Why is this interesting? - The UK Baseball Edition

On the UK, baseball, and family

Matt Locke (ML) is a WITI reader and the Director of Storythings, a content studio in the UK. After reading Tuesday’s Sports Creativity Edition, Matt sent us a bit of the wonderful story below and we asked him if he’d be up for turning it into a full-blown WITI. Thanks Matt! - Noah (NRB)

Matt here. In the 1980s, I was a lanky, bookish, teenager who wasn't good at soccer and wasn’t posh enough to play cricket. I spent all my time messing with my first 8-bit computer and didn’t get out much. The UK had just launched a fourth national TV network—Channel 4—with a mission to promote diverse programming. This led to them acquiring the rights to broadcast American Football, with surprising success, making the Chicago Bears, and especially The Fridge, cult icons to teens interested in alternative culture.

My dad was a carpenter on building sites, and when I was 14 we bumped into a former colleague of his. His friend took one look at me and my brothers and asked if we’d be interested in playing baseball. Our ears pricked up—here was a sport that was so niche it wasn’t even on Channel 4 yet! I think our interest was driven as much by the potential for cult kudos points as it was the game itself.

My dad’s friend had been playing baseball in the UK since the 1950s. There had been amateur leagues in the country since the game's creation (the soccer team Derby County’s ground used to be called “The Baseball Ground” as it was initially created in an early-20th Century boom in UK baseball). So he organized a practice, brought along some gloves and bats, and we ended up forming a youth team with our school friends. After a couple of practices, my dad stepped in and set up our own youth baseball club, the Hoddesdon Sharks. In our first season, we finished 1-21.

Back in those days, none of us had ever seen the game played professionally. There were a couple of teams in London with ex-pat US players, so we used to turn up at their practices and get some tips, but other than that we worked from printed coaching manuals shipped over from the US by companies importing baseball gear. We were cosplay-ing baseball at best.

A year later, Major League Baseball sent two high school teams from New York State to the UK for a friendship tour. They mainly played exhibition games against the UK’s best adult teams, but the British Baseball Federation pulled together a scratch U18 UK team that included me and my brothers. We played the first official GB youth team game against them. To say we were beaten was an understatement. We’d never really seen a proper curveball before, so were waving swords all day and cheering foul tips just because we made contact. 

In 1990, I left home to go to art school, but my dad kept running the team, becoming Youth Officer for the British Baseball Federation and accompanying a GB youth team to the first World Children’s Baseball Fair in LA in 1990. At the Fair, he managed to catch a ball thrown into the crowd by Hank Aaron after he was throwing around with Japanese legend Sadaharu Oh. He was too shy to ask them to sign it but kept the ball on his bedside table for years.

Why is this interesting?

This isn’t just a nostalgic story about playing a niche sport—the role baseball played in our family was deeper than that. Years later, my dad told me that the time he spent running practices, umpiring games, and organizing the team were some of the best times he spent with us as teenagers. As a parent of teens now, I can see how your relationships change as your kids grow older—you become a supporting player in the emerging drama of their lives and grasp at every shared interest or activity you can.

My dad didn’t share my geeky passion for early computers or contemporary art, but he took the spark of our interest in baseball and ran with it. He went through all the hassle and work of setting up a niche youth sports team—getting the council to give us space for a diamond, raising funds, teaching himself how to coach and umpire, developing the fragile infrastructure for the sport in the UK—just so he could spend more time with his sons. If we were into soccer, all that work would have been done by other people. But baseball was so niche that it gave him the opportunity to make a new space for us to hang out, to have fun together, to play ball.

A few years ago, as he got sick with the prostate cancer that would eventually take him, he gave me the glove my mum had bought him years before, that he’d never got the chance to use, and the ball thrown by Sadaharu Oh and Hank Aaron that he’d kept on his bedside table. I found a local team in Brighton and started playing again at the age of 47. The younger players all have access to MLB TV, YouTube tutorials, and a training infrastructure in the UK that far exceeds what we had in the 1980s. My dad played a very small part in the foundations of that infrastructure, but he did it mainly so he could hang out with me and my brothers. Every time I go out to the diamond now, I’m wearing the glove he gave me, and in my kit bag is the Aaron/Oh ball. I never use it, but it’s a little bit of my dad that still joins me on the diamond. (ML)

Baseball of the Day:

Here’s the Aaron/Oh ball (picture below). If my dad had the nerves to get it signed, it would be worth around $600. But it’s worth a lot more to me than that, even unsigned.

Quick Links:

  • Project Cobb is a great resource of early UK baseball history, with scans of the xeroxed newsletters and magazines that show how hungry we were in the 1980s and 90s for any scrap of information about the sport. (ML)

  • MLB wrote a good history of Baseball in the UK for the 2018 London Series. There’s a recurring pattern of entrepreneurs trying to break the game, building momentum for a couple of years, and then giving up. Although my soccer team - Tottenham Hotspur - won the UK league a couple of times in the early 1900s. Spurs are very much the Boston Red Sox of the Premier League - a ‘big club’ with years of glorious failure and close shaves with success. (ML)

  • Joe Gray, who runs Project Cobb, has written What About The Villa? a fantastic book about the short-lived UK professional baseball league in 1890. (ML)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Matt (ML)

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