History of the St. Kilda Baseball Club
Part 1: Origins
They stood in a pasture where cows had lingered some months prior. Under threatening skies assembled men both young and old around a primitive diamond, its base paths lush with trampled grass. Earlier that week – May 5 to be exact – teams had been selected from the 40 members who had enrolled Monday at Jewett’s Hotel, Clyde Street, St. Kilda. The weekend had arrived and with it the commencement of football season. Yet here they were. Men of mixed origins, the very first pioneers this far south of Melbourne’s river, of the game of baseball. The year was 1879.
From this first scratch match of the newly formed St. Kilda Baseball Club, a thriller, in fact, determined by extra innings, a first nine was endorsed. They were to participate in, what none could have foreseen as being, an epochal moment in the history of the sport. So it came to be. The newly formed St. Kilda Baseball Club challenged the United States, hereby represented by the Georgia Minstrel Company, in an international test – cricket terminology still in common usage – on Australian soil. The pitcher’s mound is still 23 years away.
The Georgia Minstrels, managed by Charles Hicks, were a notorious group of gallivanting entertainers, most of whom played a musical instrument and all of whom knew the value of a dirty joke. Already veterans of the Eastern Seaboard in the US where they had toured extensively, the Georgia Minstrels excelled as all round performers, not in the least because they were successfully hardened as a team that often played pick up ball games as was the custom for many touring minstrel troupes in regional North America.
Black professional minstrel companies like the one run by Hicks, a shrewd African-American businessman in his own right, conformed to certain patterns by the 1880s. Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff observe in their book, Out of Sight: The Rise of Popular African American Music, that when travelling minstrel groups of the 1880s hit town they brought with them a carnival atmosphere which might have lasted all day:
Upon arrival, they launched a street parade featuring a brass band, some top-hatted, eccentric “walking gents,” perhaps a few exotic animals, a “hay wagon”, and a “rube” or “pickaninny” band. The parade was often followed by a challenge baseball game, with members of the troupe squaring off against the local community’s best.
If that is indeed what the Georgia Minstrels hoped for they got it. St. Kilda was ready and waiting.
At the turn of the century baseball players, at least prior to their professional incarnation, and entertainers shared something of an affinity. Call it spiritual. However, it was less sanctified and befitting the image of a model citizen than it was irreverent, rebellious and nonconformist. Minstrels were in some ways the rock stars of their time. Many were carousers, gamblers and alcoholics. Indeed minstrel troupes during the art deco days of baseball were kindred to the semi-professional ball players who were known for their womanising, gallantry and drinking. Legends such as Hoss Radbourn of the Providence Grays, who won more than 140 games and whose arm was like rope by the time his career was cut short, died of syphilis. The creator of the box score journalist Henry Chatwick noted, “The two great obstacles in the way of success of the majority of professional ball players are wine and women.”
Not a great deal is known about Hicks’ first tour of Australia or how many members comprised his troupe. We do know, however, that some stayed on once the tour was over and at least one married and settled in Melbourne.
Established in 1866 and originally billed as Brooker and Clayton’s Georgia Minstrels, they were the first African American blackfaced minstrel troupe. They had sustained success across the Northeastern US and toured England before arriving in Australia in the 1870s. The tour down under lasted for three years.
At some point during the ongoing attraction of their gallivanting across Melbourne’s town halls it was agreed that Hicks’ Georgia Minstrels would throw down over nine innings with St. Kilda. 1879 had already occasioned its own sense of theatre in the world of sports. The year proved momentous in its history. Already the first test match hat-trick had been taken by Fred Spofforth just months prior at the MCG. An artificial ice-rink, the first of its kind, was soon completed at Madison Square Garden, New York and the longest Championship Fight – some 136 rounds of pugilism – is soon recorded.
Inaugural president of St. Kilda US Consul General Mr G. M. Spencer, among the five other gentlemen present at the historic first meeting at Jewett’s Hotel on that cold Monday evening in May that included vice Presidents Mr. S.P. Lord and Mr. C.W. Hughes and secretary Mr. J. Burrowes and treasurer Mr. C.J. Jewett, evidently the publican and lubricator of all future such meetings that year, had gained permission from the St. Kilda Cricket Club to host the game against the Minstrels at their headquarters, now known as the Junction Oval.
On June 7, 1879 St. Kilda defeated the Georgia Minstrels; the final score has not survived the annals. It was a Saturday.
A rematch was agreed to the following week. This second international attracted a large crowd, the exact number we do not know, which when not entertained by the great spectacle of a high scoring game were treated to swampy renditions of the band’s vast repertoire and the odd comic routine. The Georgia Minstrels won easily 29-18 amidst claims they had loaded their team with former professionals from the majors.
The Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first professional baseball team, had been established not ten years before. Given that its first nine was loaded with former cricket players, it is difficult to know what advantage, if any, the Minstrels enjoyed should they have had professionals at their disposal for the rematch. Members of Hicks’ squad, no doubt, would have played if not been exposed to the various leagues taking root along the Atlantic Coast as baseball began its explosion from its original epicentre, New York.
Several games between the two teams have been said to have taken place at later dates in Jolimont. According to a report from The Age newspaper, dated June 14, the felicitous party atmosphere occasioned by the spectacle gave belief to a rise in popularity of the sport in Melbourne, in which “a game of an interesting nature is expected, reminding most of our American citizens of their national pastime. There is a hope expressed among baseball fans that some professionals may visit Australia.”
In all likelihood this is the first organised baseball series between an Australian baseball club that survives today and the United States. Notwithstanding, the short-lived Surry Hills Cricket Club’s brief embodiment as a baseball team for a one-off game supposedly six months earlier, the squared series between St. Kilda and the Georgia Minstrels at the Junction Oval provided overture for organised baseball competition in Australia. The Boston Red Sox were still known as the Pilgrims.
The tradition of St. Kilda challenging visiting sides from overseas continues even today. In 2008 the visiting US naval vessel the USS John McCain went head-to-head in a friendly against the Saints in a summer twilight match. A rematch, as is the custom born on that cold June day in 1879, has been proposed for a later date in Japan where the naval base is located.
Part 2: Reformation and the club’s first stars.
 The first reported game of so-called organised ‘baseball’ in this country took place at the Exhibition Grounds in Carlton, February 27, 1857. Few records for this event survive. What we do know, however apocryphal, is that teams represented by Richmond and Collingwood, yet accommodated by the supposed hospitality of the non-participating Melbourne Baseball Club, achieved during their showcase game a score line of 350-230. That doesn’t much sound like baseball. Indeed this bastardised version of baseball is generally agreed upon by some historians as being an unholy union of the rules that comprise parts of cricket, rounders, one old cat and perhaps Town Ball.
© Bill Craske 2010