It’s a new day for baseball in Great Britain. Yes, the country that gifted us rounders will be making its first appearance in the World Baseball Classic in Phoenix. After failing to make it to the Classic in previous qualifiers, new manager Drew Spencer reshaped the roster and brought in plenty of young, talented players in the affiliated Minors. With Mariners No. 1 prospect Harry Ford in the lineup, Great Britain stormed through the Regensburg regionals and even upset the heavily favored Spain in a dramatic extra-innings comeback win, 10-9.
Now, they’ve added big leaguer Trayce Thompson to the roster and will look to upset a few more nations when they begin play against the United States, Mexico, Colombia, and Canada, starting on March 11.
Let’s take a look at a little bit more about the history of baseball in the country. While Team GB pulls its players from many territories, we’ll focus mainly on Merry Ol’ England.
WBSC Rank: 22
Best World Baseball Classic appearance: N/A
Country’s top current Major Leaguers: Jazz Chisholm, Lucius Fox, Trayce Thompson
Though there are no current Major Leaguers born in England proper — the big leaguers on Great Britain’s roster hail from former United Kingdom territories like the Bahamas — the sport has a long history in the country. Forgetting rounders entirely, the game first made inroads in the U.K. in the late 1800s thanks to Sir Francis Ley.
A wealthy industrialist who fell in love with the sport after traveling to America, Ley enjoyed that baseball was faster and more intense than cricket and could be played in just a few hours. So, when Ley returned to Derby County, he built the very first baseball stadium in the country in 1889: This was The Baseball Ground, where Derby County Football Club would play until 1996.
While there were a handful of leagues in England in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the sport nearly took off in the 1930s thanks to Liverpool businessman John Moores. Moores pumped plenty of money into the sport, creating leagues up and down the country, providing equipment and money to sporting clubs willing to adopt baseball. Stadiums would regularly host games with more than 10,000 fans and he even arranged a friendly series with the United States to prepare for the 1940 Olympics.
In a stunning twist, England defeated the USA 4 games to 1. Unfortunately, all the growth of the sport hit a snag when World War II hit. By the time it was over, Moores had moved on from baseball and — seemingly — so had the country.
Yes, the man who hit the Shot Heart Round the World was also born, well, around the world. (Or at least across the Atlantic Ocean.) Born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1923, Thomson moved to the United States when he was just 2 years old so never learned the game in the UK.
Born in Bedford, England in 1967, Painter appeared in 314 MLB games and even started for the Colorado Rockies during their first ever postseason run in 1995. After he retired in 2003, Painter became Team GB’s pitching coach in 2005.
Great Britain’s — and the Mariners’ — No. 1 prospect. Though Ford wasn’t born in the country, his parents were born there, his grandmother still lives there — he visits often — and he holds a passport to the nation, as well. The rare five-tool catcher, Ford wants to host camps and instructional lessons during his visits so that the next great U.K. born player could be out there right now.
Biggest Moments in History
The biggest moment will be their next one. When Team GB takes the field to play the United States on March 11 at 9 p.m. ET, it will be the first time that they have appeared in the World Baseball Classic.
The country has also finished as runners-up in the European Championships twice (1967, 2007), and defeated the U.S. in that 1938 test series. Most recently, the London Mets — a club team in the British Baseball Federation — qualified for the Confederations Cup. A kind of “Champions League” for European club baseball, it was the first time that a team from Great Britain qualified to play.
After the Yankees and Red Sox played in London Stadium in 2019, MLB will send the Cubs and Cardinals this coming summer and have plans for games in 2024 and 2026.
Local League setup and teams
The top tier of the British Baseball Federation’s National League features seven teams, with the London Mets being by far the most successful with nine league titles. There are multiple levels of baseball available throughout the country and some of the teams have had amazing names like the Bolton Robots of Doom and one of the newest clubs, New Forest ThunderKnights.
The Baseball Ground was sadly demolished in 2003. While games are played at parks around the country, Farnham Park in Buckinghamshire is the only baseball-specific facility in the country. It features two dual-use baseball and softball diamonds and three softball and youth baseball fields along with a kitchen and bar.