Whatever happened to Welsh baseball?

Owen Donovan makes the case for Welsh baseball to be brought back as the working class game of Wales

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on Basketball Wales’ rejection of a merger with British Basketball on a permanent basis. Although unrelated, an interesting discussion took place in the comments section on Welsh/British baseball, and I thought it was worthy enough to look again separately.

Historian Dr Martin Johnes from Swansea University wrote on the subject back in 2000, in a paper entitled Poor Man’s Cricket, it’s available here, and it’s what I’m basing some of the following off. It’s well worth a read.

What is Welsh/British baseball?

There are major differences between Welsh/British baseball and the American/Major League game:

  • The Welsh/British baseball bat is more like a “paddle” than the American long and thin bat.
  • Bases are poles rather than mats or bags on the round
  • Balls are bowled underarm instead of “pitched” overarm
  • Welsh/British baseball has 11 players (Major League Baseball has 9 outfield players) and uses a lot of cricket terminology (such as crease, bowling, extras, no-balls)
  • The playing kit is very similar to football or rugby (shirt and shorts) with no protection (i.e. helmets)
  • There are just two “innings” compared to American baseball’s nine
  • A run is given for every base reached after hitting the ball, rather than a complete circle of all the bases

The Welsh/British game developed as an improvement of the traditional rounders game. Although there were national (UK) competitions at the end of the 19th century and attempts were made by American sides to promote their own version via tours, baseball didn’t catch on, and became isolated in two main pockets – south Wales and Merseyside.

As Martin Johnes notes, by 1921 there were 60 clubs and 1,400 players registered by the Welsh Baseball Union, but the sport never spread outside Cardiff and Newport. It was very much a working-class game, heavily associated with the inner-city communities of Cardiff, while rugby and football players would play baseball during the off-season. These were people who simply couldn’t afford to play, or weren’t interested in, cricket.

Baseball became established as the predominant summer sport within Cardiff and Newport, though the rules weren’t fully standardised until 1927. Internationals took place between representative sides of England and Wales and still continue until this day. As late as the 1980’s, the annual internationals even had highlights on the BBC, as exemplified here. You wouldn’t picture BBC Wales or S4C doing that now, would you?

Several reasons why the sport never took off are cited in Dr. Johnes’ paper, and elsewhere.

Firstly, there’s the issue of land. Although baseball didn’t require as much room as cricket, in other working-class areas where you would expect the sport to spread to – The Valleys for instance – there weren’t the large tracts of flat land available to play on. In Cardiff, baseball clubs were reliant on public space and applications from baseball clubs to use [public parks] were turned down.”

Then there’s the issue of money. It might’ve been cheaper to play than cricket, but the fees and rules applied to baseball clubs that didn’t have their own private land were extraordinary. For example the traditional collections, to raise funds for the clubs, couldn’t be carried out in public parks. As a result, the baseball clubs couldn’t operate independently from those in power (City of Cardiff Corporation).”

This entrenched the sport’s reputation as a poor man’s cricket. Baseball simply couldn’t attract the sort of middle-class patronage that cricket, football and rugby enjoyed, and it remained confined within certain communities. The association with Irish Catholics, also led to marginalisation of the sport, at a time when there was a bubbling sectarianism in some Cardiff communities.

The sport in Wales is still governed by the original Welsh Baseball Union established at the end of the 19th century.

Although there’s been some considerable decline in Merseyside, where there are, apparently, only four clubs left, the Cardiff and Newport area still has its own local amateur baseball league with at least two divisions, and even has very active youth and women’s competitions.

Grange Albion is probably the most famous and successful Welsh baseball club, winning the championship 33 times since 1921, including this year. Some of the other sides are associated with religious societies or existing sports clubs – like St Peter’s and Rumney rugby clubs. Both Newport-based St Michael’s and Grange Albion are over 100 years old. Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport, is a noted supporter of the sport.

The internationals between Wales and England national sides (The Gladstone Rose Bowl) are still contested annually as mentioned earlier. Wales also have a considerable lead over England in terms of championships won.

That’s not to say the sport is entirely confined to the Cardiff area. I certainly remember playing this during PE lessons during the summer term. There is a campaign, I believe, to reintroduce the sport properly in other schools, presumably starting in its heartland.

All this leaves you wondering what might’ve happened had the sport taken off in The Valleys, or if it crossed the River Dee from Merseyside into the Flintshire and Wrexham area. Would Wales now be playing this version of baseball in the summer instead of cricket?

Seeing as the likes of cnapan fell away a long time ago (or simply evolved into our affinity for rugby union), Welsh baseball is probably, bando aside, our equivalent of a ‘Gaelic’ sport. By that I mean a largely/uniquely Welsh folk sport, not any reference to the rules.

Baseball might not enjoy the popularity it once used to, but it’s still chugging along. In the face of competition from the likes of cricket, the fact the sport is still going is a magnificent achievement and tells a story in itself about how baseball has been taken to the heart of these communities.

It might not mean much in the grand scheme of things. However, if we lose things like our own version of baseball – harking back to the original post on Welsh basketball – we lose a little bit of ourselves with it – as well as the means to properly support the infrastructure of these sports: coaching, leagues, clubs and school activities.

If baseball is to have a future, it needs to continue to attract new players. Getting it back in schools during the summer months is an absolute must – preferably with organised inter-school competitions. It would probably be cheaper and easier for many schools to play than cricket. Seeing as everyone is now clamouring to get kids playing sport off the back of the London Olympics, we in Wales should keep every option on the table.

Exposure is another big problem. Even in Cardiff, although the local media cover it, it’s not as well presented or promoted as perhaps it should be. S4C usually fill empty air space with live events, I doubt it would be that big a stretch to cover a game or two. Seeing as everybody is obsessed with celebrities nowadays, perhaps one way to raise awareness is to host some sort of fund raising  game in the SWALEC stadium to raise money for the clubs and leagues.

Should there be a bid for a Commonwealth Games by Wales in the future, perhaps Welsh/British baseball could be included as an exhibition sport.

Owen Donovan, from Bridgend, blogs regularly on Welsh politics at Oggy Bloggy Ogwr, where this post first appeared.

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