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Book excerpt: Spalding's World Tour

The Epic Adventure That Took Baseball Around The Globe -- And Made It America's Game

Posted: Thursday August 10, 2006 1:13PM; Updated: Thursday August 10, 2006 4:43PM
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Book excerpt: Spalding's World Tour

By Mark Lamster

In October of 1888, Albert Goodwill Spalding -- baseball star, sporting- goods magnate, promotional genius, and serial fabulist -- departed on a journey around the globe with twenty of America's greatest baseball stars. Their mission: to bring baseball, and with it the American way, to the world. Here we find Spalding and his intrepid charges arriving in Sydney, Australia, on the first leg of their journey.

Rough seas made the four-day trip due west from Auckland to Sydney one of the more difficult legs of the tour, but the welcome Spalding and his men received as they pulled into Woolloomooloo Bay and the city came into view was grand enough to fully brighten their spirits. All of Sydney, or so it seemed, had been mobilized for their arrival. On South Head, the white stone tower of Macquarie Lighthouse was decked out in red, white, and blue bunting. An entire flotilla had been assembled to accompany the Alameda into the harbor: tugs, yachts, steamers, rowboats, dinghies -- every craft that would float was sent out to greet the arriving baseball tourists. The reception committee, led by Leigh Lynch, was jammed onto a large harbor boat, the Admiral. Even a pack of dolphins, curious about the hubbub, joined the commotion, bobbing along next to the Alameda. Onshore, hundred of fans waited in the late-afternoon sun waving flags while brass bands issued forth with American standards. "It was glorious! It was stirring! It was in every way a complete surprise, in that it so far exceeded all that we imagined it might be," Palmer recalled. "The scene was one that brought joy and then tears," echoed Ward. "From that moment Australia became not a foreign land, but only another division of home."

Visitors to the great island continent had not always been treated to such a celebratory welcome. Australia, like America, was very much a land of interlopers -- migrants, colonists, rogues, and laborers -- drawn, sometimes against their will, to a place of outsized possibility. Aboriginal mythology tells of ancestors who arrived in a timeless time -- the Dream Time -- from lands of mysterious origin; archaeological evidence suggests that first human habitation came as many as sixty thousand years ago. A later visitation, by Captain Cook, marks the opening of what has generally been understood to be Australia's modern history. Cook arrived at Botany Bay, just south of present-day Sydney, in 1770 and claimed the land he found for king and country. This new dominion along Australia's southeast coast -- he called it New South Wales -- proved a convenient dumping ground for the criminal class of Cook's home country, not to mention a useful source of raw material, a strategic commercial and military base in the South Pacific, and a handy substitute for the recently lost American colonies. And so Cook was followed, In January 1788, by another British sea captain, Arthur Phillip, who arrived at Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) with an eleven-ship convoy carrying nearly eight hundred convicts and four marine companies to control them.

A hundred years later, Spalding and his men arrived in that same port on a Friday evening, with the entire city out and in a mood for revelry. These were good days for Sydney. The New South Wales economy, driven by the export of gold and wool, was thriving. Politically, the colony had considerable autonomy from Britain. (The six Australian "Crown colonies," later to be states -- Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, and New South Wales -- were at the time separate and highly competitive entities; they did not form a federation until 1901.) To mark its centennial, Sydney was engaged in a year-long celebration of itself. A handsome new public park, Centennial Park, was opened to great fanfare. New office buildings reached for the sky in the commercial center. Ranges of gleaming white terrace houses and great mansions of brick and stone filled in its neighborhoods. Wealth had spread so widely and so quickly that the city's infrastructure, egregiously mismanaged, could not keep up, resulting in water shortages and open sewage in the handsome new streets -- what one historian has called "a self-conscious mixture of dirt and dignity, effluvium and elegance, garbage and grandeur."

Spalding's group had been booked into two hotels, the Chicagos at the Oxford and the All-Americas at the Grosvenor, and it was to the former that the group in its entirety was taken from the harbor. When their carriages pulled up in front of the hotel's portico, they found that it had been covered over with flags and flowers in their honor. Inside, the United States consul, G. W. Griffin, was waiting with members of the sporting press. Champagne was uncorked, toasts were made, and the Australian reporters got their first look at the American ballplayers. They found Albert Spalding, the great impresario, particularly inspiring. "No wonder Spalding has made a huge fortune," reported one Sydney paper. "He's got grit and go, while his daring is proved by this undertaking."

