World Baseball Classic: International Baseball History
By Pete Cava
March 2, 2006
The World Baseball Classic may seem like a revolutionary concept, like
the iPod, sudoku, or famously desperate housewives. But when competitive
baseball debuted globally, Wrigley Field wasn’t even a blueprint
and Babe Ruth was making shirt collars at St. Mary’s Industrial
School. International games stretch back further than most people realize,
including the likes of George Wright and Jim Thorpe.
In 1912, the organizers of the Stockholm Olympics wanted to include
an exhibition baseball game, so a local baseball club played against
a U.S. team consisting of recruits from the track squad. When starting
pitcher (and Olympic discus silver medalist) Richard Byrd began warming
up, the Swedish players saw their first curveball. The Swedes were “pretty
weak in this respect,” noted the official Olympic report, and
they asked to borrow a pitcher and catcher from the Americans. The Yanks
agreed, and lent their hosts catcher Wesley Oler (a Yale high jumper)
and pitcher Ben Adams (the standing long jump bronze medalist).
The umpire was 65-year-old George Wright, the shortstop for the legendary
Cincinnati Red Stockings just after the Civil War. The Americans scored
four times in the first inning, led 5-0 after two, and not surprisingly
cruised to a 13-3 win. One of the big guns for the U.S. was shortstop
Abel Kiviat, the 1500-meter silver medalist (and an all-star schoolboy
shortstop at Staten Island’s Curtis High School). “Kivvie”
went 2-for-4 with a triple, stolen base and two runs.
The game received little coverage in the United States. But The New
York Times mentioned another contest played the following day. In this
one, a squad of Eastern players scored a 6-3 win over a West team. Batting
ninth and playing right field for the East was Jim Thorpe, winner of
the decathlon one day earlier. The future major leaguer doubled in two
official at-bats, while Kiviat played short and went 2-for-3.
Lurking In Olympic Shadows
Baseball faded from Olympic view for many years, and the efforts of
former big league outfielder Les Mann to get the sport included on an
exhibition basis in the 1932 Los Angeles Games were unsuccessful. But
baseball returned to the Olympics in 1936 in, of all places, Berlin.
The game was an all-American affair, at night on a makeshift diamond
with no pitcher’s mound and bad lighting. “I think they
had one 20-watt bulb in center field,” infielder Gordon Mallatratt
later recalled. Announcers explained the game in German, English and
French during pregame practice and, according to the Associated Press,
“no two versions agreed.” But more than 100,000 spectators
witnessed the contest between the “World Champions” and
the “U.S. Olympics,” both sides mostly college players who
had paid their way to Berlin. Baseball’s novelty wore off for
the German crowd by the seventh inning, which the announcer told the
fans–to great applause–would be the final frame. The World
Champions won 6-5.
“There is reason to believe,” Joe Williams wrote in the
Times, “that Germany has been made immune to baseball.”
Baseball made a comeback at the 1952 Helsinki Games when the hosts
arranged for an exhibition contest between the national champions of
pesapallo (a Finnish bat-and-ball game) and a U.S. team. U.S. soccer
team manager Walter Giesler patched together a squad and played two
games, beating a makeshift Venezuelan team 14-4 and then the Finns 19-1.
The highlight of the Finland game came when soccer star Charlie Colombo
homered clear over the grandstand.
Organizers of the 1956 Melbourne Games asked the Americans to send
a baseball squad for clinics and an exhibition game; they cobbled together
a team of servicemen from the Far East Command and flew them to Melbourne
on military transports. The game attracted a few thousand fans for the
early innings, but as more arrived for the day’s track and field
events, an estimated 114,000 were on hand by the time the U.S. scored
an 11-5 victory, fueled by a third-inning grand slam by tech sergeant
Tokyo, a baseball hotbed, hosted the 1964 Games. Japanese organizers
invited an American squad for a demonstration game with Japanese collegians,
and for the first time, the United States sent a true baseball squad
to the Olympics.
Emerging International Game
Venerable Southern California coach Rod Dedeaux assembled a roster
that included eight future major leaguers, including star slugger Mike
Epstein from Cal. (Most known for leading the 1984 Olympic Dream Team,
Dedeaux had had international experience even before this; his 1955
Southern Cal team had barnstormed through Asia against U.S. military
teams.) The baseball contingent wasn’t part of the official U.S.
delegation and had to stay in a Tokyo YMCA rather than the Olympic Village,
but that had its advantages. While the likes of sprinter Bob Hayes and
basketball star Walt Hazzard had to maintain curfews, the baseball players
could stay out as late as they wanted and became the envy of other athletes.
More than 50,000 fans turned out for the Oct. 11, 1964, contest between
Team USA and a squad of Japanese collegians, led by submarining righthander
Yoshitaka Kihara. But Notre Dame outfielder Shaun Fitzmaurice led off
with a home run and the Americans won, 6-2.
“I’ll never forget two things about that trip,” recalled
Epstein, a future major league star who now coaches hitting to amateur
players. “Before the first game, we were all sitting in the dugout
when the National Anthem came on, and when we stood up we all hit our
heads on the top of the dugout--it was just ‘thump-thump-thump.’
And I hit a line-drive double off the right-centerfield wall. The pitcher
turned around and bowed to me and said, ‘Nice hit.’ I still
have some great pictures from that trip. Just to have 'U.S.A.' on the
front of your uniform was pretty special. You almost get tears in your
After 1964, baseball and the Olympics parted company for two decades.
The International Olympic Committee approved baseball as a demonstration
sport for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and it became a medal sport
in Barcelona eight years later. But Olympic officials eliminated baseball
after the 2008 Games in Beijing.
Yet here comes the World Baseball Classic, providing baseball’s
first true global competition. The evolution of global baseball continues.
Pete Cava is a freelance baseball writer based in Indianapolis
and will be the media liaison for the Italian team in the WBC.