The history of baseball in Ireland

By Eddie Bohan


Team names like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or the LA Dodgers lead the reader to the greats of baseball in the United States. Since 1903, they have competed for the grandly named World Series despite it being played professionally only on continental America. In Ireland we can take some responsibility for the creation of baseball as a sport, as many baseball historians point to the game being based on the popular Irish sport of Rounders.

The game probably travelling across with emigrants to the US and developed as the game of baseball that is so passionately embraced today by millions of Americans. Yet even though the GAA organised rounders in Ireland, baseball became ‘Ireland’s greatest sporting events’ in the early part of the 20th century. According to most baseball historians, the first recognised game played was on June 19th 1845 between the New York Knickerbockers and the NY Gotham Club. With the Horse Show and the popular Baldoyle Races on at the same time, getting a crowd to Lansdowne Road to watch a baseball game was always going to be difficult, even if it was a novelty.

The first known game of baseball played in Ireland took place in Dublin on 24 August 1874. Following a 12-game tour of England, two of America’s most prominent clubs the Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics travelled to Ireland to display their game. The Boston club were the US National champions and listed amongst their squad was pitcher Albert Spalding, who went on to create a sporting goods empire. In the opening game of baseball, attended by the Lord Lieutenant the Duke of Abercorn, Boston won the Irish exhibition twelve runs to seven in front of a packed Lansdowne Road.

The following day, similar to engagements previously on the British mainland, a combined team of Red Sox and Athletics played a game of cricket at the Dublin cricket club in the Phoenix Park. One of the American pitchers broke his thumb during the game and was ruled out of the third challenge of the brief Irish tour a US versus Ireland baseball game. The American selection as expected won 12 – 6 but the newspapers singled out Mr A. Young of the Irish team ‘who played remarkably well and scored two runs.’

The next organised baseball game in Ireland took place on March 27th 1889. Two teams had played exhibition games in London and Liverpool before travelling by boat from Fleetwood to Ireland. The teams involved was an All Star selection known as the ‘All Americans’ and the ‘Chicago White Stockings’.

The Stockings were a popular successful team managed by Cap Anson, who also played as first baseman. Although admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939, he was a controversial character. He refused to play with or against any team that contained a person of colour, he was a prolific gambler on his own sport and he met his wife when she was only 13 years old and he was twenty. They did marry on her seventeenth birthday and they remained together until her death forty years later.

The teams played their first game in Belfast on Monday March 25th after staying at the Imperial Hotel in the city. The game was played at the North of Ireland Cricket Club on the Ormeau Road. The ‘All Americans’ won the game 9-3 after a blistering opening, scoring four runs in the first innings. The following day they travelled by train to Dublin staying at the Morrison Hotel.

That afternoon they attended a reception at the Mansion House on the invitation of the Lord Mayor and later attended a gala concert in their honour at the Gaiety Theatre. The game itself would be played at the home of Irish rugby, Lansdowne Road and the venue would over the next thirty years become the home of Irish baseball.

At 3pm on March 27th, in front of an estimated crowd of three thousand curious Dubliners, more than likely there to see what an American looked like rather than for the sporting element, the first pitch was thrown. The Lord Lieutenant was unable to attend and his place was taken by Prince Edward of Saxe & Weimar. Nine innings later the All American team had won by four runs to three.

Much was made in the newspapers of how many of the players were of Irish decent and The Freeman’s Journal also reported, ‘In England they had some experience of what fine old crusted British prejudice is like and were told in plain terms that their game was only fit for children, ‘glorified rounders’ being the most appreciative description of it which their numerous critics vouchered. Some folk yesterday who are above all things English, quite English thought that their loyalty required them to smear the game.’

The following day the teams travelled to Cork, spending the night in the Victoria Hotel. They departed from Queenstown bound for America on the White Star liner Adriatic. Despite this encouraging start to bringing baseball across the Atlantic to the Irish public, the games were few and far between. Many of the games played were by visiting US Naval ship crews like in June 1911 when a tournament grandiosely titled ‘The Grand Game of the Western Republic’ was played in Cork at the Queenstown Sports Ground.

The three days featured teams made up of sailors from a fleet of American warships on a courtesy call to Ireland. The first game saw Iowa take on Massachusetts, day two was made up of two teams from the Iowa and finally on the Monday Iowa played Indiana to decide the destination of the fleet trophy. As expected, the Iowan team whitewashed their opponents twelve to nil.

