A History of South African Baseball

Article excerpt

For most casual baseball fans, the sight of a South African team at the 2006 World Baseball Classic must have been befuddling. But after the team--made up almost exclusively of amateur players--took an 8-7 lead into the ninth inning against the established baseball nation of Canada, any onlooker should have clearly recognized that the sport did not emerge overnight in the African nation.

In fact, South Africa has a long history of baseball. The game was first played on its shores in 1895 when a group of Americans, who had migrated to South Africa during the gold boom just before the Boer War, settled in the Transvaal Province. The Americans were true missionaries for the sport, bringing equipment, creating a baseball diamond, and setting up games. Thanks to their persistence and local interest in baseball, an official league was set up in 1899, and, in September 1904, Transvaal's first official provincial baseball body was formed.

In the league's inaugural season, the circuit was dominated by hitters. The Washington Post reported on December 25, 1904, that "the players of the different teams can hit the ball, even if they have not yet attained the accuracy and agility in fielding that their American cousins have reached." Of the thirty-seven players who were listed in the 1899 official records, twenty-three hit over .300, and the top batter registered a .535 batting average.

Four years later, the game was still developing, and some South Africans were even boasting about the quality of their facilities. In a letter to former New York Yankees president Joe Gordon, L. A. Servatius, who was involved with the sport in the city of Johannesburg, crowed that the fields they were playing on were as "fast and level as a billiard table." Still, the sport at that point was experiencing growing pains. According to an article in the April 19, 1908, edition of the Washington Post, the South African League had just four teams, and they had to pay for the use of their fine fields at a location (Wanderers Athletic Association) where top teams from other sports were allowed to play for free.

Nevertheless, Servatius was sanguine about the sport's future, which at the time featured games drawing from one hundred to seven hundred spectators. "The growing Africaner is taking to the game, and there is a possibility of a school league being formed in addition to our little organization," he wrote to Gordon. (1)

By 1930 the sport had spread, thanks to a provincial player from Transvaal who moved to the Natal Province and brought baseball with him. A year later, on July 5, Natal and Transvaal played their first interprovincial contest in Durban. Along with the birth of baseball in Natal, the sport also spread to the Western Province at the start of the 1930s, again because of players from Transvaal. During this period, baseball was enjoying sustained growth in Transvaal, as junior membership exceeded one hundred for the first time in 1932.

Baseball continued to migrate during this era with games being played in the Cape and in the Eastern Province, where an association was formed in Port Elizabeth in 1934. Baseball entered a quiet period between 1940 and 1946 because of World War II. But the game survived in Transvaal, and unofficial leagues were contested elsewhere by servicemen on leave.

Following the war, provincial play returned, and the popularity of the game was such that baseball in Transvaal was split as a new Northern Transvaal association was founded. In 1951 an Eastern Transvaal association was also created. With the growth of the game in the 1950s, the first large National Tournament was held in 1952 in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

South Africa stepped onto the international stage in 1955 when an American team of "All Stars" toured SA. The U.S. players were not superstars but a solid combination of amateur and college players. Coached by Terry Bartron, a high school skipper from Rosemead, California, and managed by Ray Hanson, the director of athletics at Western Illinois State College in Macomb, Illinois, the squad was selected by the United States Amateur Baseball Federation, based on nominations from the federation's affiliates throughout the United States. …