One of the best places to find footnotes are the pages of 19th century newspapers. They were the principal way in which people found out about the world they lived in, and they are very often highly detailed. They tell the stories of people, events and organizations in a way that provides a goldmine for historians. Poring over musty old pages in the library is both an adventure in search of the information you need, but also dangerously diverting as the eye passes over headlines that seem infinitely more interesting than those you are looking for. The digitalization of newspapers has made the possibilities for the unexpected even greater as you able to find them while musing at your desk.
Such a diversion occurred last year when I was working on a microfiche in the Richmond Historical Village on Staten Island in New York. As I read the Staten Islander for 1886, I could have sworn that I read the words “Staten Island Cricket Club”. In the US? In the 19th century? The pursuit of the fate of the ill-fated United Labor Party, disappeared and off I went on a journey.
The British introduced cricket to North America in the early 18th century and its popularity grew to the extent that there was an international match between the US and Canada, held in New York, in 1844. 20,000 watched the match, with considerable betting going on. English sides toured throughout the rest of the century, on a commercial basis. Normally, the US sides were allowed to have more players (up to twice as many) to compensate for the different standards.
By the early twentieth century PG Wodehouse was able, in his book “Psmith, Journalist”, to talk of “the cricket-playing section of the United States”, and the 1917 John Barrymore film Raffles the Amateur Cracksman has the Staten Island cricket ground as its backdrop.
There is still a Staten Island Cricket Club. It was founded in 1872 (though, it has been argued, even earlier) and was originally called the “Staten Island Cricket and Baseball Club”. The early members were migrant officers of the British Armed Forces. It has played cricket each year since then and, the club believes that it is the oldest continuous, though not the oldest, cricket club in the United States.
The original ground was at Camp Washington near the island’s St George ferry, and is also where the club hosted the first tennis match held in the United States. Lawn tennis was ‘discovered’ by Mary Ewing Outerbridge in the Bermudas whilst on holiday, and she brought back a tennis kit – including the nets – to New York in 1874, and found a home at the Staten Island cricket club grounds. In 1880 the club held “the tournament for the championship of America”.
In 1886 the club moved a couple of miles to what is now Walker Park where the club remains. The original ground was redeveloped for major league baseball, but this was unsuccessful. The New York Metropolitans played there for a few years, and briefly the New York Giants, who now play in the National League as the San Francisco Giants.
The club, which had 500 members, had impressive facilities and served as a social and sports club. Lacrosse, croquet, soccer and football were also played there. There were bars and restaurants, as well as a Ladies Outdoor Amusements Club. Cricket was a sport for the wealthy; this was an area that still had fox hunting in the late 19th century. However, as the 19th century proceeded, baseball started to take over. Part of the problem was that, whilst the game of cricket was becoming more professional elsewhere in the world, it remained a amateur game for the wealthy in the US.
Watch Once Upon A Time On Staten Island: Fox Hunts Are Long Gone But Borough’s Cricket Matches Remain
Among touring teams hosted by the club were the Gentlemen of Ireland, various English teams, including Dick Daft’s XI, an Oxford and Cambridge Team, the West Indies, and the Australian test team. Many famous cricketers have appeared there. In the 19th century W.G. Grace, Lord Hawkes and Prince K.S.Ranjitsinhji; and in the 20th century, Sir Donald Bradman, Sir Everton Weeks, Sir Garfield Sobers, Allan Border and a young Geoffrey Boycott.
In 1906 the name of the club was changed to the Staten Island Cricket and Tennis Club, and changed again in 1931 to the Staten Island Cricket Club.
The late 20th century has seen attempts to revitalize cricket in the US as a sport for the 21st century. It was recently portrayed in a Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland in which, post 9/11, a York banker takes up cricket and starts playing at the Staten Island club.Look up: The Staten Island Cricket Club The Staten Island Cricket And Baseball Club’ by Charles E. Clay (1887) New York Times Online Archive And for an update on the club at its 125th anniversary.