Despite the uncertainty of the political situation in Ireland in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, baseball became an annual event in Dublin and once again Lansdowne Road became the unofficial home of baseball in Ireland. In 1917, the game took on an international dimension, when the United States took on Canada in ‘The Sporting Event of the Year’.

At 2.30pm on Saturday October 27th the two teams took to the field in front of 6,000 adults and 1,000 schoolboys raising £750 for the Dublin Castle Red Cross Fund. Prior to the start of the game the players were introduced to the Lord Lieutenant Wimbourne and its importance demonstrated by the presence of the newsreel cameras. The Americans won 10 – 6 in what was described as an ‘entertaining display of sportsmanship’.

As in 1889, the two teams played in both Dublin and Belfast. The second game took place on at Windsor Park and was a fundraiser for the UVF Hospital in the city. That crowd generated gate receipts of £500 and ended in a five all draw. The ceremonial first pitch was thrown by Sir Robert Liddell, the Honorary Treasurer of the Ulster Patriotic Fund. Baseball moved away from Dublin in July 1917 when an exhibition match was played at the Mardyke in Cork between sailors on board the USS Trippe and USS Melville.

A crowd of 3,000 attended the game which raised funds for the ‘Queenstown War Workers Fund’. Entertainment was provided by the Band of the 3rd Leinster Regiment under the command of Colonel Canning. The teams were level six runs apiece after nine innings with the team from Melville scoring the winning run in the first of the extra innings.

The following a meeting between the US and Canada was with players chosen from their respective Armies. The US Army team were billed as the Champions of the Anglo-American League against the Champions of the Canadian League. When the US joined the battle in World War One, they brought their sport with them and with Canadian already fighting alongside the British as part of the Empire, leagues were set up involving all branches of the military.

The championship game between the two nations had been played in front of a full house at Stamford Bridge with the King in attendance. There were still worries about German attacks and barrage balloons flew over the ground to protect the attendees and players. They came to Ireland to boost morale of soldiers injured in the fighting many recuperating in hospitals in Dublin.

Perhaps it was the nature of the make-up of the teams, an apathy towards the military or the inclemency of the Irish weather but from the thousands who attended the game in 1917, the attendance at Lansdowne Road in September 1918 numbered just over five hundred. The game was won by the American 13 -6 over their neighbours to the north of them.

The Washington national newspaper reported, ‘Weather and an open eyed wonder as to what it is all about made the baseball game in Dublin, something of a fizzle as far as enthusiasm was concerned. Yanks met Canadians and the Yanks won 13 to 6. The game was played in puddles with much slopping about. Dublin boys will not adopt baseball as a result of their first introduction to the game.’

In June 1919, two ‘Yankee Teams’ were advertised, as the game was moved due to a clash of fixtures from Lansdowne Road across the city to the home of the GAA, Croke Park.  As a lead in to the Croke Park challenge a game took place on the sports field of Trinity College. That game pitted the US Naval Station against the US detachment in Trinity College. Several more games were played during College week at Trinity and Trinity provided one of the ‘Yankee’ teams for Croke Park, while North American students at the National University and military officers were the opposing ‘Yankee’ team.   

By 1921 and despite the country being gripped by a violent and destructive War of Independence, baseball continued to find its way onto the sports fields even in Cork where a national baseball league was mooted. There were an increasing number of games played at the Mardyke led by the workers at Fords plant. The Roche Cup, presented by Michael Roche Jewellers on Patrick Street, was to be played for with teams like Fordsons, the Irish Giants and the Irish Yankees. The Irish Giants won the 1921 baseball Championship.

The arrival of the new Irish Free State, that sense of independence and the promotion of Irish values, culture and sports to the fore ‘foreign sports’ were and exiled and marginalised. This spelled the death knell for any progress that had been made with baseball in Ireland. In an article in the Irish Times by Patrick Mahony, he wrote,

‘Whatever headway baseball had made in Ireland by the turn of the 20th century appears to have dissipated after the establishment of the Irish Free State, reflecting a shift to Gaelic games. When Limerick man J.J. Hanley returned to Ireland in 1929 after making a fortune in the US, he expressed his surprise and disappointment that baseball had lost its footing in Ireland.’

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