Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Baseball
This article was published in the Spring 2012 Baseball Research Journal.
This article will trace the interest of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930), the creator of Sherlock Holmes, in baseball as a sometime-participant, an avid fan, and a zealous promoter of the game in Britain. Doyle’s analysis of its qualities and strategies as compared to cricket provides insights into the way baseball was perceived and promoted by a distinguished English man of letters who from his personal experience appreciated the skills needed to excel in the game.
Doyle’s interest in baseball flowed from his lifelong participation in many sports. In his autobiography Memories and Adventures, he describes himself as an “all-rounder” athlete who pursued many sports throughout his life but never became particularly good at any of them, although he was still able to play football at the age of 44 and cricket at 55.1 Doyle defines sports as the organized physical activities that “a man does” which have a beneficial effect through the promotion of fitness and community:
It [sport] gives health and strength but above all it gives a certain balance of mind without which a man is not complete. To give and to take, to accept success modestly and defeat bravely, to fight against odds, to stick to one’s point, to give credit to your enemy and value your friend─ these are some of the lessons which true sport should impart.2
Through sporting competition individuals build their character and in turn benefit the nation through their physical and mental acuity.3
In his description of his participation in cricket, “a game which has . . . given me more pleasure . . . than any . . . sport,” Doyle reveals an awareness of bowling (pitching) strategy that is closely related to his subsequent enjoyment and appreciation of baseball as a “true” sport which promotes physical, mental, and character strength.4 He explains his success as a “fairly steady and reliable” right-handed bowler able to baffle batters with his delivery, including W. G. Grace, the greatest of all cricketers. Grace, however, gained a measure of revenge by pitching in his “subtle and treacherous” slow way and causing Doyle to feel futile after he failed to time it.5 Doyle also describes his successful pitching strategy against a Dutch team in The Hague in 1892, when, after observing that his opponents were orthodox in playing “with a most straight bat,” he delivered “good length balls about a foot on the off side.”6 After he won the match, he was carried off on the shoulders of his jubilant team members.
He was introduced to major league baseball on the second of his four trips to North America, which occurred between 1894 and 1924. In 1914, he was invited by the Canadian government to inspect the National Reserve at Jasper Park in the northern Rockies. The first stop on this trip was a week at the Plaza Hotel in New York. On Saturday May 30, he and his wife attended the afternoon game of a twinbill between the Yankees and the Philadelphia Athletics at the Polo Grounds, which the Yanks won, 10–5, after losing the morning game, 8–0. The New York Times reported that the “afternoon game was one of those wild, reckless affairs that keep the crowd good-natured and give the official scorer a brainstorm.” There were 18 hits, 27 men left on base, and 23 walks in the “grand old swatfest.”7
Doyle considered this game a “first-class match, as we should say─ or ‘some game,’ as a native expert described it.”8 He viewed the activities from the perspective “of an experienced though decrepit cricketer.” The ballplayers appeared fitter than cricketers because they train all the time and practice abstinence, which produces mental acuity. The “catching” was “extraordinarily good, especially the judging of the long catches near the ‘bleachers,’ as the outfields which are far from any shade are called.” The pitchers throw the ball harder than they do in cricket and earn the highest salary of £1000 to £1500 because they have “mastered the hardest part of the game.”9 He laments that money determines the best team─ “the largest purse has the best team” and that there is no actual geographical connection between the players and their teams. He prefers games “between local teams or colleges [which] seem to me to be more exciting” as there are stronger affiliations between the players and their teams.10
After the week in New York, the Doyles proceeded on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway across the breadth of Canada, and on June 14 they attended a baseball game between Jasper and Edson at the diamond in Jasper Park, which he extolled “as one of the great national playgrounds and health resorts.”11 Doyle was asked to open the game by taking a swing at the plate. He was nervous, but he steadied himself by imagining he was batting in a cricket game: “[T]he pitcher, fortunately, was merciful, and the ball came swift but true. . . . Fortunately, I got it fairly in the middle and it went on its appointed way, whizzing past the ear of a photographer, who expected me to pat it.”12
On his fourth North American tour in 1923, Doyle crossed Canada again, this time from west to east. The trip started in New York in April, ended in Montreal in July, and included more than thirty cities. He, his wife, and three children arrived in Winnipeg on Sunday July 1, and on his second day there, the family attended “the international baseball match” at Wesley Park between the Winnipeg Arenas and the Minneapolis All-Stars, who won the game 13–6. Doyle praised the fielding and throwing abilities of the players as “far superior to that of good English cricket teams.”13
