PostHeaderIcon Missionaries and Baseball in Britain, 1935

LDS Baseball Team West London League 1935As I’ve explored the history of Mormons in baseball and baseball among Mormons, I’ve been somewhat surprised at the number of times that Mormon missionaries have been involved in playing baseball in different countries around the world, often as the sport is just starting there. I’ve found information that shows this involvement in Japan, Australia, South Africa and in Britain.

In this latter case, baseball was first introduced in 1890, when a small league was formed in Derby. But that attempt failed, and a later, much more successful attempt, came in 1933 with the founding of the National Baseball Association. And according to the following excerpts of an article from the Improvement Era, LDS missionaries were at the meeting that founded the organization, and a year later provided a league-winning team in the West London League.

The author of this article was Wendell J. Ashton, the older brother of Apostle Marvin J. Ashton and long-time editor of the Deseret News. Ashton also served as the team manager and pitcher.


Baseball and Mormons in England

by Wendell J. Ashton

A STRENUOUS morning of tracting completed, two Latter-day Saint missionaries slipped out of their Liverpool lodge one crisp October day in 1933 for a short recess of baseball “catch” before returning to their work. They strolled across the macadam street and into the Botanic Gardens, one of the myriads of parks that have preserved primitive nature in many of England’s large cities. The Gardens were almost in the shadows of old Durham House, which for more than a quarter of a century had been the headquarters of the European Mission. It had been vacated only a few months before with the transfer of the Mission offices to London.

Those missionaries were Elder William H. Houston, of Salt Lake City, a dark-complexioned, two-hundred pound giant of a fellow who had made a name for himself in amateur boxing at home, and Elder Harvey F. Freestone, of Los Angeles, a diminutive, sandy-haired missionary whose drawing pencil was his forte. He had sketched several posters for district conference campaigns and prepared “art” for the Millennial Star.

As they stood exchanging American baseball deliveries while English youths about them bowled cricket wickets and kicked soccer balls, a tall, sleek young man strolled up by the green park fence and stopped to watch them. His was not one of the customary looks of curiosity. He was smiling.

The elders dropped their gloves and introduced themselves.

“My name is Harry Holland,” the stranger responded. “You know, this seems great to see someone playing baseball ‘way over here in England. You know, I have played a little baseball myself. You see, I arrived in England from Canada only a month ago. Although I was born in Warrington (England), I have spent 19 of my 25 years in the Dominion, where I learned to love baseball. It’s my second nature.”

The missionaries invited their new acquaintance to join them in their afternoon baseball, and it wasn’t long before Mr. Holland suggested that they form a team of missionaries and Canadians in Liverpool and arrange a game with the crew of an American ship while it docked at Merseyside.

But an advertisement in one of the Liverpool newspapers a few days later changed their plans. It announced that a John Moores contemplated organizing a National Baseball Association, and all persons interested were urged to communicate with him. Mr. Holland telephoned Mr. Moores, who referred him to his secretary, B. J. Ayers. The latter invited Mr. Holland and the elders to the first public meeting of the National Baseball Association of Great Britain, being held in Liverpool that week. It was the first public meeting of definitely organized American baseball in British history.

More than that, Elder Houston and Mr. Holland were invited to speak on “Baseball and How It Should be Played” at that inaugural meeting.

And so the first meeting was held in the splendid Bear’s Paw restaurant of Liverpool, November 7, 1933. Elder Houston’s interesting speech and Mr. Holland’s blackboard lecture before the 200 listeners were favorably reported in the Liverpool dailies the following day.

At that meeting they learned the dramatic story of how Mr. Moores, millionaire-owner of a large mail order firm in England, conceived the plan for bringing the American national pastime to the most sport-conscious country in the world.

While on a combined vacation and business trip to America in the summer of 1933, Mr. Moores was introduced to John A. Heydler, at that time president of the National Baseball League in America.

Their common interest in sport welded a friendship. While they golfed together one day, the American magnate invited the Englishman to accompany him to a major league baseball game.

President Heydler then arranged a trip to Niagara Falls for the Moores party, and they entrained for Buffalo. A poster in that big city caught the Britisher’s eye, and he spent the afternoon in a baseball park instead of viewing one of the “Seven Scenic Wonders of the World.” He returned to England without seeing the Falls but with definite plans for popularizing a new sport in England.

Mr. Moores had been a patron for some time of the English Baseball Union, which for approximately 50 years had been fostering English “rounders,” a game played with a flat bat and a four-ounce ball. He offered this organization the opportunity of introducing American baseball. The Union shrugged its shoulders. So Mr. Moores laid the corner stone for the N. B. A. beginning at that first meeting at which Elder Houston spoke.

But shortly after that initial session Elder Houston was transferred to Ireland and Elder Freestone to Leeds. They bade Mr. Holland farewell, and with their leaving the Church lost contact with the infant N. B. A.

MORE than a year later, during England’s heavy rain season in late April, 1935, there came a knock on the door of the Millennial Star office at the European Mission headquarters at 5 Gordon Square, London. A tall, well-dressed man stepped in. His face was a portrait of elation.

