World Baseball Classic: International Baseball History
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 Vane Sutton.
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 eyes.”
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.