After the game, he admitted that “I have all the prejudices of an old cricketer, and yet I cannot get away from the fact that baseball is the better game,” because “it has many points which make it the ideal game both for players and spectators.” However, he expressed the hope that if the game became popular in England, it would be played “in a clean, straight way” rather than with the “dirty tricks” practiced in America, which “have been condoned far too easily by public opinion,” but thankfully are being purged.14
His summary of the tricks, as described in Christy Mathewson’s book of reminiscences, sounds thoroughly contemporary. In a parallel to recent revelations about the New York Giants rigging a sign detection system at the Polo Grounds in 1951, a visiting team “discovered a hidden wire under the turf on the home team’s field, by which messages and signals were conveyed to the coacher and the manager,” who laughed when he was caught.15 In addition, soap was mixed with the dirt around the mound to help the pitcher throw wet ones. Such illegal tactics led to increased crowd unruliness, which sometimes resulted in the fans throwing bottles at the players. But, fortunately, the game is moving beyond the tricks because of “the players being drawn from a higher class, many college-bred men being attracted by the high pay.”16
Doyle’s views on the possibility of baseball becoming popular in England are summarized in two articles in The New York Times in the early 1920s. In the first one, dated June 19, 1922, which appeared during his tour of the U.S. to promote his work on spiritualism, Doyle declares that England needs baseball and that he and his two sons, Denis and Malcolm, intend to introduce the game to benefit English youth. He recommends promoting baseball on English university campuses by teaching students the game and “‘organizing several teams in each college and arranging matches between the best of the teams,’” and by publishing the rules in British newspapers to educate the public. He calls baseball a noble sport played by young men, which should prove popular in England but would not replace cricket, an old man’s sport. He concludes by declaring that he is proud that he was able to play shortstop at the advanced age of fifty-two in an impromptu game against an American team in Switzerland, which his team won.17
The second New York Times article appeared on October 28, 1924, with the headline “Baseball Gains Conan Doyle as a Champion in England.” He notes that the game’s tradition of “‘continual ragging,’” or the fans’ cheering and booing, would not suit the English temperament, but he claims that this is not an essential part of the game: “What is essential . . . is that here is a splendid game which calls for fine eye activity, bodily fitness and judgment in the highest degree.” The game would be easily adopted by any village club, which could construct a field that needs no special leveling; it would take only 2–3 hrs to play, and the players, unlike in cricket, would be on their toes and “not be sitting on a pavilion bench while another man makes his century.” As a summer game “‘it would sweep this country as it has done America . . . [and] would not more interfere with cricket than lawn tennis has done.”18
Doyle’s optimism concerning the popularity of baseball in England proved unfounded. Although the game was introduced to the United Kingdom in 1890 and continues to be played today under a four-league organization in a season that lasts from April to August, baseball has never achieved the national import in Britain that Doyle had envisaged.19
FRANK ARDOLINO is a professor of English at the University of Hawaii where he teaches courses in Shakespeare and modern drama. He has published articles on sports films and literature, Hawaiian baseball history, and the Brooklyn Dodgers, especially Jackie Robinson.
- 1. Arthur Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures (Boston: Little, Brown, 1924), 262.
- 2. Memories and Adventures, 285–86.
- 3. Diana Barsham, Arthur Conan Doyle and the Meaning of Masculinity (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2000), 5, 84,105.
- 4. Memories and Adventures, 273.
- 5. Memories and Adventures, 274-75.
- 6. Memories and Adventures, 277.
- 7. Yankees Turn and Smite Athletics, The New York Times, May 31, 1914, sec. 4, 5.
- 8. Memories and Adventures, 287.
- 9. Memories and Adventures, 287, 288.
- 10. Memories and Adventures, 288.
- 11. Memories and Adventures, 298.
- 12. Memories and Adventures, 288.
- 13. Arthur Conan Doyle, Our Second American Adventure (Boston: Little, Brown, 1924), 224. See also Michael W. Homer, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventures in Winnipeg, 2. www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/25/doyleinwinnipeg. shtml, October 25, 2010.
- 14. Second American Adventure, 224, 225.
- 15. Second American Adventure, 225.
- 16. Second American Adventure, 225–26.
- 17. Doyle Says England Needs Baseball: Sir Arthur Going to Introduce the Game Abroad to Benefit Youth, The New York Times, June 19, 1922, 11.
- 18. Baseball Gains Conan Doyle as a Champion in England, The New York Times, October 28, 1924, 19.
- 19. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baseball_in_the_United_Kingdom.