As a baseball fanatic, I’ve been surprised to find that even those involved in baseball around Melbourne are often unaware of the long history of “America’s pastime” in this part of the world. Legend has it that Californian miners first played baseball on the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s, but there’s nothing documented. Over the next 30 years, small groups of American ex-pats played one-off games, occasionally involving locals. But 1888 – the centenary of landing of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove and the proclamation of the colony – was the real year zero for baseball in Australia. That year, Chicago sporting goods mogul and entrepreneur Albert Goodwill Spalding, a retired baseball player and owner of the Chicago White Stockings, put his team and an All-American team drawn from several clubs on a ship in San Francisco. Heading west, Spalding, the players and sundry support personnel and a kind of travelling circus embarked on a circumnavigation of the globe to promote baseball… and Spalding’s own business interests in the process. After stops in Hawaii and Auckland, the ship arrived in Sydney in December 1888. Attendances and interest in Sydney were disappointing. But, after a horrible overnight train trip in primitive rolling stock courtesy of the New South Wales railways, they arrived at Spencer Street Station to be met by 500 flag-waving fans. Spalding’s knack with advance publicity had served him well, and Melbourne’s love of sporting events seems to have been well established even then. The teams and their entourage paraded up Collins Street to the Town Hall, where there were 3000 well-wishers, including Lord Mayor Benjamin Benjamin. The Town Hall organist serenaded them on his giant 10,000 pipe instrument! They stayed at the Grand Coffee Palace in Spring Street – what we know today as the Windsor Hotel. There’s a bit of a hint there in the name – the Temperance movement had seen a number of hotels re-named as coffee palaces on the basis that (gasp) they no longer served alcohol! Booze and baseballers go together like Abbott and Costello, so this was seen as something of a drawback, but it’s not like they couldn’t get a drink in “Marvellous Melbourne” in the Roaring ‘80s. The players got out and about around town, visited the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition then being held at the Exhibition Buildings, and pronounced Melbourne very similar to Chicago with “fine wide streets… and a dash which makes a Yankee feel quite at home”. Their first exhibition game at the MCG drew a crowd of 10,000 who saw Chicago win 5-3. The All-Americans were no bunnies – the team included three future Hall of Famers. The local press admired their athleticism and the quick pace of the game compared to cricket – over and done with in 2 hours! The Argus declared that cricket, “if not still on the wane, is at any rate at a standstill” and that baseball was “well adapted to our climate and the disposition of our youth”. Even the secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club was very positive about the future of baseball. The tourists played a second game in front of 6000 on Christmas Eve (the All-Americans won) and introduced Melbourne to their main travelling support act. “Professor Bartholomew” ascended from the MCG turf in a hot air balloon, performed acrobatic stunts and then leaped back to earth using a parachute, the first time such a thing had been seen in the Colony. After a side trip by train to Adelaide for further exhibition games (the Victorian Railways carriages were praised this time), the show returned to Melbourne via Ballarat, where Professor Bartholomew was badly injured when his parachute malfunctioned and he drifted into an iron roof. Back in Melbourne for the New Year, they played two more games, the last of which on 5 January also featured a short game against a local team of American ex-pats. When AG Spalding and his crew sailed on to Ceylon, and eventually Egypt and Europe, the entrepreneur left behind his young assistant, Harry Simpson, to set about getting baseball organized in Australia. Almost immediately afterwards, with the help of some local Americans, including prominent theatre entrepreneur J.C. Williamson, Simpson started organised baseball instruction and games in Melbourne. On 18 January 1889, the “Thespians”, captained by J.C. Williamson himself, defeated Albert Park 26-15.
During 1889 and 1890, largely at Simpson’s own personal cost, he travelled widely and assisted in the establishment of the first local teams in Melbourne including: the Melbourne Cricket Club baseball section, Fitzroy, Richmond, a team representing The Age, St Kilda, Malvern, Carlton, South Melbourne and East Melbourne. While baseball may not have taken off in Australia the way Australian Rules football did, it does perhaps have a claim to being “Australia’s pastime”, given that some of Melbourne’s baseball clubs still playing today are older than some AFL clubs.