In the evening, the tourists were treated to a night of entertainment at the Royal Theater, courtesy of Jimmy Williamson, an expatriate American who had transformed himself into Australia's leading theatrical producer. Born in Pennsylvania in 1843, he had bounced around as an actor on the American circuit before purchasing, for one hundred dollars, the rights to a promising melodrama provisionally entitled The German Recruit. Renamed Struck Oil, the show became a hit with Williamson and his wife, Maggie Moore, as its stars. Williamson traveled the show to Australia in 1874, and its success, combined with his savvy decision to acquire the Australian rights to the Gilbert and Sullivan musicals H.M.S. Pinafore and, later, The Pirates of Penzance, established Williamson as the king of the Australian stage, a position he consolidated with the formation of Williamson, Garner, and Musgrove, a theatrical syndicate known alternately as "the Triumvirate" and "the Firm."

Williamson was especially pleased to welcome a contingent of fellow Americans to his theater, and arranged for a series of boxes in the dress circle to be draped with bunting in their honor. The bill for the evening was a double feature, the first show being his old chestnut, Struck Oil, with Williamson and Moore in their customary lead roles. After the curtain, Spalding and his men were brought down onto the stage to receive their own ovation from the audience. When Spalding was tossed a pair of small flags to wave, one American and one of New South Wales, the orchestra roared in approval. The evening concluded with a performance of The Chinese Question, a comic sop on a subject as loaded in Australia as it was in California. The roots of this xenophobia were the same -- workers feared competition from cheap labor, moralists feared the depravity of the godless Chinese, or "Celestial" (China was the "Celestial Empire") and racists feared miscegenation -- but here on the other side of the world, the threat seemed that much closer at hand. This animosity had on occasion resulted in civic unrest and violence. Just a few months before the arrival of the tourists, in the spring of 1888, a Hong Kong trading vessel, the Afghan, carrying a large number of Chinese workers was turned away first in Melbourne and then in Sydney by the threat of mob action. Later in the year, new anti-immigration policies were enacted against the Chinese as part of a broader "Australia for Australians" campaign. But on this night, such unpleasantness was whitewashed by Williamson's light comedy. If anyone saw a bit of irony in an anti-immigration play put on by an immigrant in honor of men hoping to introduce a foreign game, they kept it to themselves.

Festivities continued the next morning with a reception at Town Hall, a study in Victorian grandiosity with bulging Second Empire forms of yellow sandstone and a clock tower surmounted by a domed lantern. The host was Sydney's mayor, John Harris, a gregarious man in a purple robe of silk and ermine, and the reception took place in his council chamber, which had been set with a linen-draped table manned by a dozen butlers and spread over with champagne -- Clicquot, Mumm's, and Pommery. When it came time for toasts, Harris happily suggested that his Australian brethren were sure to pick up baseball, and that it wouldn't be long before a touring team of Aussies would be heading back across the Pacific to challenge the Americans at their own national game. This pronouncement was received with good cheer, though the biggest hand was given over to Ned Hanlan -- the champion Canadian sculler then considered one of the great athletes of the day, and not to be confused with the All-America outfielder Ned Hanlon. Though small of stature, Hanlan had a fluid style and a cocky bravado that made him a popular, if somewhat controversial figure. (It had been his habit, when racing, to build a wide lead only to pull up and wait for his opponents to catch up before taking off once again -- a practice that quite understandably did not endear him to his rivals.) Hanlan set his first time record in 1876, and then in 1880 took the world championship from Australian Edward Trickett in a match race on the Thames. It was estimated that some five hundred thousand dollars -- a sum comparable to what is now bet on the Super Bowl -- was laid on the race. Hanlan had since lost his title (to Australian William Beach, in 1884), but nevertheless remained a glamorous sportsmen, and one who could speak from his own personal history about the athletic prowess of the Australian people. His message to the tourists, like Harris's, was to beware of teaching the people from Down Under the American game too well.

This, of course, was a risk Spalding and his men were happy to take. After returning to their hotels, they changed into their baseball togs in preparation for their first game on Australian soil. This time -- finally -- they would be playing as scheduled on a Saturday afternoon, and consequently a large crowd was anticipated at the Australian Association Cricket Grounds.

