Touching base – An Irishman’s Diary on Cork, baseball and the Great War

The first-ever baseball match in Cork occurred in 1917, just months after America entered the war  on the Allied side

The first-ever baseball match in Cork occurred in 1917, just months after America entered the war on the Allied side

 

Walking the streets of Cobh, the American naval commander Joseph Knefler Taussig must have cut a curious figure. As the locals observed him, he surveyed them. And he was puzzled. How could it be that there were so many young men about the place? Shouldn’t they be off fighting in France or further afield?

Many had been and still were, of course, but it took a lesson in Irish political realities to reveal to him the reason for the absence of enthusiasm for a war that had dragged on longer – and at extraordinary human cost – than anybody had originally anticipated.

And in the spring and early summer of 1917, it wasn’t just the war’s longevity, but the aftershocks of the previous year’s rebellion that reverberated, its tremors felt most obviously in the series of stunning Westminster byelection victories by candidates espousing an Irish separatist creed.

All of these developments took a toll on Irish sport. Indeed, what activity the war-time conditions did not stop or curtail, the rebellion made even more difficult to organise and enjoy. Much of this was down to the British government’s security clampdown on the use of “excursion” trains that were so vital to transporting crowds to matches and other events.

But if the first World War shrank the Irish sporting world, it never truly threatened to extinguish it. Games and other activities continued; there were just fewer of them and they operated on a smaller scale.

Curiously, the war even helped give rise to sporting moments that would otherwise never have happened. Like the first-ever baseball match in Cork. It occurred in July 1917, just months after America, in defiance of all prior pledges of neutrality, entered the war on the Allied side.

By the early summer naval destroyers, commanded by Joseph Taussig and carrying thousands of US troops, were pitching up at the Cork port of Queenstown, as Cobh was then known. They were the first American warships to be deployed in the war and their presence, and that of so large a body of uniformed men, created quite the stir – and not always a welcome one.

Tanned, chewing gum and with exotic accents, the newly arrived Americans were possessed of a glamour and flamboyance that, if some newspaper reports are to believed, drew hundreds of young women each night to Queenstown to mix with those sailors on shore leave.

That was enough to raise not only the tempers of some sidelined local men; it also disturbed the local bishop who warned his congregation from the altar of Cork Cathedral about American “vultures . . . preying on the purity” of the young women of Queenstown.

The officers of the Cork County Cricket Club were not so disturbed. They wrote to the US embassy in London offering their pavilion and grounds at the Mardyke to the Americans should they require them. It turned out that they did. The very gesture set the commanders of two of the Cobh-based vessels – the USS Melville and the USS Trippe – to thinking about staging a baseball match between their respective crews.

Perhaps inevitably, its purpose was to be in part philanthropic: the game couldn’t ignore the wider war context so it was decided to use it to raise funds to support the local Queenstown War Workers fund. It was played on a midweek July afternoon before a crowd of 3,000 people.

There were many American sailors among them, but the majority were local onlookers, curious to view close-up an American pastime whose development bore a particularly Irish imprint.

By the turn of the 20th century, the sons of America’s older Irish immigrants had come to dominate the playing and coaching ranks of baseball’s professional leagues to the extent that more than half of all managers and field coaches could claim an Irish heritage.

As one US sporting newspaper had observed, somewhat pejoratively, in 1906: “The foundation stone, superstructure and even the baseball roof is as Irish as Paddy’s pig”.

For the home-based Paddys of Cork, however, this was a first. A novelty, pure and simple: baseball was a sport about which something was known, but not all that much. So in their efforts to convey to Irish readers a sense of what the game was about, journalists felt the need to reach for familiar local comparisons. They likened baseball not to its stick-and-ball equivalent of hurling, but to rounders and cricket, games to which a number of observers thought it to be superior.

Baseball, commented the reporter for the Skibbereen Eagle, had none of the “leisured activity” of cricket ; there was no room for “dawdling” as its players were required to have their “wits” about them at all times.

Another report considered the game “fast and furious” and much different to the “staid European games”.

The stars of the show were undeniably the pitchers and batsmen. Reporters waxed lyrical on their skill and bravery. Where the pitchers thrilled the crowd with their ability to “curve” a ball mid-flight, the batsmen required nerves of steel to face down balls coming straight for their head.

The match itself went to a 10th innings, with the crew of the USS Trippe edging a narrow victory.

The result didn’t matter, of course. Nor did it matter that the exhibition would leave not a trace of a local sporting legacy. All that mattered is that it took place. That it raised money for a needy cause and that, for both Yanks and locals attending, it provided a welcome escape from everyday realities.

For Joseph Taussig, this escape was into the realms of the surreal. As he confided to the diary he published sometime after, the event and the atmosphere around was such that it was “hard to realize that a war was going on anywhere. It seemed like a dream that only a few days ago I was out at sea with my ship shooting at a hostile submarine”.

As happens with dreams, it was one from which he – and others – soon awoke.