The UK League Needs US Help
Although the Brits claim to have invented baseball, they are still in need of further US assistance if they’re to bring the leagues up to US standards. With just 35 clubs and 51 league teams in a population of 65 million people, few towns have a representative team.
Jane Austen and Baseball
Jane Austen mentions baseball in her novel Northanger Abbey, written around 1798-99, some 43 years after the English first started playing the sport. The game came back to England – Derby to be precise – in 1890, after Francis Ley discovered the game in the US. This led to the first baseball club in the town and although survived for just eight years, the stadium was called the Baseball Ground which became home of the local soccer (football in the UK) team, Derby County FC who remained there until 1997.
Local pressure, which didn’t agree with the number of Americans in the Derby team, forced them out of the first league after just one season. Now teams are calling out for more American experience to bring the quality of the games and therefore the numbers of spectators up to acceptable levels.
The peak of interest in baseball in the UK was in the years just before the Second World War. Professional standards were attained and as many as 10,000 people attended matches. The year before the war the Brits managed to beat the US to win the first World Cup of baseball – so what happened after that? Well, the British are still playing baseball, but not to US standard.
The British Baseball Federation
The British Baseball Federation (BBF) governs the game in the UK. All teams have to be members of the BBF to be able to compete in the national league and the three AAA, AA and A tier leagues below. A full program of young and junior leagues hopes to bring players to the forefront in years to come.
The national league consists of just ten teams. The AAA league has 4 teams in the north and 6 in the south. The AA is set into three zones; 5 north, 5 midlands and 13 south. The A league has all 8 teams in the south.
The national league, AAA and AA compete in a four team finals tournament at the end of the season. The top 2 from the Southern Conference and the top two from the Northern Conference play knock out matches with the tournament winner going through to the Championship series. The championship series of the National league is a best of 3, while the AAA and AA matches are just single games.
The Dominant Teams
Four teams have dominated over recent years. The Richmond Flamers, London Mets, Croydon Pirates and Bracknell Blazers give the league a very southern, almost London only feeling. If the game is going to expand you will need to see teams from major towns competing in the highest leagues.
Another International Team Due For 2012
The British national baseball team is currently ranked 23rd in the world. Players consist almost entirely of British born players who have lived most of their lives in either Canada or the US, with two South African born members. There are 40 teams on the list so there are plenty below, although it must be galling for the British team to see many smaller nations ahead of them in the rankings.
The national team set up will be expanded in 2012 with the introduction of an under 23 team. This will hopefully allow players to play in international matches helping the individuals’ progress through to the full national team.
The national junior team is at a major dilemma stage. Six of the team will reach the maximum age of 18 this coming year and won’t be able to play for the team any more. This means they won’t be able to play internationally unless they achieve selection to the senior national team. With the introduction of the under 23 team, more players will continue to compete internationally with a more gradual feed through to the senior squad. It’s the senior team that battles with local games in the European Championship and internationally in the World Baseball classic.
If British baseball is to expand, more Americans and Canadians currently living in the UK need to get involved in the game at all levels. Only then will the experience of the few help the many who need to learn from experienced players, for the long term stability of the game.
Izzy Woods is a travel writer and sports fan. Since moving to London, she has written on behalf of numerous clients (including a cruise deals company) in between keeping up on Britain's progress in lesser-played, American sports.