Baseball Fever Spreads in Australia

This article was written by Robert Obojski

This article was published in the 1979 Baseball Research Journal


Within the past 25 to 30 years, baseball has unquestionably achieved the status of being a “World Game.” It is now being played in virtually every part of the globe.

We keep hearing reports that baseball is making significant progress in a number of European countries, including Italy, Holland, Belgium, Czecho­slovakia and Spain. We all know about the great popularity of baseball in Japan and Taiwan, and whenever the diamond sport catches on overseas it almost invariably enters a nation’s bloodstream through the schools and colleges. That’s certainly been the case in Australia where the spread of “baseball fever” is becoming rampant. Baseball fever is, of course, a most benign affliction.

There are reports that baseball may have been first played in Australia as far back as 1857, but it was Albert Goodwill Spalding (1850-1915), who first really popularized the game in the land “down under.” Spalding, one of baseball’s great pioneers, believed over a century ago that the sport would sweep the globe, and maybe he’ll be eventually proved right. Baseball did not gain the quick world supremacy that Spalding envisioned because of competition from other sports, especially soccer.

Spalding, the first professional pitcher to win more than 200 games (he posted a brilliant 252-68 career record with Boston of the National Association and the Chicago White Stockings of the National League from 1871 through 1877), organized a world tour for the fall and winter of 1888-89 which saw the White Stockings and an all-star team from the National League’s seven other clubs making a long stopover in Australia. The Spalding tour also included Hawaii, Ceylon, Egypt, France, Ireland and England on its itinerary.

The White Stockings played the NL All-Stars in a dozen exhibition games before many thousands of spectators in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Ballarat in December 1888 and January 1889, and from that point base­ball began its serious development in Australia. Top crowd for a single game was recorded on January 5, 1889 when nearly 12,000 came out to see the Americans play. Adrian C. “Pop” Anson captained the White Stockings, while New York Giants’ shortstop John Montgomery Ward led the All-Stars. Joe Quinn, the only major league player born in Australia (Sydney 1864), was not on the squad.

The Australians were fascinated by baseball, and yet the game wasn’t all that strange to them since they already had a passion for playing cricket. There’s no question that the 1888-89 visit of the Americans influenced many schools and colleges throughout the island continent to insert baseball into their athletic programs.

Institutions of higher education which have fielded top baseball teams for years include the universities of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Newcastle and Townsville, as well as the University of New South Wales at Sydney, Australian National University at Canberra, Royal Military College also at Canberra, Queensland University at Brisbane, and the University of Western Australia at Perth. Actually, we don’t have space here to list the several score colleges and universities in Australia where baseball is played seriously on the varsity level.

It should be noted that many Australian schoolboys originally took up baseball as a means of improving their skills for playing cricket, or as a means of whiling away a sunny afternoon. Once they really became totally involved, however, baseball became their consuming athletic interest.

The West Australian Baseball League

The average American might find it difficult to comprehend at first the way baseball is structured in Australia — and in this regard we’ll briefly outline the modus operandi of the West Australia Baseball League. The WABL is one of the five members of the Australian Baseball Federation. The other four members are: the New South Wales Baseball League, Queens­land Baseball Association, Victorian Baseball Association, and the South Australian Baseball League.

The WABL’s history goes back for more than three decades and in recent years the circuit has consisted of nine teams. One of the newer teams in the WABL is the University of Western Australia’s “University Baseball Club” formed in 1968.
Virtually all players on the nine teams came up through the scholastic and collegiate ranks, though all don’t have college sponsorship. In the case of the University Baseball Club, generally referred to as “Perth” in the league standings, eligibility requirements were dramatically changed in 1971.

Prior to that time, all players had to be bonafide University of Western Australia students, while other teams in the league could sign almost any player. Consequently, Perth didn’t fare too well at first because its teams were frequently overmatched.
With the beginning of the 1971 season, the WABL gave Perth per­mission to play three non-student “coaches,” and three graduates from other Australian or overseas universities. Perth then went ahead and signed some top playing “coaches,” as well as graduates with impressive diamond credentials, and for the past seven or eight years has been a power in the league. In 1975, Perth won its first league championship and proudly accepted its pennant trophy.

For all intents and purposes, teams in the WABL, as well as many in the rest of the Australian Baseball Federation, are very close to being semi­professional, especially those outfits that have playing “coaches.” In fact, Jim Strickland, who played with the Twins and Indians in the American League, is now an outfielder-pitcher with one of the teams in the WABL.

