By Scott A. Rowan
Author Thomas Wolfe taught readers that “You Can’t Go Home Again” in his 1940 novel, but Major League Baseball officials and their Australian contemporaries clearly disagree.
Many baseball fans woke up Saturday morning to learn that the Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks 3-1 in MLB’s Opening Day game at Sydney Cricket Ground in New South Wales, Australia. Approximately 40,000 fans watched the first Opening Day game played Down Under. Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw defended his seven-year, $215-million contract he signed in the offseason by scattering five hits and one run over 6 ⅔ innings pitched.
Chicago baseball fans may feel like a Dodgers victory Down Under is a story that feels like it’s 10,000 miles away from their concerns, but Saturday’s event was made possible by the Cubs. The Loop is roughly 9,400 miles from Sydney, but the truth is that without Chicago, baseball in Australia may never have happened.
Former Chicago Cubs owner, executive and player A.G. Spalding pioneered baseball in many ways, including the first (and second) global expansion of the game. In the 1880s the Cubs (then called the White Stockings) were baseball’s best organization, finishing first five times in seven seasons. Spalding, who began his pitching career in Boston before joining the White Stockings/Cubs. After five seasons pitching for Boston (1871-75), Spalding became the manager and ace pitcher for Chicago. The 6-foot-1 player/manager went 47-12 from the mound, leading Chicago to a first-place finish.
It was the last season that Spalding would ever take the mound. He played one more season, manning first base. The right-handed hurler’s move to first wasn’t because of degraded skills. In fact, it was became of his expansion of skill sets that Spalding made the move, a move that eventually helped lead to Australia’s 2004 silver medal in the Athens Olympics and Saturday’s Opening Day game.
One main reason Spalding went from Boston to Chicago was he thought the Windy City was the perfect location to open the sports manufacturing company he envisioned. The year 1876 was a monumental year for sports: not only did Spalding lead Chicago to first place, but the A.G. Spalding & Brothers sporting goods store opened with great success. Business was so successful, in fact, that Spalding didn’t feel he had the energy to pitch a full season for the White Stockings. Instead, he manned first base, where he wore a new glove fans hadn’t seen before, a first baseman’s mitt, that was exclusively sold at Spalding’s stores. The White Stockings finished fifth in the six-team National League that season, Spalding’s last as a player.
He immediately joined the front office for the White Stocking, eventually owning the team. While he was leading the Chicago baseball club as an executive, Spalding was changing sports, mass producing sporting goods for baseball teams everywhere and quickly expanding into football, volleyball, basketball and golf.
By 1888, Spalding was president of the first-place Chicago White Stockings and owner of the largest sporting goods company in existence. He held unique influence over nearly everyone and everything in the game. A self-appointed defender of the game, Spalding was eager to expand baseball to the far corners of the global map. The expansion, of course, would also open up new markets for the sporting goods that he became immensely wealthy selling.
Years earlier while pitching in Boston, Spalding was part of an 1874 barnstorming tour of England that failed to expand the game to the United Kingdom. Fans didn’t take to the game. But fifteen years later Spalding was willing to bet that other fans around the world would take to the game.
In 1888, Spalding picked an All-Star team of players from the NL to play against a select roster of his White Stockings, who finished second that season. Billed as Spalding’s Australian All-Star Tour, the group left San Francisco on November 11, 1888. But there was a surprise in store for the players that Spalding waited until the last moment to share with the players.
“Only on board the steamship Alameda did Spalding reveal to his passengers that he intended to head west from Australia, transforming the trip into a World Tour with stops in Asia, Africa, and Europe,” explained John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, in his Our Game blog.
On December 15, 1888, Spalding’s players played the first game in Sydney in front of 5,500 fans. Over the next two weeks, the group played 11 more exhibition games in towns across Australia. On the route sailing home, Spalding had his tour stop in Sri Lanka, Egypt, Italy and France to showcase the sport to would-be fans (and hoped-for consumers).
One of Spalding’s baseball assistants, Harry Simpson, remained in Australia while his colleagues continued the world tour, according to Thorn. Simpson immediately helped establish more than a dozen baseball clubs in Australia and New Zealand before he died in 1891. The Baseball Australia Hall of Fame made Simpson a member of its inaugural inductee class of 2005.
Following up on Spalding’s successful tour and Simpson’s grassroots work, the American League’s Chicago White Sox (not the NL’s White Stockings), played a series of games Down Under, including a game on January 3, 1914, at the Sydney Cricket Grounds. A century later, MLB returned to the same location where Scott Van Slyke’s two-run homer in the fourth inning gave the Dodgers the first Opening Day victory for an MLB playing Down Under.
Today baseball still struggles to gain as much public attention in Australia as cricket and rugby. But 28 Aussies have played in the MLB and at the 2004 Athens Olympics the Australians took the silver medal.
While the Chicago Cubs may have been 10,000 miles away from Saturday’s action, they were part of it in a larger way thanks to Spalding, Simpson and the players who helped establish baseball in Australia.
Scott Rowan is a journalist and author of “The Cubs Quotient: How the Chicago Cubs Changed the World.” (Sherpa Multimedia, 2014)