A Classic Baseball Road Trip around the World; How a Nation's Pastime Became a Game for a Globe

Article excerpt

Byline: Thom Loverro, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The passenger on the flight from Rome to Palermo eyed him for a while and finally said, "Miguel Piazza with the Mets, no?"

Mike Piazza, indeed a star of the New York Mets at the time, was used to being recognized in the United States. But he was surprised to be noticed in Italy, a country where baseball remains a novelty at best.

The inaugural World Baseball Classic, a 16-team international competition that includes major league players, is an effort to change that and to take the game beyond the status of curiosity that it still holds in most countries. But it is hardly the first effort.

The export of America's pastime around the globe in the past 150 years has been, for the most part, as accidental as the chance encounter at an Italian airport, the result of happenstance and haphazard ventures - students studying abroad, traveling baseball circus acts, missionaries doing good works, refugees fleeing civil war, U.S. troops stationed around the globe.

"There have been various stages where baseball has been exported," said Bert Sugar, a baseball historian and the author of "The Baseball Maniac's Almanac." "It took root in some places, but not in others."

One place where it did early was Australia, where American merchant Samuel Perkins Lord arrived in 1853. The first game on record, between Collingwood and Richmond, was played four years later.

The game they played - apparently some sort of combination of baseball and cricket - wouldn't be recognized by Piazza. Final score in the three-inning affair: Collingwood 350, Richmond 230.

By the time of the country's first Intercolonial series in 1889, many teams had formed and scores had descended from the earlier, head-spinning heights: South Australia won the final game of the series 27-18.

It was money that brought baseball to another part of the world a few years later.

Gold was discovered in South Africa in the late 1800s, touching off a rush that drew thousands of workers from abroad - a contingent of Americans among them - and turned the small settlement of Johannesburg into the largest city in the country.

The common belief - the early history of the sport often is murky - is that American miners working in the Crown Mine and City Deep shafts in the Witwatersrand gold fields and outside of Johannesburg, played baseball in their leisure time. The locals eventually joined in, and the game caught on.

Coming home

In Cuba, a young man named Nemesio Guillot left his homeland around 1860 to attend Spring Hill College, a small Jesuit school in Mobile, Ala. There Guillot observed his fellow students playing a new game with a bat and ball and took an interest.

Guillot brought equipment back to Cuba in 1864 and introduced his friends to the game. Guillot's brother, Ernesto, and another Cuban also went to Spring Hill and played the game there.

When Ernesto Guillot returned home, the brothers formed a team in 1868 called the Habana Baseball Club. One of the games they played is thought to have been against a crew of American sailors anchored at the Matanzas harbor, a game won by Habana.

The first organized game in Cuba, however, didn't occur until Dec. 27, 1874, at Palmar de Junco. Habana played a team from Matanzas in a game that was called after seven innings because of darkness with Habana leading 51-9.

Cubans later helped spread the game through the region. Refugees from a civil war on the island fled to the Dominican Republic to work in the sugar cane industry and took the game with them. Cubans also spread it to Puerto Rico.

Telling tales

The best tale of origin lore, though, belongs to Mexico.

America entered into a war with Mexico over California and other western territories in 1846. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the Mexican general who had attacked the Alamo 10 years earlier and subsequently was defeated by Sam Houston, was president of the country. …