Most Australians maintain, however, that their brand of baseball is basically amateur in character. To make the situation even more inter­esting, Perth can still play against other colleges in the “Australian Intervarsity Competitions.” In these games, however, Perth is allowed to field only those players who are duly enrolled as undergraduate students. Few teams in WABL history have been privileged to compete at these two levels simultaneously.

In strict collegiate competition, the University of Western Australia travels all over the island continent to play its games — and, in turn, uni­versity nines from far-off Sydney, Brisbane, Newcastle, Canberra and Melbourne enjoy traveling to Perth because UWA’s McGillvray field is regarded as one of the very best baseball facilities in the Commonwealth. Remember that Australia is almost as big as the United States without Alaska — so east-west trips from Sydney to Perth cover nearly 2,500 miles. The long trips are made by air, and proceeds from admission tickets to games are used to help pay those expenses. 

The WABL is rather intricately structured as each of the nine “major” teams (or “A Grade” teams, as they are officially called in Australia) has two or three junior clubs affiliated with it. Perth, for example, has an “A Reserve Grade” club composed mostly of University of Western Australia lower classmen, and a “B Reserve Grade” team composed of scholastic players in the Perth area. 

Freemantle, a city of some 30,000 lying just south of Perth and a long­standing member of the WABL, also maintains reserve teams of younger players.

Members of the WABL periodically take on teams from other leagues in the Australian Federation, including the Auburn Orioles of the Victorian Baseball Association. The Orioles rank as one of the top teams in the eastern part of the country and they’ve frequently traveled to Japan where they’ve done well against top collegiate and semi-professional teams in Nippon. On several occasions the Orioles have hosted those same teams from Japan.

The Australians also form all kinds of “A Grade” all-star teams, and these squads frequently tour Japan as well as Korea. 

What the Future Holds for Baseball in Australia

No “A Grade” team in Australia is yet anywhere near capable of taking on a top professional team in Japan, like the Tokyo Giants, for example-to say nothing of meeting any U.S. professional club at the Class A minor league level on a competitive basis, but their game is improving all the time. The Australians show a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for baseball — no doubt about that. The people in the land “down under” play the game for fun, and, basically, that’s what baseball is all about. The game just hasn’t been commercialized. Even girls are becoming interested in the diamond sport and the young ladies are in the process of organizing amateur teams all across the country.

Sports like tennis and cricket have long been preeminent in Australia, but now they’re being seriously challenged for front rank by baseball.

The Australians are seeking closer baseball relations with the United States. For example, Charlie Lau, one of the premier batting coaches in the major leagues (he’s now the New York Yankees hitting instructor, after having spent nine years in a similar position with the Kansas City Royals), was invited by the Australian Baseball Federation to make a six-week lecture tour of the country at the end of 1978. He appeared before Australian Federation teams and their fans in such cities as Sydney, Brisbane, Mount Isa, Alice Springs, Darwin, Perth, Adelaide, Hobart and Melbourne. His talks and demonstrations on scientific hitting at Oriole Stadium in Auburn were especially well received and widely reported in both the Australian general and sporting press.

Lau was impressed with the Aussies dedication to the game, but said after his return to the States that few of their hitters possessed real power and that they needed more coaching in the technique of throwing.

An Australian All-Star high school baseball team made an extended exhibition tour of Florida from mid-February to mid-March 1978. The Australian youngsters, 18 and under, were accompanied by a coterie of coaches who were eager to exchange notes with their American counter” parts.

The Australians played some 20 games against several Florida high schools and ‘against an all-star aggregation of top Florida preppers. The  Australians were reciprocating a trip made to the land “down under” by a team of Florida high school all-stars at the end of 1976.

Among the U.S. major league teams, the Cincinnati Reds in particular have been watching the Australian baseball scene with keen interest. The Reds, in fact, are interested enough to be thinking seriously of signing some of the most promising of the Australian amateurs.

A group of talented Australian players was invited to work out and gain instruction at the Reds spring training camp at Tampa, Florida, in 1978. Bob Howsam, Vice-Chairman of the Reds’ Board of Directors, who handled arrangements for the 1978 visit, made these comments, among others, in the Australian Baseball Federation’s Bulletin for 1979:

“It is a source of pride that our scout, Edwin Howsam, has visited Australia the last two years and has seen, first hand, the organization and effort being made to provide an outstanding program for baseball players in your country.

“Baseball in Australia has made great strides in recent years, through hard work and dedication in establishing efficient programs. We hope we were able in some way to contribute to the further development of this great sport in your country.”

Albert Goodwill Spalding would have been very happy to know that Americans and Australians continue to maintain close and friendly relation­ships in baseball endeavors.

 

* Assisted by Tom Rees, a SABR member in New South Wales

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