.”

Now MLB is returning to see how that sentiment has evolved in the last century or so.

The timing seems right, especially since some genealogists believe Meghan Markle, the American-born Duchess of Sussex, is a distant cousin of reigning American League MVP Award winner .

Great Britain already has its own baseball royalty. Two members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown were born in England: Henry Chadwick of Exeter and Harry Wright of Sheffield. (For the record, both Chadwick and Wright played cricket prior to their involvement in baseball.)

Chadwick became a prominent baseball writer after immigrating to New York in the 19th century and was influential in forming the sport’s rules and scoring methods. Wright, meanwhile, was described as “virtually the founder” of professional baseball in the U.S. by no less an authority than Chadwick himself, because of Wright’s role in establishing and playing for the country’s first fully professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings.

Americans and Britons alike may be surprised to learn that Bobby Thomson -- author of perhaps the most famous home run in MLB history -- was born in Glasgow, Scotland. Thomson immigrated to the U.S. at age two, as his father began working in New York as a cabinet-maker.

Trevor Hoffman, the 2018 Hall of Fame inductee, is the son of an English immigrant. His mother, Mikki, danced for Queen Elizabeth II as a young ballerina. Mikki’s father, Jack Proctor French, was a professional footballer for Southend United F.C. This weekend’s venue -- Olympic Stadium, now home to the Premier League’s West Ham United -- offers another soccer connection.

Today, the Netherlands and Italy have professional baseball leagues. The U.K. doesn’t. But the Great Britain national baseball team, managed by Liam Carroll, scored an impressive win over Brazil in qualifying for the 2017 World Baseball Classic before being eliminated by Team Israel in a Brooklyn qualifying tournament -- held not far from where Chadwick and Wright helped to shape the game in the 19th century.

So please don’t let anyone convince you that baseball lacks history or cultural connection in London. On the contrary, the Red Sox and Yankees are about to return to the oldest baseball market in the world.

Note: A version of this story appears in the game program for the London Series.