- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2006

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.

American soldiers fighting in Mexico at Jalapa were said to have played the first baseball game — and, legend says, to have used Santa Anna’s wooden leg as a bat. How they might have acquired the leg, though, isn’t clear — Santa Anna fled the country shortly after the U.S. victory.

Baseball tends to generate those kinds of stories, often more fiction than fact.

In the United States, where the game is considered the national pastime, it was thought for more than 50 years that Gen. Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, N.Y. Research later showed that it was founded instead by Alexander Cartwright, who first codified and published rules for the game in 1845.

Baseball often arrived in foreign lands by chance.

Horace Wilson, an American teacher at what is now Tokyo University, is credited with bringing the game to Japan in 1873. An American missionary named Philip Gillett went to Korea to work for the YMCA in 1901 and introduced the game to that country.

But it was a series of barnstorming tours by U.S. major leaguers in the early 20th century that helped the seeds planted by others to grow.

Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and New York Giants manager John McGraw took their teams on a worldwide tour in 1913, one of two Comiskey would undertake.

“That is when the American style of baseball really began to take root,” Mr. Sugar said. “There was so much interest in it in Japan that they took another tour there in 1934, with Babe Ruth and other stars. Comiskey’s tour was well-received. He even took them to Egypt.”

War games

The presence of the U.S. military abroad also furthered the exportation of baseball — a wave of growth with a small but curious impact sometimes felt in the strangest places.

“Where the military went, baseball went with it, to Europe in World War I, to Latin America in the Spanish-American War and the Philippines as well,” said Harrington Crissey, a researcher for the Society for American Baseball Research who specializes in baseball and the military. “And, of course, the military being stationed in several locations around the world after World War II also had an impact.

“Their presence helped to raise interest in some of these places, even though baseball had already existed there. They showed more people the game.”

Not all of those people were pleased to see it.

“A Navy squadron pulled into a Soviet Union city in the 1930s and played a game there, with people in the stands watching,” Mr. Crissey said. “There was an article published about it, and [dictator Josef] Stalin was upset about it afterward and sacked the admiral who had let them come in. Wherever the U.S. went, games were played, and the locals were watching.”

The impact of the military was furthered by United Service Organization tours that featured major league stars, said Tom Barthel, the author of “Walkie-Talkie Fanning Bees,” a book about baseball and the military.

“Once there were about 23 players, umpires, and managers who went on tour in combat areas to talk to players, take some swings, throw some pitches and things like that, from Alaska to New Guinea,” Mr. Barthel said. “The players did teach some of the natives baseball, and then they came up with their own version of baseball.”

Breaking barriers

But the game never took hold in Europe the way it eventually did in Japan and, particularly, in Latin America, where it became a passion.

What set the stage for the growth of baseball in those countries — and a rise in interest in Major League Baseball — was an event that also changed the game in the United States and American society in general: the breaking of the color barrier by Jackie Robinson in 1947.

“It wasn’t until Jackie Robinson came along that darker-skinned players could play major league baseball, and that had a lot to do with the growth of baseball internationally,” Mr. Barthel said.

A few light-skinned Cubans played in the major leagues early in the 20th century. Outfielders Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida arrived from Cuba in 1911 to play for the Cincinnati Reds. Marsans spent eight years in the majors, and Almeida stayed for three. Catcher Mike Gonzalez played for the Boston Braves one year later, and his major league career lasted 17 seasons with five teams.

When Robinson opened the door for black players, teams also began recruiting Latin Americans. Nobody was more aggressive than Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith. Griffith had a contact in Cuba in scout Joe Cambria, who signed more than 400 Cuban players, including pitcher Camilo Pascual.

“I remember going to games at Griffith Stadium where half the team seemed to speak Spanish,” said Mr. Sugar, a Washington native.

Looking forward

Which, in a way, is what brings Major League Baseball to the World Baseball Classic (WBC): It is an effort to get the world talking about baseball in more languages.

The classic, which ends Monday in San Diego, will be played again in 2009 and every four years thereafter. Major League Baseball hopes the event will translate into higher sales for caps, jerseys and other merchandise and into greater demand for television rights abroad.

Eventually, it is hoped, home-grown stars from more foreign countries can make their way onto major league rosters. That, in turn, would increase interest in major league baseball from those countries — and increase revenue for the league — as the National Basketball Association has done with stars such as Yao Ming of China, Pau Gasol of Spain and Manu Ginobili of Argentina.

“One of the goals of the WBC is to create role models around the world to enhance the game,” said former major league pitcher Orel Hershiser, now an analyst for ESPN and part of the broadcast team for the classic.

Role models like “Miguel” Piazza, who wouldn’t mind being recognized in a few more places that are off the beaten base paths.

“We hope that this tournament creates a buzz in other countries that will last and continue,” said Piazza, who played for the Italian team that was eliminated in the first round of the classic. “Baseball hasn’t done anything like this before.”

Others, though, did much on baseball’s behalf to spread America’s game around the globe.


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