Thousands of fans poured into Hoboken’s Elysian Fields in 1859 for one of the biggest sporting events of the times: a cricket match between American and British teams. But by the turn of the century, cricket was on the losing side of a competition with baseball to become the national pastime.

For a sport whose very name has become synonymous with being aboveboard and playing fair, cricket has had a tortuous existence in the United States. Whenever it has approached a national breakthrough, it suddenly takes a sharp detour toward anonymity; whenever it has seemed to muddle along only as the punch line to gags about the British, it surprisingly reasserts its presence as a game for Americans. Most elusive of all has been recognition of cricket’s prominence at the birth of American team sports.

The oldest extant cricket document in the country is a 1795 list of rules drawn up by a cricket club in Richmond, Va. But as early as 1709, there were written references to games in which Virginia planter William Byrd played informally with his neighbors. A cryptically described “servants vs. the inmates” match took place in Georgia in 1737, not too long before Benjamin Franklin boasted of bringing a printed copy of the playing rules home to Philadelphia from London. The April 29, 1751, issue of the New York Weekly Gazette and Post Boy carried mention of a contest between local residents and Englishmen. By the 1770s the sport had become popular enough among Americans that John Adams could propose that the new republic’s chief of state be called a president because that was the designation of cricket club heads.

Adams probably got no argument from George Washington, also an avid cricket fan, and with a president in place, the United States racked up its cricket firsts, if at a decidedly casual pace. The Revolution and the War of 1812 didn’t exactly ingratiate British traditions with Americans, and the game’s progress came up against a Protestant culture that frowned upon organized sports as frivolous and perhaps diabolic distractions from work. Most cricket playing in the early 19th century was a sideline amusement at national holiday picnics and other celebrations when work wasn’t expected.

In 1838 the country hosted its first organized match for money—$100—in Brooklyn, between English residents originally from Nottingham and Sheffield. Two years later, the Union Cricket Club of Camden, N.J., staked its claim to being the nation’s first organized team. But even more notable was the two-day match in September 1844 between a team from Toronto, Canada, and St. George’s Cricket Club in Manhattan. Only in retrospect did it occur to fans of the sport that this was the first international cricket duel ever staged anywhere in the world.

By the 1840s, however, American cricketers had an opponent far more aggressive than Canadians—baseball. The two vied for playing time and the title of America’s national pastime at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, an important venue for both sports a mere 10-minute, 13-cent ferry ride away from Manhattan.

Much of the writing about baseball’s ultimate ascendancy over cricket contends that such an elitist English game couldn’t possibly have succeeded against baseball’s profound American ethos. This was certainly the view in the late 19th century among those who had economic or philosophical allegiances to baseball. Albert Spalding, a sporting goods entrepreneur, owner of the Chicago White Stockings and baseball’s most prominent propagandist, spoke for many when he declared: “Cricket is a splendid game, for Britons. It is a genteel game, a conventional game—and our cousins across the Atlantic are nothing if not conventional. They play cricket because it accords with the traditions of their country to do so; because it is easy and does not overtax their energy or their thought.”

It was a little more complicated than that. For starters, cricket wasn’t all that genteel. From the beginning, its lexicon carried as many terms for abusive contact as baseball did; the beamer, for example, was a pitch deliberately aimed at a batsman’s head. The batsman who dug in against the bowler (the cricket equivalent of a pitcher) certainly needed the padding he wore. And there has never been anything namby-pamby about a game in which every defender on the field except the wicket-keeper (catcher) is expected to catch a smash of the hard ball without a glove.

Spalding’s insinuation that the game mainly appealed to snobs at rest was also misleading. In New York and Boston in the 19th century, cricket attracted the same white-collar and professional groups that gravitated toward baseball. In places like Philadelphia and the mill towns of Lawrence and Lowell, Mass., its base was blue-collar workers. Big betting was a regular feature of games, hard drinking a postgame ritual.

Before the Civil War, thousands flocked routinely to the Elysian Fields to see the Staten Island Dragonslayers take on visiting sides from Montreal and Toronto. In the fall of 1859, extra ferries were scheduled to handle the estimated 24,000 people who crossed the Hudson River to see American all-stars take on a British club whose tour of North America was the most heavily promoted antebellum sporting event until the following year’s boxing match in England between John Heenan and Tom Sayers. By 1860 there were 10 cricket associations playing in Manhattan and Brooklyn. One researcher has estimated that almost 1,350 cricket teams gained sports press coverage somewhere in the country between 1837 and the eve of World War I. While mostly in big cities and industrial areas, hundreds of the squads also came from such small towns as Hazardville, Conn., Avon, Ohio, and Sandy, Utah.

