October 1, 2023

By Oz Orman….

The following story and video project may be of interest to some of the TRNC ex-pat community from the East End or sports aficionados in general. Back in the day, before Girne (Kyrenia) succumbed to visual pollution and North Cyprus retained its quirkiness and laid-back appeal, there was a recognisable home-from-home presence in this part of the Mediterranean. I remember the days of communicating and mixing with my parent’s British neighbours. They were quick to recall stories from Blighty and wanting to know how things were getting on in the rat race that was the U.K. Life was very different and power cuts were met with a shrug of the shoulders. It was all very idyllic for some and an ideal retirement retreat from the hubbub of good ole England.

The internet was in its infancy and if you wanted news from back home, you bought the weekly English newspaper to see what was going on or tuned in to BRT English news. During one summer, I was on the island and determined to watch the England national team play a match. Football, especially from back home was not readily available on any of the Turkish terrestrial channels. Home satellite boxes and streaming weren’t necessarily around as they are now, so your only real choice was to find a bar somewhere in a nearby town or village.

I scanned the local English rag and identified a bar somewhere in Karaoğlanoğlu to watch the game. The year and the opposition escape me, but it must’ve been in the 2000’s. I had no access to a car and I leisurely sauntered my way along the main road in the village to the bar. I remember finding the drinking hole of the main Girne road and noticed that it was deserted. Had I misread the advert and got the date and kick-off time wrong. It was slowly becoming dusk and I noticed some activity in and around the back of the bar area. In my best Turkish/Cockney accent I enquired if a football contest involving the England national team would soon be shown here. A gentleman who was somehow balancing a table and was entangled with some St George’s flag bunting answered back in what I could only describe as a Cockney/Turkish accent. I had indeed located the right place, but I was a bit early. He sanctioned me to the inside bar and I was met, by what I can only describe as an ode to all things West Ham. There were flags draped, criss-crossed bunting across the ceiling, team shirts, scarves, newspaper clippings, and alike, in testament to the claret and blues of the ‘Irons’ or ‘Hammers.’ A home from home indeed. This place wouldn’t have gone amiss on Green Street in the East End and if anyone knows the name of the bar and its location in Karaoğlanoğlu, with an obvious affiliation to West Ham United F.C. please let me know in the comments section. Does it still exist? Karaoğlanoğlu was a very different place back then.

French/Canadian baseball player, Roland Gladu was a brief legend for the West Ham Baseball Club from 1936-37. He managed, played, coached and was even a groundsman during the Hammer’s baseball heyday during the ‘Hungry Thirties.’

Slowly, but surely the bar started to fill up with lads, lasses, geezers, children, and ex-pat Brits. If it wasn’t for the summer heat, you’d think you were back in England. I’m pretty sure the proprietors were London Turkish Cypriots, who had ventured to the island to start up a business and provided a football cultural centre for the British community, who could share a pint and have a laugh with friends in a hospitable location. The camaraderie that night made you think, was it always like this for the ex-pats in this part of Cyprus. I never got the owners’ names, but they had definitely established a little bit of East London in the furnace that is Cyprus.

Now most football fans know about West Ham United’s footballing pedigree. Some of the Hammers fans are quick to point out that it was the East London side that in fact won the World Cup in 1966 thanks to goals from Hurst and Peters, with the Jules Rimet Trophy lifted by Irons captain, Bobby Moore. But, how many supporters know about the club’s baseball past?

Baseball has always faced challenges to win over the hearts and minds of a sceptical British public.

Whilst conducting my research into baseball in the U.K. I came across evidence that West Ham and the East End was a popular centre for the sport. Competitive baseball actually started being played in the U.K. in Victorian times, with American entrepreneurs marketing the game to a sceptical British public. Cricket was the choice of the upper and middle classes back then and initially there wasn’t many takers for the imported American pastime. An American gentleman, named Newton Crane who had started a competition in the U.K. in 1889, pulled out the following year due to as he put it ‘Victorian rowdiness.’

