Published April 14, 2011
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – George Washington played it, Babe Ruth gave it a shot and had a blast, and Harry Wright was a star player before becoming manager of the famed Cincinnati Red Stockings.
The sport is cricket, and although baseball fans in the United States have little regard for the national game of England, cricket shares much in common with America's pastime. Now, a new exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum will give visitors a clearer idea of what captivated the father of our country — there is anecdotal evidence that Washington played cricket with his troops at Valley Forge — and why the subcontinent of Asia was brought to a standstill during the recently completed Cricket World Cup.
"Swinging Away: How Cricket and Baseball Connect" opens Sunday for a 10-month run. It's the first major exhibit dedicated to exploring the roots of both bat-and-ball sports and their ensuing relationship.
Even before its debut, it has captivated senior Hall of Fame curator Tom Shieber.
"There's a famous quote by Jacques Barzun that goes, 'Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball'," Shieber said. "My riff on that is whoever wants to learn baseball had better learn cricket. You learn so much about baseball, especially baseball's history. They're sporting cousins, but they have so much in common, so much in shared history. At the same time, the contrasts are remarkable."
The idea for the exhibit originated with the Marylebone Cricket Club of London, and it's a natural — two teams, a field, whoever scores the most runs wins, a contest featuring bats and balls with fielders and umpires, and so on. And both sports are serious about statistics, records and history, too, and are played almost anywhere — backyards, neighborhoods, schools, parks.
The world's most famous cricket club assembled the exhibit in conjunction with the Baseball Hall of Fame and the C.C. Morris Cricket Library and Collection in Philadelphia. The exhibit, which debuted in London last year, features equipment used in games from historic moments in both sports and delves into the origins, history and cultural impact each holds on the countries where the games are most revered.
"By putting them together, it's almost like baseball is going to hold your hand as you learn about cricket," Shieber said. "Hopefully, the mystery will be cleared up a little."
The exhibit notes that Roger Bresnahan used cricket pads for catching when he played for the New York Giants in 1907 to protect his legs on plays at the plate. And Shieber is quick to point out that first basemen and catchers were the first position players to wear gloves in baseball because they handled the most balls — just like wicket keepers in cricket — and that players in both sports caught in the same manner.
Hall of Famer Henry Chadwick, who is credited with devising the baseball box score, began his career as a cricket reporter. But after seeing a spirited baseball game in Hoboken, N.J., in the mid-1850s, he fell in love with the sport and helped change pitching and fielding rules to make the game better.
"At that time, you could make an out catching a ball on the fly or after one bounce," Shieber said. "Cricket used the fly rule only, dismissing the bound out as childish. He was a big proponent of the fly game. The rule was adopted that you had to catch the ball on the fly if it was in fair territory in 1865."
Two decades later, the rule was extended to include foul balls.
The cricket connection to baseball also is manifested in the lives of Harry and George Wright, baseball Hall of Famers whose English father was a professional cricketer. These Wright brothers played significant roles in the growth and development of professional baseball and cricket in the United States. George was the only athlete to play both sports at the highest level, and their proficiency at cricket helped them achieve great success on the baseball diamond.
Among the artifacts on display:
— Rare touring jerseys, including one in which Hall of Famer Casey Stengel met King George V in 1924.
— A poster of the first truly global baseball tour organized by Hall of Famer Albert Spalding in 1888.
— Baseball bats used by Ruth and Barry Bonds, and one of the oldest cricket bats ever discovered alongside the newfangled Mongoose bat introduced in 2010.
— Balls from the early days of both sports, which are remarkably similar.
— And rare photographs and personal items belonging to Harry Wright and John "Bart" King of Philadelphia, regarded by many as America's greatest cricket player.
Ruth might have challenged King for that moniker, but by the time he picked up a cricket bat, his playing career was nearly over. During a visit to London in 1935, Ruth jumped into a game, broke his first cricket bat in the process, and reports said he had so much fun he was late for a lunch date with his wife.
"They tell me that $40 a week is top pay for cricket," Ruth once said. Keep in mind, in 1927, he had signed a three-year contract worth an unheard-of $70,000 a year. "I think I will stick to baseball. I wish I could use a wide bat like this in baseball."
Baseball historian John Thorn has discovered documentation of a form of baseball being played in the 1790s and estimates it could have been played as early as 1735, long before the days of Abner Doubleday.
The origins of cricket have been traced as far back as the 1500s, and scattered references show that by the middle of the 18th century, there was a social tradition of play in England that included cricket and a form of baseball.
The British brought cricket to the United States in the early 1700s and the game gained a foothold in Philadelphia, New York and Massachusetts. But in spite of its popularity, baseball supplanted it in the 1850s and 1860s as American cricket remained an amateur sport reserved for the wealthy, while England and Australia began developing a professional version of the game and baseball was following suit.
"(Baseball organizers) were making sure that all of their club members would get to play, and there's nothing like playing to plant the seed to keep the game growing," Shieber said. "I don't think they did it intentionally, but they did it and that didn't happen in cricket."
Worldwide, cricket remains wildly popular in many countries, particularly Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the West Indies. ESPN acquired cricinfo.com — the world's leading cricket website — nearly four years ago, and it logged 1.8 billion page views and 4.43 billion total minutes across all platforms during the recently concluded World Cup won by India.
Cricket still has pockets of popularity in the United States. And, perhaps after this exhibit, there will be even more.