Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Whatever happened to Welsh baseball?


A few weeks ago, I posted on Basketball Wales' rejection of a merger with British Basketball on a permanent basis. Although unrelated, an interesting discussion took place in the comments section on Welsh/British baseball, and I thought it was worthy enough to look again separately.

Historian Dr Martin Johnes from Swansea University wrote on the subject back in 2000 in a paper entitled "Poor Man's Cricket". It's available here, and it's what I'm basing some of the following off. It's well worth a read.

What is Welsh/British baseball?

There are major differences between Welsh/British baseball and the "American/Major League" game:
  • The Welsh/British baseball bat is more like a "paddle" than the American long and thin bat.
  • Bases are poles rather than mats/bags on the round
  • Balls are bowled underarm instead of "pitched"
  • Welsh/British baseball has 11 players (MLB – 9 outfield) and uses a lot of cricket terminology (crease, bowling, extras, no-balls)
  • The playing kit is very similar to football or rugby (shirt and shorts) with no protection (i.e. helmets)
  • There are just two "innings" compared to American baseball's nine
  • A run is given for every base reached after hitting the ball, rather than a complete circle of all the bases

The Welsh/British game developed as an improvement of the traditional "rounders" game. Although there were national (UK) competitions at the end of the 19th century, attempts were made by American sides to promote their own version via tours. Baseball didn't catch on, and became isolated in two main pockets – south Wales and Merseyside.

By 1921 there were "60 clubs and 1,400 players registered by the Welsh Baseball Union", but the sport never spread outside Cardiff and Newport. It was very much a working-class game, heavily associated with the inner-city communities of Cardiff, while rugby and football players would play baseball during the off-season. These were people who simply couldn't afford to play, or weren't interested in, cricket.

Baseball became "established as the predominant summer sport" within Cardiff and Newport, though the rules weren't fully standardised until 1927. Internationals took place between representative sides of England and Wales and still continue until this day. As late as the 1980s, the annual "internationals" even had highlights on the BBC, as exemplified here. You wouldn't picture BBC Wales or S4C doing that now, would you?

How come it never took off?

There are several reasons cited by Dr. Johnes' paper and elsewhere.

Firstly, there's the issue of land. Although baseball didn't require as much room as cricket, in other working-class areas where you would expect the sport to spread to – The Valleys for instance – there weren't the large tracts of flat land available to play on. In Cardiff, baseball clubs were reliant on public space and "applications from baseball clubs to use (public parks) were turned down."

Then there's the issue of money. It might've been cheaper to play than cricket, but the fees and rules applied to baseball clubs that didn't have their own private land were extraordinary. For example the traditional collections, to raise funds for the clubs, couldn't be carried out in public parks. As a result, the baseball clubs "couldn't operate independently from those in power (City of Cardiff Corporation)."

This entrenched the sport's reputation as a "poor man's cricket". Baseball simply couldn't attract the sort of middle-class patronage that cricket, football and rugby enjoyed, and it remained confined within certain communities. The association with Irish Catholics, also led to marginalisation of the sport, at a time when there was a bubbling sectarianism in some Cardiff communities.

Welsh baseball today

The sport in Wales is still governed by the original Welsh Baseball Union established at the end of the 19th century.

Although there's been some considerable decline in Merseyside (there are, apparently, only four clubs left), the Cardiff and Newport area still has its own local amateur baseball league (with at least two divisions), and even has very active youth and women's competitions.

Grange Albion are probably the most famous and successful Welsh baseball club - winning the championship 33 times since 1921, including this year. Some of the other sides are associated with religious societies or existing sports clubs – like St Peter's and Rumney rugby clubs. Both Newport-based St Michael's and Grange Albion are over 100 years old. Paul Flynn MP (Lab, Newport West) is a noted supporter of the sport.

The internationals between Wales and England national sides (The Gladstone Rose Bowl) are still contested annually as mentioned earlier. Wales also have a considerable lead over England in terms of championships won.

That's not to say the sport is entirely confined to the Cardiff area. I certainly remember playing this during PE lessons during the summer term. There is a campaign, I believe, to reintroduce the sport properly in other schools, presumably starting in its "heartland".

A future for Welsh baseball?
If it's one thing Welsh baseball needs, it's a publicity boost.
With the push for more active children and adults in the wake
of the London Olympics, now is as good a time as any.
(Pic : The Telegraph)

All this leaves you wondering what might've happened had the sport taken off in The Valleys, or if it crossed the River Dee from Merseyside into the Flintshire and Wrexham area. Would Wales now be playing this version of baseball in the summer instead of cricket?

Seeing as the likes of cnapan fell away a long time ago (or simply evolved into our affinity for rugby union), Welsh baseball is probably - bando aside - our equivalent of a "Gaelic sport". By that I mean a largely/uniquely Welsh "folk sport", not any reference to the rules.

Baseball might not enjoy the popularity it once used to, but it's still chugging along. In the face of competition from the likes of cricket, the fact the sport is still going is a magnificent achievement and tells a story in itself about how baseball has been taken to the heart of these communities.

It might not mean much in the grand scheme of things. However, if we lose things like our own version of baseball - harking back to the original post on Welsh basketball - we lose a little bit of ourselves with it – as well as the means to properly support the infrastructure of these sports : coaching, leagues, clubs and school activities.

