This article on the Liverpool Trojans and the story of baseball in Liverpool originally appeared in Issue 3 of The Merseysider magazine. After it was published the Trojans were again crowned national champions in the summer of 2012.
Baseball has a surprisingly long history on Merseyside – and national champions Liverpool Trojans are maintaining the tradition, as John Hinton reports
When Norman Wells carried the Olympic torch on its Merseyside leg earlier this year, it was a well deserved acknowledgement of a remarkable sporting life. It also threw a welcome spotlight onto a sport and a local club that have perhaps not always received the recognition they deserve. In 1946 Norman helped to found the Liverpool Trojans, a national championship winning baseball club that are today more successful than ever.
Because of its massive popularity in the United States, baseball is usually thought of as an American sport, but it may surprise you to know that the game’s origins are in fact English. Baseball is closely related to rounders, and it’s believed that the first versions of the game date back to the 17th century or even earlier. Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey, written in 1799, actually contains a reference to a game she called ‘base ball’. So when a hundred years later Englishman Francis Ley came across baseball on a visit to the United States and decided to ‘import’ it to Britain, it really was a case of coals being shipped back to Newcastle. He joined forces with an American businessman and formed the National Baseball League of Great Britain and Ireland in 1890. The first championship was won by Derby, the city whose better known football team continued to play at a stadium known as the Baseball Ground until 1997.
Like the Liverpool Trojans today, the teams in this first league followed the American rules of baseball. An alternative version of the sport, known as ‘British baseball’, came into official existence in 1892. Differences include the number of players and the use in British baseball of a bat which instead of being completely round has a flat striking surface. The American version is more widely played, and today there are more than forty teams in Britain, spread across four tiers or divisions: the National League, AAA, AA and A. These tiers are further split into a Northern and Southern conference; the Liverpool Trojans compete in the Northern Conference of the AAA. At the end of each season the top four teams from the Northern and Southern Conference (two from each league) play each other in a knockout competition to determine the national champions at each level – it was the AAA championship that the Trojans won in 2011.
The heyday of baseball in Britain was in the years before the Second World War. Teams shared grounds with football clubs and games attracted up to 10,000 spectators. Great Britain even won the first baseball World Cup, defeating the United States in 1938. The sport was popular on Merseyside, with many matches played at Goodison Park, including an exhibition game in 1924 between two of America’s top teams (the Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants), when a player hit a ball clear over the Goodison Road stand. In 1933 John Moores (founder of Littlewoods and later the chairman of Everton) convened a meeting at which he tried to persuade local teams to change over to American-style baseball. He said it was his intention to form an American league and he offered £100 for clubs to switch. Seven teams took up the offer, and the first recorded American rules baseball match played between local clubs took place that August, when Liverpool Amateurs took on Oakfield Social at Priory Road, Liverpool.
John Moores’ involvement illustrates the numerous links to baseball of Liverpool’s two great football clubs – links which of course continue to this day, with Liverpool’s current owners New England Sports Ventures also owning the Boston Red Sox, one of US baseball’s leading teams. The unlamented former Reds co-owner Tom Hicks also had a baseball team, the Texas Rangers. The legendary Everton and Tranmere Rovers centre forward Dixie Dean actually played baseball in the 1930s for two local clubs, Liverpool Caledonians and the Robins, and also appeared for England when they played American side the Yankees at London’s White City. In later interviews he recalled once meeting the American baseball giant Babe Ruth, whose record-breaking achievements (such as his 60 home runs in 1928) were the US equivalent of Dixie’s amazing goal-scoring feats.The Liverpool Trojans story began immediately after the war in 1946, when a group of ex-servicemen who frequented a pub in West Derby called the Halton Castle formed the Halton Trojans. A Higsons brew called Trojan Beer was the favourite drink of most of the players, and a barmaid used to refer to the group collectively as ‘the Trojans in the back room’ – hence the team’s name. They played at Everton FC’s training ground at Bellefield, and also featured in Goodison Park’s last baseball game to date, when they played against the Formby Cardinals in 1948’s Lancashire Cup Final. The team disbanded in 1958 but re-formed in 1964 as the Liverpool Trojans, comprising a few of the original team members and several younger players. Their first major title came in 1976, when they defeated an all-American team to win the British championship. Further championship wins came in 1978 and 1980, and they also won what was then known as the North West League for nine consecutive years.
Olympic torchbearer Norman Wells has been associated with the club from the very beginning. His love of baseball dates back to 1939, when he began watching the Liverpool Giants play at Wavertree. The same year he also saw Dixie Dean play for Liverpool Caledonians. Once the war started he joined the Royal Navy, then when hostilities were ended he played a central role in the formation of the Halton Trojans. The Halton Castle was a meeting place for many baseball players, whose teams were based at the nearby Everton training ground. One evening Norman, partly spurred on by an infusion of liquid courage, challenged local club the Liverpool Robins (then the best team on Merseyside) to a match. Norman’s pub side were outclassed, but the Robins manager suggested they’d shown sufficient promise to warrant putting a team together. Norman played with the Trojans as a catcher and backstop through to their temporary dissolution in 1958. Six years later he took his son (also named Norman) to a match at the English Electric ground, where leading figures on the local baseball scene urged him to revive the Trojans. They re-formed, this time as the Liverpool Trojans, with Norman again taking on the responsibility of catcher before passing it on to his son (‘Young Norm’). He’s still involved with the club, as club president and co-ordinator, and over the years has at various times been player, coach and manager. He has also held administrative positions with the Merseyside and North West leagues, was Great Britain team manager for an international tournament and is a qualified international scorer.
The Trojans’ 2011 national championship success last September was the triumphant climax to a season in which they remained undefeated. The play-offs tournament took place at Hemel Hempstead and the Trojans’ first match was a semi-final against the Essex Redbacks. The Trojans were 6-0 down at one stage, but fought back to win 9-6. In the final the Trojans faced the Oxford Kings, who’d defeated them in the same tournament in 2010. A close-fought match may have appeared to be in prospect, but instead the Trojans stormed to a stunning 11-1 victory.
So far this season the Trojans and team manager Rob Alger have maintained their winning ways, and at the time of writing have only lost one out of eighteen games. The season runs from April to August, so there’s still time to watch a team everyone on Merseyside should be proud of, playing a game with a fascinating local history.
The Liverpool Trojans play at Bootle Stadium, Maguire Avenue. For fixtures and other information visit www.liverpooltrojans.co.uk
Thanks to Dave Martin-Baez (Team Secretary) for his help in the preparation of this article. Photos courtesy of the Liverpool Trojans.