MLB London Series | Is baseball coming home?

This weekend, the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies will face off in the latest iteration of Major League Baseball’s London Series. Despite being the quintessential American pastime, baseball’s roots actually date back to England and early bat and ball games such as rounders and cricket. 

Forget the football, is baseball coming home?

MLB London baseball series baseball coming home
Marcus Stroman of the Chicago Cubs pitches during the MLB London Series match between the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs at London Stadium on June 25, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

The first ever reference to baseball dates back to 1744, when the term appeared in a children’s book called A Little Pretty Pocket Book. It was the title of a rhyme, though the game in question appears to be closer to rounders or the old English sport of stoolball. 

According to the American baseball historian David Block, the first recorded game took place five years later. Block discovered the reference in the Whitehall Evening Post, with an article dated to September 19, 1749. It featured some prominent names within British society, with the then Prince of Wales and the Earl of Middlesex both featuring. 

MLB London baseball series baseball coming home
Two boys playing the old English game of knurr and spell (also called trap ball, northern spell or nipsy), circa 1450. The game originated in Yorkshire around the beginning of the 14th century and involved using a wooden trap to throw a small ball, or knurr, into the air and hitting it with a stick, or spell. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The game took place in the county of Surrey, in what is now Ashley Park, Walton on Thames. The Whitehall Evening Post’s coverage of the event reads: “On Tuesday last, his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and Lord Middlesex, played at Bass-Ball, at Walton in Surry; notwithstanding the weather was extreme bad, they continued playing several hours.”

This reference predates the previous earliest mention of a specific game by six years, which appeared in William Bray’s diary and referenced a game played in Guildford in 1755.

MLB London baseball series baseball coming home babe ruth
Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees signs autographs for two boys on the roof of The Savoy Hotel during his visit to London in 1935. Credit: Allsport Hulton/Archive.
MLB London baseball series baseball coming home
A baseball match at the Queen’s Club in Kensington, London, in 1916. (Photo by W. G. Phillips/Phillips/Getty Images)

It is worth noting that the English baseball at this time was a vastly different game to modern, American baseball. The sport played in the 18th and 19th centuries used a much softer ball, and there was no bat involved. Instead, the ‘batter’ used the palm of their hand to strike the ball, according to Block

There were, however, bat and ball games being played in England before then. Cricket can be traced back to the late 1500s, while the game of knurr and spell can be found even further back and comes from Yorkshire. The aforementioned rounders and stoolball also date back to before the word ‘baseball’ was found on record. 

MLB London baseball series baseball coming home
Circa 1870: A demonstration of baseball at the Oval in Kennington, London, before the Prince of Wales. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Though baseball certainly came from these early English games, there was still a bit of refining needed once it crossed the Atlantic. It happened in the early-to-mid 19th century, with early teams including the Rochester Baseball Club in New York who are believed to have had around 50 members in the 1820s.

But early American adopters of this new, and at the time still-evolving sport, were keen to differentiate their game from the English counterparts. This was particularly evident with the establishment of the Mills Commission, launched to determine the origins of the sport – with a definite American slant. The commission ruled that a man named Abner Doubleday, a deceased Civil War hero, had invented baseball in 1839. It even credited Doubleday with coining the word baseball itself. The commission’s finding is now widely debunked by historians. You can learn more about the Mills Commission and the Doubleday myth in the video below, as well as the patriotic rise of baseball in the United States.

What we do know for certain is that in 1869 America had its first professional baseball team, and that two years later the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was founded. 

Read More: Why is baseball so big in Japan?

Since then, Major League teams have toured the United Kingdom on various occasions. Early tours took place in 1874, 1888-89 and 1912-13. In July 1918, there was a famous game between the US Army and US Navy at Stamford Bridge. They took a break from the ongoing First World War, and it attracted some serious fanfare. Among the crowd was King George V and a certain future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. 

MLB London baseball series baseball coming home
Baseball match at Stamford Bridge, London. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

So while the sport definitely has roots in the bat and ball games played in England (and across other parts of the globe) for centuries before the start of professional baseball, it wasn’t until it crossed the pond that modern baseball was invented.

There are all sorts of baseball-related Great Big Stories. Check out five more in the video below.

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