The twenty-minute ride out to the field took them through some of the prettier scenery Sydney had to offer, and when they finally arrived they found a manicured playing surface as "level as a floor" and with a "velvety" turf that put to shame the rough urban ball fields Spalding and his men were used to back home. "In whatever other respects the Colonies might be inferior to the United States," wrote Palmer, "they certainly possessed grounds so far superior in point of equipment and condition to anything we had in the United States that there was no room whatever for comparison." The lush green oval was enclosed by a whitewashed picket fence, with home plate placed before a grandstand filled to its capacity. The better classes were seated in reserved sections in front of the Australian Cricket Association's two-story clubhouse and a separate "ladies cottage" for unescorted women, a group that made up a sizable portion of a crowd estimated at somewhere between six and ten thousand.

Those in attendance were treated to what was universally described as a fine game, though the extent to which the Australian audience actually understood what they were witnessing was something of an open question. "The game itself was one that brought out all the beauties of play and would have set an American crowd wild, but it was too fast for Sydneyites," wrote Ward. "Not being acquainted with the points of play they were unable to follow such quick work." Spalding had anticipated this problem, and had indeed taken steps to prevent it. As in New Zealand, explanatory stories were planted in the Australian papers. (This became a bit awkward the following week when the Melbourne Leader and the Age of Melbourne ran the same story -- "The American Game of Baseball and How to Play It" -- word for word, on the same day.) In addition, before leaving the United States, Spalding had commissioned Harry Palmer to author a pamphlet with condensed profiles of the players on the tour and an outline of the rules of the game, in hopes that this would be a help to the foreign fans. But written descriptions could only do so much; to the uninitiated, a baseball game can seem about as straightforward as a German grammar lesson, and this was precisely the problem experienced by a columnist for the Sydney Herald, who sarcastically described the sport as "a game of such wonderfully abstruse character that it takes a man half his life to learn it, and its complications are so extraordinary that no two games are ever played in anything like the same way. The pleasure derived from watching the players arises from the tax on the ingenuity to divine what it all means."

Suspicion that the proceedings might not be fully appreciated for their character alone was no doubt reinforced after the fifth inning, when the game, then tied 4-4, was halted so the players might have an audience with Lord Carrington, the governor of New South Wales. After the usual round of introductions, Lord Carrington offered a brief champagne toast, telling the assembled he was happy to witness the contest not so much out of a curiosity about the American game, but to "give a proper and hardy welcome to our friends from across the sea." With that, the boys retook the field, and for the next three innings, perhaps owing to the champagne, were unable to score. The All-Americas managed to break through in the top of the ninth when James Fogarty reached on a single, stole second, stole third, and finally came home on a wild pitch by a clearly rattled John Tener. It was not to be the future Pennsylvania governor's day. In the bottom half of the inning, now down by a run and with two outs, Tener stepped to the plate with two men on base and a chance at redemption. All he could muster was a weak grounder to first base.

With the evening open and no further games on their docket until Monday, the tourists were free to explore the Sydney nightlife. Jimmy Williamson had extended an open invitation to the members of the party, and several returned for a second night of entertainment at his Royal Theater. Ward and Palmer teamed up with the oarsman Ned Hanlan and a couple of Sydney sportswriters to review a night of boxing at a local gym -- an eight-round fight of middle-weights was the featured bout. Later in the evening the men availed themselves of Sydney's wide selection of establishments devoted to the arts of drinking and merriment. Of these, none was more spectacular than the Marble Bar at the Adams Hotel, a showpiece of material excess that had opened in 1873 and was named for the seven types of marble -- not to mention the gilt, tile, bronze, mirrors, and decorative stucco -- that covered its every surface. The players, however, seemed focused on interior decoration of a slightly different order. "Not a few us became students of that not uninteresting colonial institution, the Australian barmaid, with which no Australian café or drinking resort is unprovided," wrote Palmer. "In most cases they are pretty, in every instance smart, and combining with these qualities an excellent knowledge of mankind and his weaknesses, they are more valuable to the Australian liquor dealer than our most expert beverage mixers." Fortunately for all, they would have Sunday to recuperate from their studies. For Cannonball Crane, whose drinking had already forced him out of the lineup in San Francisco, that would not be time enough.

Mark Lamster is a senior editor at Princeton Architectural Press, in New York. His writing on baseball, history, design, and architecture has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times. Spalding's World Tour is available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.