But cricket eventually did go down to baseball, a trend that became glaringly conspicuous immediately after the Civil War. The most commonly offered reason was the English game’s slower pace. “Baseball…was an exhilarating game that took under two hours to complete and thus did not prevent fans from a full day’s work,” wrote sports historian Steven A. Reiss. “By comparison, the British game of cricket…was so leisurely that it sometimes took days to complete.” While there is no doubt that cricket would have imposed heavily on the working day for both players and fans, that didn’t stop it from finding passionate acceptance in the industrial cities of England, where laboring hours were just as fierce as in America. Nor did exhausting work schedules deter zealous players of either cricket or baseball from rising as early as 4 in the morning to get in some practice before reporting to the factory, the firehouse or the office. It is also curious that some of those discerning a fatal flaw in cricket’s open-endedness have been quick to romanticize the fact that baseball, unlike so many other team sports, doesn’t have game lengths predetermined by a clock.

It is no small consideration that baseball surpassed cricket’s popularity in an era of intense nativism when anything of foreign origin, whether it was immigrants from Ireland or sports from England, was suspect. Many communities introduced rule modifications in the name of playing something more “American.”The changes accented speed and easier offense—qualities deemed more culturally indigenous. The variation dubbed “wicket” continued to be played in America, with varying degrees of popularity, alongside traditional cricket for much of the 19th century.

But national adaptations like wicket that were intended to find a greater audience for the game ended up alienating as many purists as attracting new recruits. Other factors were less ironic but more significant. For instance, a boom in baseball clubs in the 1840s and 1850s, especially around New York, foreshadowed the longer-term challenge to find playing space. Newspapers in 1856 were already reporting that every green plot within 10 miles of New York City was being used as a baseball field. Cricket, however, generally eschewed public spaces for private meeting grounds favored by enthusiasts. As the populations of Brooklyn and Manhattan continued to swell during and after the Civil War, cricket remained content with the familiar, convivial pitches it had established in markedly unbooming Hoboken and Staten Island. Neither did the sport make any serious attempt in the New York area to recruit among tradesmen, leaving that fertile territory exclusively for baseball. Baseball’s ubiquitous presence in fields and parks turned out to be its own best advertising, as much a cause of its rise as an effect of it.

Still, throughout the middle of the century the country’s major sports publications proceeded on the assumption that readers were as interested in one game as in the other. They took their cue from the New York Clipper writer to have a plaque in the main hall of the ’s Henry Chadwick, the only National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. The codifier of organized baseball rules and the publisher of the first baseball guidebook, he was a leading actor in so many of the sport’s organizational activities in the 19th century that many consider him the “father of baseball.” However, Chadwick was better known as a former cricket player when he joined the Clipper in 1856. For the next 30 years, he promoted both sports as equally worthy of American attention (if frequently bemoaning what he viewed as the structural shortcomings of both). “We have yet to see the first American, who is practically acquainted with both games and excels in both, that is not an admirer of cricket,” he wrote. So taken was Chadwick with his twin obsessions that he eventually sought to make the argument that baseball actually descended from cricket—a genesis nobody else then or now has ever accredited.

Chadwick notwithstanding, references to baseball as the national pastime began shortly after the Civil War, especially after the formation of the National Association in 1871—an eight-team professional league with a fixed schedule that gave fans the one cachet that cricket couldn’t guarantee: respect for their own schedules. However engaging the game of cricket was on the field, those viewing it had to make the commitment of perhaps returning two or three days in a row to see a match concluded. This was not the easiest undertaking in a middle-class society where daylight leisure activities during the week were at a premium. While similar pressures in England helped push cricket to the weekend, in the United States there was the ready alternative of the two-hour baseball game between work and the family supper table. Put another way, what was made to seem a fated cultural choice by Spalding and other nativists was primarily a social and economic one having to do with the pressures of audience availability. In this sense, the defeat of cricket amounted to the first important ratings win by the mass entertainment medium known as baseball; it was in that context, as much as in the cultural origins or playing specifics of the games, that the outcome was decided.

Not that the sports immediately went their separate ways. When British cricket star Sam Wright immigrated to the United States from Sheffield in the 1840s, for example, he worked as a cricket coach and groundskeeper at Elysian Fields. This made it easy for his sons Harry and George to play the game in America; it also made it easy for them to be exposed to baseball. The younger Wrights jumped back and forth between the sports in New Jersey, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and New England. Even after Harry had become manager of the first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, he played in an all-star cricket match in London in which the American visitors embarrassed the home team. George’s brilliance at shortstop for clubs in Cincinnati, Boston and Providence won him praise as the best ballplayer of his era. Harry’s lengthy list of innovations both on the field (relaying signals through coaches, batting and fielding practice before games) and off (opening gates early so concessions could make money from fans who came to watch batting practice) prompted Chadwick, despite his own credentials for the same title, to call Wright the “true father of baseball.” Both Harry and George Wright eventually reached Cooperstown.