In 1890, attempts by sports manufacturing businessman, Albert Goodwill Spalding to develop a British baseball league again ended. This time the league’s failure was blamed on financial difficulties and mismanagement, with Aston Villa (Birmingham Baseball Club Ltd) being crowned champions under controversial circumstances.

The forthcoming years saw baseball arrive in London with the establishment of a league based in the capital. Football teams were encouraged to form baseball clubs and participate during the off season and summer months. There is information that West Ham were one of the leading lights in establishing a club during these times, but an actual Hammers team to take part never materialised for one reason or another.

It would take the ‘Irons’ to make inroads in the early part of the next century. This time King George V, was on the throne and West Ham actually made it to a British final in 1910. However, the hapless Hammers succumbed to West London rivals Brentford in the final. The fixture was actually played at the old Clapton Orient F.C. stadium in Homerton (some of you may know it).

World War I and the Great Depression stalled any chance of establishing the sport in the U.K. But in 1936, British businessman, John Moores looked at developing baseball once more. This time he was supported by another American, L.D. Wood, who had West Ham connections. Wood enlisted the help of French Canadian players, like Roland Gladu to venture to London to play the sport. This time, the West Ham team was based at the speedway and dog track at Custom House. The stadium, which has since been demolished to make way for housing is said to have had a capacity to hold over 100,000 spectators. Multi-use stadiums especially in London, were ideal venues to house baseball matches in the so called ‘Hungry Thirties.’ Stadium owners were happy for the extra income, but during this time Speedway and greyhound racing was still king for the working classes, especially in the East End.

West Ham actually beat the U.S. Olympic baseball team in 1936

However, after a promising first season some ball clubs in the capital folded, which meant the integrity of the competition was questioned. West Ham and Romford, two East London stalwarts fielded their second teams in the league to keep it going, but it was never the same. By the end of 1937, Moores admitted defeat and focused on other projects. He was actually knighted in 1980 and has a university named after him in the city of Liverpool, although he was from Manchester originally. His baseball partner in the venture, L.D. Wood went back to selling Ice-cream makers and with that the West Ham team closed after two seasons of professional baseball.

There were brief forays of getting the sport going again during World War II, but the occasional exhibition match never really riled up the British public in accepting baseball as nothing more than fancy ‘Rounders’. Rounders is a bat and ball game predominantly played in British schools. Baseball is still played at an amateur level in Britain with clubs like the London Mets carrying on the sports tradition in the capital today.

The Globalisation of sport has seen fixtures and matches played in a variety of overseas locations. Baseball was no different, and in 2019 pre-Covid, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, played a proper two game series in the capital at the London Stadium (Home of West Ham United F.C.) in Stratford. Both games were a sell-out and attracted both loyal fans and curious observers. The London Stadium was the venue for the 2012 Olympics and suited the staging of baseball due to its multi-use credentials.

The ‘Boomstick’ all yours for £30 ($39). Only 2,500 calories of processed goodness 2

The fixture returned to West Ham in 2023, with the Chicago Cubs playing the St. Louis Cardinals. I ventured to the opening game to experience the razzmatazz that accompanied such a game. Both matches over a June weekend were again sold out and it definitely attracted tourists from over the pond. It certainly got the financial big-wigs and strategists thinking, especially as some of the food like the famed ‘Boomstick’ was selling at £30 a pop. The so called London Series is due to return in 2024 and 2026 to the capital, whilst in 2025 the fixture will be held in Paris for the first time.

Baseball is not everyone’s cup of tea, but you can say that about any sport. It can be a long game, up to 3 hours or more and is one of strategy, chance and tactics. It has a rich history, with many stand out moments and has similarities to cricket, which it has always been compared too. It is fitting that the sport returned to a part of London where it was welcomed more than by any other part of the capital with a strong following. With the establishment of a regular series in London now, it is fitting that West Ham’s baseball legacy will continue.

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