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  • Royal MatchThe Army-Navy Service Game, July 4, 1918
  • Jim Leeke (bio)

The scene in the London stadium was as improbable as polo in Brooklyn: the King of England and thousands of loyal subjects, cheering American soldiers and sailors batting the horsehide around a diamond wedged onto a soccer field. Largely forgotten today, the great Fourth of July baseball match of 1918 was the most significant athletic event of the First World War.

Baseball had gained a foothold in England that year thanks to the Anglo-American Baseball League (AABL). The original plan of thirty American businessmen in England was for a six-team circuit of civilian professionals playing in Great Britain and in army camps in France. Promoters even began recruiting players in the United States. When this scheme proved impractical, the AABL gradually morphed into an eight-team US-Canadian military league. Organizers hoped to continue as a major league following the war.

The AABL played primarily at sites in and near London, including the Arsenal football (soccer) ground at Highbury and the Chelsea football ground at Stamford Bridge, with a few games slated elsewhere in England and Scotland. Teams played on Saturdays and holidays from May 18 to August 24, with proceeds going to British war charities. The league constituted what the Atlanta Constitution later called “the crest of a baseball mania” that followed American troops everywhere they went in Europe.1

Various royals encouraged the American national pastime in England. Princess Patricia, the King’s cousin and a patroness of Canadian troops, had known baseball while living in Canada. She attended an AABL game at Highbury on opening day and a nonleague exhibition game at Chelsea on Memorial Day. The Duke of Portland also supported the sport. After throwing out the first ball at a nonleague game in Nottingham, he commented, “Now that we have seen the great American game of baseball we appreciate its excellence.”2

The United States and Canada each contributed four teams to the AABL. [End Page 15] America had nines from the US Army and US Navy headquarters in London, plus the Hounslow and Northolt aviation fields outside the city. Canada fielded squads from the Epsom and Sunningdale convalescent hospitals and from two clerical units: Pay Office and Records. Newspapers applied various names to the eight teams, but those used here were the most common. The league boasted of considerable talent, especially among the Americans. Rosters included former professionals from the American, Pacific Coast, New York State, Southern, Western, and Illinois-Indiana-Iowa (3–I) leagues, among others, plus amateurs from semipro and collegiate teams.

Many Canadian military teams and a few American civilian nines had been playing ball in England since early in the war. AABL games now drew well among Allied troops and curious civilians. The sky-blue uniforms of convalescing British “Tommies” were especially noticeable amid crowds of khaki, navy blue, and mufti. Colorful posters on lampposts and walls all across London announced the games. Ticket prices were as low as 8 pence (16 cents)—a fact noted in America.

As the AABL began its season, the military situation on the western front deteriorated. The United States had been at war only a little more than a year (compared with nearly four years for Great Britain). Half a million US troops were overseas by May 1918, including 15,000 air service men in England. These numbers were rising rapidly, but were not yet sufficient. Most American troops were still in training. Commanding General John J. Pershing stubbornly resisted pleas to integrate their regiments into French and British divisions. With Russia effectively out of the war following the October Revolution of 1917, Germany launched huge spring offensives in France. Pershing reported to Washington that the situation was “very grave.”3

The British Ministry of Information was responsible for disseminating what upbeat war news there was to America. Even its officials thought the proper name should be the propaganda ministry. “We used to think up stunts together,” recalled Major Ian Hay Beith, a writer and combat veteran who headed its American section. “The biggest stunt we pulled off—important because it led to something bigger—was the official celebration...


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