March 11-20, 2013
JUMPING ON THE EUROPEAN BASEBALL BANDWAGON
“Baseball in England?” were the first words out of my mouth when I read the sports page of the London entertainment magazine, Time Out, while walking down Tottenham Court Road in London in April 1973. I was on my honeymoon and my wife and I wanted to become familiar with the various entertainment activities in the metropolis. To me, football (called soccer in the US) was king of sports in Europe. In this sport, a bunch of skinny guys in shorts ran around a field and kicked, instead of threw or hit a ball.
Having become addicted to baseball at the age of eight, I surely would show up to a pre-season game at Rosehill Recreation Ground in Sutton, Surrey, and see if the Croydon Blue Jays would give me a chance to play. My wife only thought I wanted to watch the game out of curiosity, but she learned differently when she saw me come from the clubhouse with a tattered baseball shirt and a borrowed glove and cap in hand. I had to play in my street shoes instead of baseball cleats, but this was only a minor setback. Once her objection of my playing on our honeymoon subsided, she went to the stands and had the foresight to pull out our camera.
It was near-freezing that day and I pitched a complete game despite my not pitching a full game in six years. I couldn’t lift my arm for the rest of the week.
My British baseball career lasted three games. In May 1973, we returned to the US and I began the season managing my regular team in the US. The short English experience of playing a few games was history and quickly left my mind.
England had enchanted us and we decided to move to the country in 1975 with no set date of return. Maybe we would stay there for a year or two; maybe longer. The first order of business was to find a baseball club to affiliate with. I met with the general manager of the Crawley Giants, Rip Rowley, and he said he would give me a chance at managing the club if the players took to me. They soon did and I also played in many of our games, becoming a player/manager. At age 27, playing the sport hurt because of previous injuries, but I concluded that I had one more season left in me, so I came out of retirement.
The 1975 season was a success all the way around. I worked hard with the Giants, who normally finished near the bottom of the league, and they responded by ending the season near the top of the circuit. I had fun playing and hit over .400. Of course, the caliber of play was below the standard I had participated in during my playing days in the US, but there was a lot of raw talent in the league’s participants that, with proper training, could turn them into astute baseball players.
The following year, I put my own team from London in the league and recruited four new teams. I was elected president of the Southern Baseball League. I had never been involved with promoting a sport before or being an officer in an organization; I was a player, manager, or player/manager. But, my new administrative duties seemed quite natural and I began to get publicity for baseball. I called the national newspapers and they put our league results in each Monday version. This was a first for British baseball. I also got a few magazines to write articles about baseball.
During the season, I could see the potential of rapid growth for British baseball and I created the first night baseball league in the country’s history. We played at the well-known Rosslyn Park Rugby Union Club. By the end of the season, baseball was drawing paying fans and gaining national publicity. In 1977, I switched venues and rented the Wasps Rugby Union Club on weekends to play against international opponents. My team won the Southern League championship in 1976 and my 1977 club was far superior, so I decided to play an independent schedule that would present the best caliber of baseball that the British pubic had consistently seen in years.
During the 1977 season, we had a growing number of kids showing up to watch baseball at Wasps. I took them aside after our games and began to teach them how to play baseball. English kids and baseball were a very good mixture. They loved the new sport.
By 1978, after running clinics all over London, there were hundreds of kids now playing baseball in organized leagues. I ran coaching clinics for the adults and gave them tips on how to start a league. I did not have an adult program, but only worked with kids. My local league in Uxbridge (northwest London) impressed the daily newspaper, the Uxbridge Gazette, so much that it gave us a full page every week.
Baseball was now my life seven days a week, 24 hours a day. My typical schedule had me getting up at 5:00 in the morning so I could drive across London to put on a clinic in three feet of mud for the physical education class of a school at 7:00 and would end at 10:00 or so in the evening after I conducted a coaching clinic at a sports centre. By 1980, thousands of kids were playing in London. Some, after being too old to play n their junior programs, became involved in adult baseball. The participation in baseball in the London area had multiplied many times since the playing of my first game in 1973.
Now, I’ll get to my current point. First of all, I would like to say that I was not the only person who selflessly worked in promoting baseball. Several others did as well, mostly creating their own clubs and leagues and gaining publicity. But, I put thousands of hours into promotion, including the physically-daunting task of having to hit, throw and field balls at all the clinics I ran. My body paid the price, but it didn’t bother me. Baseball was progressing immensely.
Once I began to accumulate players and adult instructors, I decided to get in touch with Major League Baseball (MLB), the organization that runs professional baseball in the US, and major league teams to see if there was any interest in helping promote the sport in Britain. We were lacking instructional material in England, so I sent letters to MLB and each major league club and asked for a videotape of one of their games. In Britain, not one second of baseball was broadcast on TV. It would be much easier to show a videotape of a game and explain hitting techniques, or the proper positioning of umpires, etc., by watching an actual game.
Of all the requests, only one team responded. I was happy when I saw a letter with the name and address of the Chicago White Sox come through my mail box. When I opened it and read it, my mirth changed to anger. It was a form application for me to fill out that would allow me a 20% discount for parking my car in the White Sox parking lot at Comiskey Park. What good would that do me in London? OF course, no one even read the letter; someone merely took my name and address and sent me the application. All I asked for was a stinking videotape.
Major League Baseball was not interested in helping promote baseball in Europe. There was no money or prestige for them to become involved. After six years in England, I moved to The Netherlands to coach in that country’s top league. The game was light years ahead of its British counterpart, but I left the legacy of getting thousands of players involved in British baseball. To me, this was a greater accomplishment than working with one club and creating a championship team.
In the 1990s, after baseball had been admitted to the Olympic Games, MLB began to show a small interest in European baseball. Then, by the beginning of the 21st century, MLB started to give European baseball the attention it should have decades ago. Major league clubs and MLB itself do run clinics in Europe today and are aware of the overlooked pool of future European baseball players who may have the skills to participate in the major leagues. For me, this is too little too late.
My body aches today from my intense promoting of baseball in Europe. I am not complaining. But, I put more time in doing the groundwork and dirty work to help establish baseball in Europe than anyone else at the time. Yes, there were others who, to certain degrees, did the same. But, they were ignored as well by the US baseball establishment.
Today, I read the headlines of an article in the March 11, 2013 edition of the New York Times that created two emotions: one of happiness that European baseball is finally on the map and one of bitterness because MLB has never mentioned those who tirelessly worked to promote baseball in Europe: “Inspiration in an Imperfect Tournament, by Way of Europe.” One line in the article stood out to me like George Bush speaking at an anti-war rally: “The presence of two European teams is heartening for Major League Baseball … “
In 1995, the memoirs of my European baseball days were published in a book called Strike Four: Adventures in European Baseball. The last chapter is called, “The World Game” and discusses the growing awareness of baseball worldwide, and specifically in Europe. Here is the last paragraph of the book:
“By the turn of the century, baseball will probably be a worldwide sport. Everybody will be jumping on the bandwagon and patting themselves on the back for developing the sport in areas other than the United States. In all probability, you will never hear the names of Benny Benson, Robert Garrod, Claus Helmig, Olivier Dubaut, Nico van Heemskerk and other true lovers of baseball who spent their entire lives in the pursuit of expanding the sport. Big-time politics and money will take the credit where credit is not due, and the real people who fought adversity at every step will be driven into obscurity. However, there is hope that someday the world will know of the true and lasting passion that some Europeans had for baseball. They are the reason I wrote this book.”
I sure got that one right.