If baseball is to have a future, it need to continue to attract new players. Getting it back in schools during the summer months is an absolute must – preferably with organised inter-school competitions. It would probably be cheaper and easier for many schools to play than cricket. Seeing as everyone is now clamouring to get kids playing sport off the back of the London Olympics, we in Wales should keep every option on the table.

Exposure is another big problem. Even in Cardiff, although the local media cover it, it's not as well presented or promoted as perhaps it should be. S4C usually fill empty air space with live events, I doubt it would be that big a stretch to cover a game or two. Seeing as everybody is obsessed with celebrities nowadays, perhaps one way to raise awareness is to host some sort of fund raising  game in the SWALEC stadium to raise money for the clubs and leagues.

Should there be a bid for a Commonwealth Games by Wales in the future, perhaps Welsh/British baseball could be included as an exhibition sport.

More on that at the weekend....


  1. Cracking post, especially the idea of a game at the SWALEC stadium. They'd get a good crowd if they could get a few ex-football and rugby stars.

    I'd love to see it become the national 'summer sport'. I'd love it if our rugby regions evolved into 'sporting clubs' complete with baseball, basketball and handball teams. Obviously we'd need a Valleys region (based at Sardis Road/Penydarren Park?) plus a Gog team at Parc Eirias.

    Baseball is a great working-class sport and it's much better suited to the Welsh person than cricket! Let's get it back in the schools.

  2. I'm afraid you'll find that large areas of North Wales (Bangor, Colwyn Bay, the Wrexham area in particular) are hotbeds of working class cricket. The same is true of West Glamorgan and Llanelli. Why should a game associated with the docks of East Wales be suited to anyone outside of cardiff ?

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Anon 18:29 - I like the idea of "sporting clubs" too in the manner you suggest. Cardiff Athletic Club is "sort of" like that I suppose.

    Anon 21:04 - That's certainly true across the south as well, so I agree with you there. Introducing another sport like Welsh baseball can't hurt though if it gives people more options to be active. I don't think baseball would harm cricket's position as the top "summer sport".

  4. Having enjoyed watching it on those rare occasions I have seen it on tv and seen partial matches live I have to concur that it would make an excellent addition to the sports played in schools and encouraged by existing sports clubs. It is far more interesting that the USA variant.

  5. Isn't that a young Mark Ring in the 10 shirt?

  6. One way for Welsh baseball to develop would be to ingrain intself with the rugby structure in Wales (which it does in Cardiff). It would be a summer game for rugby fans - bringing money into the local rugby club clubhouse etc. Why not work with the WRU to develop it? I'd also like to see it played and taken seriously at Welsh schools - we were force fed cricket at my high school in Cardiff even though many of the kids were very good baseball players and had it 'in the blood' so to speak.

    There's also an Irish version of the game - which is one of the GAA's four games (with Hurling, Football and handball). But it seems it's under supported there too for some reason. In any case - how about an international match?

    How about S4C screening the Wales v England match?


  7. Martin Johnes' paper does say that football and rugby players used to play baseball in the off-season. I wouldn't see the WRU working to develop anything other than rugby though, and with tours, sevens, southern hemisphere tournaments etc. rugby is effectively a year-round sport now.

    I did know that the GAA run "rounders" in Ireland, and there's certainly scope for some cross-Irish Sea games should the game in England dry up, or even make it a three-team competition.

  8. These days all team sports need TV coverage and the vital finance that comes with it to prosper, but unfortunately BBC Wales are only concerned with promoting one sport.
    They appear to regard it as their function to bankroll professional rugby in Wales in the same way that Sky does for football in England.

    The incestuous relationship between BBC Wales and the WRU needs investigating by some outside body like the Assembly, but such is the hold rugby has on the Welsh establishment it’s never likely to happen and BBC Wales will continue to hand over almost their entire sport budget to the 4 regional rugby sides to televise live, meaningless games that generate little public interest and are played out in almost deserted stadiums and at the expense of all other team sports played in Wales.

  9. I'm sure there is a political dimension to the promotion of rugby and cricket in Wales. My father once told me that neither sport was widely played when he was in school, it was all football. By the time I went to school rugby and cricket were compulsory.

    Rugby is a product of an English public school and cricket is the sport of the english upper class. the political implications of promoting them are obvious, anyone involved in the rugby or cricket hierarchies are dependably good Brits who have no truck with all this Welshie nonsense.

  10. Anonymous 16:03

    Before the 1970's and the modern TV era, rugby was a genuinely popular working class sport only in the Llanelli/Neath areas and the valleys of Gwent.
    In Cardiff, Newport and Swansea it was a always a game for the middle classes as it was in England, while in the Glamorgan valleys and the rest of Wales football was always far more popular.

    Rugby is encouraged in Wales through schools and TV because the establishment view it as a controlled, safe and acceptable outlet for Welsh Nationalist sentiment.
    Beat England every 2 or 3 years and for many simple souls 600 years of oppression and exploitation has been adequately avenged.

  11. Rugby was pushed quite heavily when I was in school - to such an extent that when the time came to build a new science block, they built it on the only football pitch.

    I've never really bought that rugby is a "working class sport", especially at the professional end, it's a different case at the grassroots. Just look at the backgrounds of some of our great and the good in the game.

    But I think there's a danger of reading too much into class and sport. I only care that sportspeople representing Wales do the shirt proud, or at the very least have the opportunity to do so - in the case of cricket for example.