When cricket was king in Detroit

Gareth Potts

Strange but true — cricket was once the No. 1 summer team sport in Detroit.

One of Britain's legacies for its former colonies is the noble sport of cricket (some call it boring — I, and other right-minded individuals, call it noble).

That it now constitutes the world's second main team sport after soccer is not too surprising when you realize that one of those former colonies is cricket-mad India.

As is fairly well known, the game failed to take hold in the greatest of all former colonies: Hong Kong.

Just kidding. I meant "the original 13 states forming the United States of America" (actually, they love the game in Hong Kong too).

What is less well known is that in 1850s Detroit, the game was far and away the most popular team sport. In 1858 the Peninsular Cricket Club was formed and played on a large (then rural) field in what is now Midtown (the block formed by Woodward, Canfield, Cass and Forest — the rear of the Whitney overlooked it).

This became known as Peninsular Park.

Should Peninsular Park have some form of commemoration too?

They must have been pretty good. In 1879 they played a touring all-England team whose manager wrote "I am bringing out … the best and strongest team in every department of the game that ever left England. ... We shall sail from Liverpool on August 28th for Quebec."

Churchill himself couldn't have put it more pompously. The Peninsulars played an England side again in 1885.

The team also regularly went on short tours of Canada. They even played there regularly during the Civil War — which must have given rise to some strange conversations with Union soldiers. "I just wish I could be down there with you but, damn it, we're playing the Carlton Club at their place next week." OK, I'm sure it wasn't quite like that. …

As the scorecards for some of their other matches show, they also played the legendary Germantown Cricket Club in Philadelphia.

Philly was long the hotbed of cricket in the U.S. and sent excellent teams to play (and often beat) the pros in England and Australia.

A successful eastern tour in 1878 saw the team increase playing members from 70 in 1882 to 179 in 1886. Like a lot of American and Canadian cricket teams they included ex-pats from England — such as Boston-Edison businessman George Heigho. Other prominent business and legal figures served as club president.

In 1888, the team was absorbed by the new multi-sport Detroit Athletic Club. The players, a number of whom also played baseball, played on.

Amongst the DAC cricket ranks were two future mayors of the city. One would posthumously provide the world with a good quiz question — which former cricketer has a freeway named after them? Answer: John C. Lodge.

The other, George P. Codd, also later a congressman, was on a Peninsular team that played the touring Australians in Detroit in 1893.

This wasn't, as you will have gathered, a game for the masses — diversity seems to have been limited to facial hair. That cricket in Detroit was for the wealthy white gentleman amateur probably didn't help its sustainability. The exact reasons for the decline of cricket in the city are not, alas, documented in the various histories of the sport and city.

The decline of cricket in the U.S. is generally well covered, though. The sport was an expensive pursuit — games took a day, sometimes two, and equipment and travel were costly.

Baseball also grew in popularity because troops found it easier to play during the Civil War and because it was sustained through a well-marketed national professional structure by the early 1870s.

Many top cricketers switched to pro baseball. These included Albert Spalding, of sporting goods fame and a man keen to market baseball as America's pastime, not a colonial legacy, and Hall of Famer Harry Wright, the English-born son of a cricket pro.

One of Detroit's own first two Hall of Famers, Sam Thompson, known as Big Sam and not to be confused with the other Hall of Famer, Big Dan, struggled with baseball early on, having damaged his shoulder at cricket.

Two amateur baseball clubs had already played their first game in 1858 and baseball was being played at Peninsular Park by 1867.

The first game of pro baseball in the city took place in 1879 at Recreation Park — which also had a cricket ground used by Peninsular alongside. The Detroit Wolverines formed a couple of years later and, in 1895, the Tigers had their first game. And I think you know the rest.

Gareth Potts writes for the DVoice Blog.

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