Home British baseballProject COBB Countdown to SABR Day 2011: 1980s Cobbette – Gooch vs Ernie Banks and Botham (vs Hank Aaron)

Countdown to SABR Day 2011: 1980s Cobbette – Gooch vs Ernie Banks and Botham (vs Hank Aaron)

by Joe Gray

Cobbette-(128x128)This is post two in a ten-post countdown to SABR Day 2011. The series is going through the decades of the 20th Century, backwards from the 1990s. On SABR Day itself, there will be a special feature on the 1890s, which will celebrate the significant link between keeping score and baseball history. This article will be published at 05:00 British time in order to coincide with the start of the day in the time-zone of the Cleveland-based SABR office. To view all the Cobbettes published to date, click here.


I had planned to write this cricket-themed Cobbette filled with inspiration from a spirited first day’s batting from England in the opening Test of the Ashes series, at the Gabba in Brisbane. That didn’t pan out, of course. So with slightly less enthusiasm than I had originally anticipated, I present a couple of reasonably well-known stories from the late 1980s about leading English cricketers participating in baseball exhibitions. Writing this on Thursday evening, I am still holding a small piece of hope for an England fightback (I might look very silly for that by the time this is published towards the end of day three of the Test).

1987 – Ian Botham

Ian Botham is perhaps the greatest all-rounder in English Test cricket history (one of his most fondly remembered achievements with the bat was an innings of 138 against Australia in 1986 that included 22 runs off a single Merv Hughes over and that set up England’s last victory at the Gabba).

But his versatility was not trapped within the bounds of that bat-and-ball sport. He had a brief spell as a professional soccer player (with Scunthorpe United) in parallel with his early cricket career. More pertinently for this Cobbette, he also tried his hand at baseball.

Botham was invited to participate in a home run derby contest at The Oval cricket ground, on Sunday 20 September 1987. His opponent was to be Hank Aaron, who, at the age of 52, was 21 years Botham’s senior. The event was set to start at 1pm, a couple of hours before the national final of British domestic baseball, which, that year, pitted the Cobham Yankees against the Southglade Hornets.

Fans turning up at The Oval on that Sunday in September would have been disappointed when they opened up their programmes to find a slip of paper announcing Hank Aaron’s withdrawal from the event.

Nevertheless, Botham stuck to his side of the deal, as can be seen in the photo below (for a much, much better photo of Botham from that day, see Beth Hise’s recent book Swinging Away). According to that slip of paper in the programme, Botham also faced live pitching from Ian Pont, a fast bowler in first-class cricket at the time who was described as having had a trial with Major League Baseball teams.

Ian Botham was also linked with the baseball game between the GB national team and a team of cricketers in 2008 – presumably, in part, because of his strong ties with Somerset County Cricket Club, whose Taunton ground was used for the event. Unfortunately, he was one of several high-profile individuals to have their names in the press materials but not the scorebook.

I checked Wikipedia to see if baseball featured in Ian Botham’s profile – it doesn’t. I then debated over whether or not I should add it and decided against it. What I did learn is that he won Pipe Smoker of the Year in 1988, so clearly the biography has been limited to only the most important points about the man’s life so far.

1988 – Graham Gooch

A year and 5 days after Botham did battle with a baseball, Graham Gooch was asked to take part in a very similar event to the one planned in 1987. Like Botham, Gooch was no B-lister. The Cricinfo website describes him as “the most prolific run scorer top-class cricket has ever seen.”

The venue was The Oval and the occasion was the national final of British domestic baseball, with the home run derby scheduled to start at 1pm once more, and the baseball game at 3pm. Adding to these similarities was the Cobham Yankees’ return to the famous cricket ground to defend their national title.

There was one crucial difference, though. The baseball player who was invited to take on the cricketer turned up. That man was 57-year-old Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, and it was noted in the programme for the 25 September final that “US baseball could not have a finer ambassador.” On the facing page were some words on Gooch’s preparations:

“Graham is looking forward to this fascinating challenge and is in a determined mood to do well. We could be in for a surprise package especially as the Chelmsford nets [where Gooch practised with his Essex team] have reportedly been the scene of some alien practice.”

The 33-year-old cricketer did connect for two homers in the warm-up, but there was to be no surprise. He could not muscle a single baseball out of the ground in the competition, while Banks managed a trio of long balls.

If you have an interesting history snippet to share that has a link to Britain then please send a message to Joe Gray through the Get in contact page. To see all of the work of Project Cobb, which is a Chartered Community of SABR (the Society for American Baseball Research), click here.

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Matt Smith November 27, 2010 - 11:36 am

Day Three didn’t go as well as we had hoped then! Maybe an incredible fightback could still happen?

Good to read these stories though. It says a lot about the British finals in those years that the games took place at the Oval and there was a famous Major Leaguer at one of them, at least, not to mention the draw of the top cricketers.

MLB event coming to Hyde Park this July | BaseballGB June 1, 2017 - 9:10 pm

[…] Gray’s article on this site from November 2010 told the tale of the two most notable home run derby events in the UK over the past thirty years. […]


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