LONDON – There was a time when the discreet
men in blazers who run Lord’s cricket ground would have considered it an
abomination to equate baseball with cricket in any fashion. Yet, there it is,
an exhibition behind the famed Lord’s pavilion, cricket’s holy of holies,
celebrating the similarities – and, in case anybody thought cricket’s traditionalists
had run up the white flag, the differences – between cricket and baseball.
As evidence of how much has changed in
English attitudes toward America’s national game, the exhibition is being
jointly hosted by the Marylebone Cricket Club, for more than 200 years the rule
maker in worldwide cricket, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in
Cooperstown, New York. The Hall of Fame will host the exhibit beginning in
April, representing baseball’s own start on coming to terms with a game that
many baseball enthusiasts have long loved to disparage.
For the English, cricket has always been
the gentlemen’s game – played in whites, with decorum prized as highly as the
grace of a batsman’s “strokes,” and committees to codify “the spirit of the
game,” above all the principle that playing honourably is more important than
winning. Baseball, by contrast, has been seen by most cricket lovers as a
vulgarization of the true bat-and-ball game, which Rudyard Kipling said defined
what it was to be properly English.
Baseball, in this view, was a game for
stoutly built men proud to be called “sluggers,” uncouth players who said
things like “I’d rather be lucky than good” and chewed tobacco, and who, unlike
barehanded outfielders in cricket, wore leather gloves to catch balls. Worse,
there were baseball managers who kicked dirt at umpires.
For their part, most Americans have
professed bewilderment at what has so enthralled the English and their former
colonial subjects who took up cricket and, in many cases, learned to regularly
thump their former masters. With “test matches” between the main cricket
nations lasting as long as five days, and then often ending in draws, it has
been commonplace for Americans to say that watching a cricket match is as
exciting as watching the grass grow.
Against this background, the Lord’s
exhibition is a bid for a kind of standstill agreement, an effort to move the
games beyond decades of chafing toward a new era of respect. At a time when
BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill has engendered new trans-Atlantic tensions, the
exhibition, titled “Swinging Away: How Cricket and Baseball Connect,” may carry
a wider message about two countries that have traditionally combined admiration
for each other with a degree of wariness and mostly good-natured disregard.
“Perhaps that’s because sports are a tribal
thing, and cricket and baseball have been so absorbed into the respective
national psyches,” said Adam Chadwick, an Oxford-educated classics scholar and
curator of the Lord’s museum. “On both sides of the Atlantic, we like to
celebrate the ‘special relationship’ between our two countries, but that tends
to disguise the fact that we have such fundamentally different outlooks.”
The paradox is fully explored at the
exhibit and demonstrated by a collection of memorabilia from both games. The
baseball bat a fading Babe Ruth used to hit the final three home runs of his
career – for the Boston Braves in a game with the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 25,
1935 – is displayed alongside the modern, heftier cricket bats built to empower
the “slogging” for the fences – the “boundary,” in cricket terms – that is one
of the baseball influences that have found their way into contemporary cricket.
Nearby, a cricket uniform from 1821 with a
tight-waisted jacket of the kind used by Nelson’s midshipmen at Trafalgar sits
alongside a far more comfortable-looking baseball outfit worn in 1866 by LeGrand
Lippett, a famous player of his time.
The jersey Casey Stengel wore for a 1924
off-season tour of Europe with the New York Giants is displayed, along with the
battered “Doubleday ball” discovered in an attic in 1934 that is regarded as
baseball’s most sacred relic.
But even as the exhibit shows how the games
have evolved in parallel, it conveys the unmistakable theme that what many
Americans view as their national game was originally an English sport, played
by children nearly 300 years ago.
Beth Hise, a co-curator who is a
Yale-educated Cleveland Indians fan living in Australia, addresses the issue
head-on in the text she wrote for the exhibit, calling the idea that baseball
was an American game in its origins “a powerful and popular myth.”
She attributes the myth to Albert G.
Spalding, a prominent 19th-century baseball player and founder of the sporting
goods company named for him, who declared in 1908 that baseball was an American
game invented in 1839 by Abner Doubleday. In fact, the curators say, baseball –
or base-ball, as it was known then – originated in England at least as early as
the first decades of the 18th century, perhaps even earlier, and was taken to
the United States by 19th-century immigrants.
The exhibit also makes the case that
cricket, played in America from as early as 1709, was America’s principal
bat-and-ball game until the eve of the Civil War, with thriving cricket clubs
in many major East Coast cities, including New York; Brooklyn; Newark, New
Jersey; Boston; and, especially, Philadelphia.
But the story traced by the exhibit, like
the arc of the two games as they are played today, is as much about baseball’s
influence on cricket as the other way around. In recent years, as test match
crowds have dwindled, the most popular forms of cricket have been the new,
shorter varieties of the game, played within a single day, or, with an even
more rambunctious following, the Twenty20 form that is played faster than many
Cricket talk is now sprinkled with baseball
terms – “batter” (in place of batsman), “catcher,” “pinch hitter,” “outfield,”
“switch-hitter,” “strike,” “curveball” and “home run derby,” to cite examples
overheard during a recent test match at Lord’s. Some of the best cricket teams
– Australia’s, for one – have hired baseball coaches to improve throwing
skills, one area where baseball has long had an edge.
“These days, in the shorter forms of
cricket, it’s all attack, attack, attack, there’s no real time to defend, and
that’s something we’ve taken from baseball,” said David Lloyd, one of the
game’s most popular television commentators.
He added: “In the end, the games have a lot
in common, starting with what’s basic: You go at the other team head to head,
and you tell them, ‘OK, we’ll both have a go, and when it’s over we’ll have
scored one more run than you.’ Simple, really.”