In writing about cricket on this blog, I was aware that the game is mystifying to those readers who live in countries that do not play this game. Americans in general tend to be quite clueless about it. Hence it may come as a surprise that America was once one of the leading nations playing the game, with Philadelphia as its center, and had (arguably to the extent that one can rank these things) the best bowler in the history of the game. In fact, the first international cricket match took place in 1844 in the US between it and Canada.
Raf Noboa y Rivera recounts this fascinating bit of forgotten history.
The New York Weekly Gazette and Post Boy from 29 April 1751 has a report of a match played between New Yorkers and Englishmen. That match report tells us – over 250 years later – that the game was played in line with the “London method”; one supposes that this refers to the earliest written Laws of Cricket, which were first set down in London in 1744.
By the time the American Revolution began, there were already specific cricket clubs in operation – mostly in places like New York and Philadelphia, the leading cities of colonial America, though Richmond, Virginia had one as well. We also know that an American regional variant, wicket, was widely played. In his Military Journal, Ewing mentions that George Washington himself “playd a game at ‘wicket’ with a number of Gent of the Arty” while the Continental Army bivouacked at Valley Forge.
American cricket puttered along. It wasn’t until 1839, when the St George’s Cricket Club in New York City was established, that cricket in America entered a recognizable, “modern” phase. Four years later, the Union Club was established in Philadelphia. Within a decade, around 20 clubs were fielding teams; by the time of the Civil War, historical records show that cricket was played in around 20 states, in towns and cities as divergent as Baltimore, Savannah, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and even San Francisco, all the way in the far west of America.
So what killed cricket in the US just as it seemed to be on its way to becoming a major sport?
Up until the Civil War, baseball was considered a children’s game. But as the war raged, and armies demanded recreation, baseball neatly fit the bill. In contrast to cricket, which demanded carefully maintained fields and where matches could last for days, baseball could be played in a simple clearing, and quickly, at that. It quickly shed its reputation as a children’s game, and cricketers quickly picked up the sport while serving in combat.
That continued after the war. Baseball showed no compunction in paying its players, or in encouraging its mass appeal. Cricket club after cricket club crossed over to baseball, leaving cricket behind. It wasn’t just the clubs, either. Cricket players and club administrators abandoned the sport for baseball. The first recognized professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, were instrumental in this. They recruited Harry Wright, a skilled young bowler from St George’s Club to both manage and play for them.
The growth in popularity of baseball, coupled with the US cricket establishment’s determination to keep it as an amateur sport and the insular views of the British imperialists, spelled the doom of the game here.
That amateur insularity artificially capped interest in the sport, even in Philadelphia, where its decline was scarcely imaginable. Amateur cricket clubs were never just limited to cricket; they often featured sports like tennis and golf, and as they evolved into what we now recognize as country clubs, they left cricket behind. As they did so, the number of matches began to drop drastically, and with it, cricket-specific clubs began disbanding.
An even more telling blow was the creation of the Imperial Cricket Conference in 1909 as the governing body for world cricket. That organization – because it was meant for cricketing nations within the British Empire – left the United States frozen out of world cricket, while countries like Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa could continue playing.
A lot of this history was new to me and I found it fascinating. As the US population of immigrants from cricket-playing nations grows, who knows, the game might see a late resurgence here.