Baseball historian David Voigt has credited Harry Wright with “believing the British standards of sportsmanship should dominate” in a game ravaged throughout the 19th century by cheating, gambling and rowdyism: Players threw games, gamblers interrupted play on the field to protect their bets and drunk fans got into violent brawls. The tumultuous atmosphere around baseball, also reflected in the overnight rise and fall of franchises, fueled calls for fans to abandon the game altogether and embrace cricket as the true national sport.

As late as the 1880s, The New York Times denounced the “baseness” of baseball players and urged Americans to show greater support for the gentlemanly game of cricket. Landscape architect and New York City public parks overseer Frederick Law Olmsted banned baseball from Central Park while providing space for cricket. There was more to such sentiment than sporting preference. The members of the Episcopalian-Methodist-Presbyterian establishment, which had a mouthpiece in the Times and a standard-bearer in Olmsted, had rarely met an Irish or German immigrant worthy of sympathetic mention. These new Americans constituted a substantial part of baseball’s following, and the penny press, with its great appeal to immigrant readers, lavished attention on the sport.

Cricket’s visibility faded largely because of the greater organizational stability achieved by baseball through the 1902 coexistence pact between the National and American leagues. While more than 25,000 fans showed up for cricket matches in the Philadelphia area, and East Coast banks organized teams of employees as a reflection of the good manners of the institutions, there was no more talk of the sport replacing baseball in American affections.

The United States continued sending cricket teams abroad until the mid-1920s. Then the Imperial Cricket Conference, the sport’s London-based international governing body and forerunner to the current International Cricket Conference (ICC), introduced a regulation making it clear that only countries within the British empire were welcome to compete. No special waivers were granted to ex-colonies.

For almost 50 years, there was little cricket to be seen in the United States outside of some private clubs, principally around Philadelphia. The game’s most conspicuous presence on American sports pages was Bahamian Andre Rodgers, who in the 1950s paid his own way to the United States to win a utility infielder role for the New York Giants. Predictions that Rodgers would be the first of many West Indian cricketers to enter newly integrated baseball went unfulfilled; the only cricket star pursued by baseball was Australia’s Brett Lee in 2003, and he opted to stay home after a tryout with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

In at least one sense, though, Rodgers was a pioneer. When American cricket drew its next breath in the 1970s, it was thanks completely to immigrants from the West Indies and the Asian subcontinent. These immigrants, by the turn of the century, had formed an estimated 250 cricket clubs, about 75 of them around New York and another 30 or so around Miami. Little by little, they developed enough talented players to enter international competition once again.

The height of the cricket renaissance came in March 2004, when a U.S. all-star team participated in the first ICC Intercontinental Cup matches in sweltering Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. It captured the Six Nations Challenge trophy by defeating the UAE hosts, Scotland, Namibia and the Netherlands and playing well against Canada. This qualified the squad for the ICC Champions Trophy in England in September. But matters quickly went downhill.

On the pitch, the Americans were so soundly beaten by New Zealand and seeded-champion Australia that numerous records were broken. One reason for the drubbings was the age of the players: Many of them were 40 or close to it, almost a decade older than most of their opponents. The bad showing ignited a bitter battle of words and lawsuits between the board of the United States of America Cricket Association and former USACA officials over the team selection process. Siding with the former board members, the ICC wrote a searing letter to USACA president Gladstone Dainty in early 2005, asserting that it had “never seen a sporting organization that combines such great potential and such poor administration” as the American body. To no one’s surprise, the ICC yanked its funding from the American group.

The USACA found private money to prepare a team for the 2005 ICC Trophy games in Ireland, but it selected many of the same players from the disgraced 2004 team. Humiliating losses in warm-up rounds led the ICC to pull the U.S. team from competition and assign the Americans’ slot to the Cayman Islands. The United States did not make the cut for cricket’s premier showcase, the quadrennial World Cup games, being contested this year in the West Indies.

Recently, American cricket spokesmen have been stressing a theme familiar to followers of soccer and lacrosse: the need to promote the game in schools as the basis for eventual, long-term professionalism. The financial outlay required for equipment alone makes that a difficult task. But if nothing else, more students are being exposed to the fact that where cricket in America is concerned, it isn’t a question of starting up but of starting over—again.


Originally published in the June 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here