“Are you the Latter-day Saints? Why, I’ve been looking for you for months. I understand you are interested in baseball. You don’t know how glad I am to meet you, especially at this time when we are looking for an eighth team to complete our West-London Baseball League.”

Those words came from the lips of this man, who introduced himself as Harry Holland, campaign manager of the National Baseball Association of Great Britain.

“You can’t realize how happy I am to meet you fellows again,” Mr. Holland reiterated, relating his acquaintance with Elders Houston and Freestone. “You know, I would have done anything in the world for those fellows.”

We chatted for nearly an hour. “You leave it to me. I’ll see that your baseball team is fitted out in suits patterned after those of the St. Louis Cardinals,” he concluded. “And more than that, I’ll furnish you with bats, balls, gloves and all the equipment you’ll need.

“The price? Don’t you worry about that. The Association will stand the cost. All we want you to do is to play baseball in the West-London League.”

Mr. Holland departed, leaving an invitation to attend the organization meeting of the proposed league in the Waldorf, one of London’s most palatial hotels.

The meeting was held. President Joseph J. Cannon, Elder M. Neff Smart, and the writer attended. The Latter-day Saints were unanimously accepted into the league, and President Cannon was voted a member of the league council. Following the meeting, the Mormon representatives were guests in the dining room of the hotel of Mr. Holland and L. D. Wood, wealthy London manufacturer and president of the league. He had lived in Chicago, coming to England eight years ago.

A few days later twelve suits arrived at the mission office from the N. B. A. They were made of beautiful gray material, with “Latter-day Saints” in gold script written across the front of the shirts. Then came bats, balls, catcher’s paraphernalia, and gloves. Mr. Holland arranged for a practice field and shower rooms for the team at the Streatham Soccer Club.

The schedule was drawn up. There were Sunday games on the “fixture,” but special arrangements were made in order that no Latter-day Saint contests fell on Sunday. Three trophies were offered: The John A. Heydler cup of the National Baseball Association (donated by the American baseball executive), for which all teams throughout Britain were to compete in an elimination tournament; the London League cup, which was to go to the team winning the most league games; and the London Knockout cup, offered to the team winning an elimination tournament of the 16 clubs in the East London and West London leagues.

The teams composing the West London League in addition to the Latter-day Saints are Cubs and Sox, composed of employes of Mr. Wood’s manufacturing concern; Streatham, composed of Canadian ice hockey players (the champions of Europe in the skating sport), Eastman Kodak employes, Lyons Shops, St. Joseph’s College and Putney.

The mushroom-like growth of the National Baseball Association all over the United Kingdom in its two years of existence bespeaks the increasing popularity of the American game, which threatens eventually to rival cricket as the national summer pastime in Britain. The two sports both evolved from the old English game of “rounders,” which developed from the “club ball” of the fourteenth century.

In the summer of 1935 there were 67 teams all over England competing for the Heydler cup, in addition to 20 unemployed teams and three university teams, all of which are affiliated with the N. B. A. There are 11 leagues (many of which Mr. Holland has organized for the Association), including four in Liverpool, three in Manchester, two in London, one in Birmingham, and one in Oxfordshire. Approximately 3,000 players, 90 per cent of whom are Englishmen, are registered with the N. B. A.

…TO the Church, baseball in Britain is proving a powerful instrument for breaking down the barriers of prejudice that existed for nearly a century and for opening the way for many to hear the Gospel message. Latter-day Saint missionaries are teaching the youth of Britain baseball. Several M-Men clubs throughout the mission have increased their enrollment by organizing softball teams. Scores of baseball friends, some of them players and league officials, are attending both auxiliary and sacrament meetings. Scores of people in Great Britain are learning through baseball that Mormon means “more good.”

Many of these players are well known in baseball circles at home. Elder Bybee performed for Ogden in the Utah State League; Elder Ellis had experience in the Ogden Commercial League, and Elder Smart won a reputation on the sandlots of Provo. Elder Harmsen is a former Arizona State league player.

Most of these elders labor in the British and European Mission offices. Baseball does not occupy a great deal of their time by any means. Practice comes only Tuesday and Thursday, two hours each day, and games are played on Saturdays. In addition to their office work, all of these elders conduct regular street meetings and attend to branch meetings and duties.


A RECENT letter from President Joseph J. Cannon carries the news that the Latter-day Saint baseball team of London, won the British National Baseball Championship, the final score in the final game being 7 to 1 in favor of the Latter-day Saints. The team received the national baseball cup.

Improvement Era, v38 n10
October 1935, pp. 598-600; 644-649


Ashton’s information is largely correct, but he apparently erred on a few details — he was ignorant of the 1890 league founded in Derby, which produced national champion teams off and on until about 1910, and so claimed that the NBA was the first attempt at baseball in Britain. The final statement, that the LDS team won the national championship, also may be incorrect, as it seems to conflict with the information on the wikipedia page on Baseball in the United Kingdom, which names “New London” as the championship team in 1935. I don’t yet know if that could actually be the LDS team or if the information has been garbled somehow.

For what its worth, apparently the N.B.A. didn’t manage to continue after World War II started.

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