Gentlemen of Philadelphia

Reminders of cricket's one time glory can be glimpsed in the grand club houses and elegantly-maintained grounds of Philadelphia.

If American cricket has a spiritual home it lies in Philadelphia and, in particular, amid the neatly cut hedges and trim lawns of the city’s northwestern fringes, the locales of Germantown, Chestnut Hill and Main Line. For it is here that the game lasted longer than anywhere else in the US, where it survived as a regional subculture right up until World War One. Even today reminders of its one time glory can be glimpsed in the grand club houses and elegantly-maintained grounds that belong to Merion, Germantown and Philadelphia cricket clubs.

Most of the modern day custodians of the game are able to furnish you with US cricket’s one indisputable claim to fame - that the first international match, not just in cricket but in any sport, took place in 1844 between the United States and Canada. They might also tell you that the sport has a long and proud history in the US, that games drew crowds in their thousands in the nineteenth century and that England toured here in the 1850s. Cricket was a sport that was played in America throughout the nineteenth century, but its great failing lay in the fact that it never truly became an American sport.

The reasons for this are numerous. Undoubtedly the rise of baseball around the Civil War period was a major factor. Baseball was quicker to play - one game lasted just an hour or so compared to three to five days and, unlike cricket, required hardly any equipment. No need to erect stumps or roll out a wicket; baseball required just a bat, ball and something that could be utilised as a base. It was an ideal pastime for the thousands of soldiers that were stationed around the country during the Civil War, bored men with energy to spare in the long and tedious downtime between battles.

Cricket also carried with it a heavy whiff of the old country - ie England. The number of migrants in the early and mid nineteenth century became a flood by the century’s end. Increasingly they were arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe rather than Great Britain and thus had no interest in (or even knowledge of) this arcane English pastime. In the decades after the civil war cricket increasingly found itself boxed in as an elite pastime played by English first or second generation immigrants. Whilst there are still reports of games being played in Merion, Colorado and even Montana around 1900, by the end of the century the game had pretty much died out in the mid West and much of the so-called American ‘heartland’.

In Philadelphia though it was a different matter. For one thing the sport was played to a far higher standard in the city and its the surrounding areas. A number of Philadelphian select teams toured England, playing against first class counties in the years 1897, 1903 and 1908. The last tour in 1908 even saw the Philadelphians beat the MCC. There were also regular tours by the so-called ‘Gentlemen of Philadelphia’, a combined team who toured England in 1884 and 1889.

The Philadelphia scene also boasted the most famous American cricketer of all time, John Barton King, an all rounder who developed a fearsome technique of swinging the ball, which he termed ‘the angler’. The star of the Philadelphians three English tours, when King retired in 1916 US cricket lost its greatest ever ambassador and certainly the only player who could stand comparison with the great English and Australian test players of the day.

The game in the town was also played and supported by a very specific social set. The largest and wealthiest clubs, all situated in the west of the city - Merion, Germantown, Philadelphia, Belmont - all drew their personnel and support from a leisured upper-middle class that self-consciously mimicked their English counterparts’ genteel behaviour. For them, playing cricket was a social signifier, a way, in the words of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin*, that “a gentlemen can show his moral character,” and “learn lessons of self control, patience, endurance and perseverance which he can obtain in no other way.”

Yet whilst it’s correct that a haughty Anglophilia permeated much of Philadelphian cricket circles in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, certain clubs and individuals went out of their way to create a uniquely American cricketing identity. Foreigners were expressly forbidden from playing for the city’s representative sides and the Young America club of Philadelphia was just one that only allowed Americans to play for its teams. In the long run though this admirable stance proved to be unsustainable - Young America merged with nearby Germantown CC in 1890. Without a fresh influx of young players, year by year the demographics of the Philadelphian clubs grew older, clubs closed and the scene gradually withered and died after World War One.

For anyone genuinely interested in the history of the game in America the starting point lies miles to the west of Philadelphia at Haverford College. It is here one golden October morning, one of those triumphant truly autumnal days that seem perfectly balanced between summer and winter, that we find ourselves driving up the long leafy approach to the college campus. As if by magic, as we approach the entrance a number of white-clad figures are emerging out of a pavilion to our left. It looks as if a game is going to be played....