Great Moments: Cricket's Big Day
Cricket’s big moment in antebellum America came in 1859 in New Jersey, when an English team of All-Stars played a three-day match in Hoboken (right) starting October 3rd. It was part of a five-match tour of Canada and the U.S. and marked the first time an all-star team had traveled outside of England.
During the 1840s, a decade before “baseball mania” gripped much of America, the most popular adult team sport was the British import, cricket. The epicenter of American cricket was Philadelphia. The city’s most prominent club was the Union Club, founded in 1843. It was the first to construct a level, manicured playing surface (which is required for effective bowling). That cricket field was located in the city of Camden, New Jersey.
In 1844, following the formation of the New York Cricket Club, John Cox Stevens cleaved off part of his land holdings in Hoboken to create the Elysian Fields, which would become the club’s home base. Soon the space became popular with ball clubs from the city. In 1845, a group of skilled craftsmen formed the Newark Cricket Club. Most of the top cricketers in the 1840s were British transplants.
During the 1850s, interest in cricket waned as young men continued playing the childhood game of baseball into adulthood. Almost any open space could be turned into a baseball diamond, while space for cricket grounds was at a premium. That being said, by the 1850s there was a robust population of American-born cricket players to hold a pair of exhibition matches in 1854 between two native all-star teams—the first in Newark, the second in New York.
In 1857, proponents of cricket recognized the need of a national association to promote the game. They held annual conventions in New York. Though inspired by the great English clubs, they understood that the game had to be Americanized in some ways to broaden its appeal to young men and sporting fans. Had the Civil War not begun in 1861, their efforts may have proved fruitful.
The crowning achievement of this dedicated group was the 1859 match in Hoboken. The English pros (left) were led by George Parr, recognized as the world’s top batsman. Their 11 all-stars faced a team of 22 players picked by the St. George club in Staten Island and demolished them. However, thousands of spectators ferried over from New York each day, paying $5 for a three-day pass—a week’s salary for most workers.
The American team was led by Sam Wright and his son, Harry (right). Harry Wright was hired as a cricket pro in Cincinnati after the Civil War and, in 1869, fielded baseball’s first all-professional squad, the undefeated Cincinnati Red Stockings.
By that time, baseball had eclipsed cricket as America’s go-to team sport. A second All-England 11 tour might have given cricket a fighting chance, but the tour was cancelled after the start of the Civil War.