How Baseball’s Long Courting of London Once Captured the King’s Attention

MLB has been trying to attract fans from across the pond for over a century, and returns to London to try again this weekend. It’ll be tough to top an exhibition that took place in 1914.
Fans watching an exhibition baseball game at Chelsea Football Club’s Stamford Bridge in 1914.
Fans watching an exhibition baseball game at Chelsea Football Club’s Stamford Bridge in 1914. / Courtesy James E. Elfers
In this story:

Sitting in an ornate royal box behind home plate at Stamford Bridge Grounds in Chelsea, watching the first baseball game of his life, the King of England heard umpire Bill Klem call a strike.

Turning to Walter Hines Page, the United States ambassador to Great Britain, King George V remarked, “I thought that one was pretty low.”

King George caught on quickly. The rest of England did not.

The date was Feb. 26, 1914. About five months later, on Aug. 4, King George would write in his diary, “I held council at 10:45 to declare war with Germany. It is a terrible catastrophe but it is not our fault … Please God it may soon be over.”

This glorious day, however, was dedicated to the pomp and circumstance of the most star-studded and spectacular baseball game ever played on English soil. It was, by one eyewitness account, “the greatest event that America has ever shown England.”

Among the luminaries on hand that day were John McGraw (who would pen a Page 1 account of the game for the New York Times), Tris Speaker, Jim Thorpe, Charles Comiskey, Damon Runyon, the Duchess of Marlboro, the Duke of Devonshire, the Earl of Chesterfield, Lord Desborough, the Earl of Lonsdale, Rear-Admiral Sir Colin Keppel, Sir Frederick Ponsonby and Lord Granville. The star of stars was King George, then 48 years old, four years into his reign and soon to be the grandfather of the future Queen Elizabeth II.

The game culminated the longest and strangest MLB exhibition tour ever pulled off: 50 games over 138 days in which players from the New York Giants and Chicago White Sox circumnavigated the globe—from the United States to Japan to Hong Kong to Manila to Australia to Sri Lanka to Egypt to Italy to France and, finally, to England and Stamford Bridge, the famed venue that opened in 1877 and since 1905 has served as home to Chelsea Football Club. The traveling party first gathered in Cincinnati on Oct. 13, 1913, and returned March 6, 1914, in a snowstorm to New York harbor aboard the RMS Lusitania, the luxury liner that 14 months later would be sunk by torpedoes from the German submarine U-20.

The purpose of the trip was to introduce the American pastime to the world. The day before the game at Stamford Bridge, Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American proprietor of his famed eponymous department store, threw a reception at the Hotel Savoy for the touring Americans. White Sox manager Jimmy Callahan addressed the crowd there, explaining that the exhibition in England was arranged not to have baseball supplant cricket but simply to show off the sport.

“If you like the game, try it,” Callahan said.

One hundred and 10 years later, MLB is still trying to gain a foothold in England, where there is one dedicated baseball field. MLB will stage the third installment of its London Series this weekend, with the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies playing at London Stadium Saturday and Sunday. The New York Yankees took two games from the Boston Red Sox in 2019 and the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals split two games in 2023. The four games combined for 73 runs.

King Charles III is not expected to attend, though he could decide at the last minute to pop in and create international buzz, the way King George V did in 1914, providing the biggest gate receipts for the American ballplayers on their around-the-world-in-138-days tour.

Comiskey, the White Sox owner, and McGraw, the Giants manager, organized what was then the third international baseball tour and the first in a quarter of a century, following trips to England in 1874 and to seven countries, including England, in 1888. The organizers hoped to break even. Thanks largely to King George, they wound up netting almost $100,000, or about $3.1 million in today’s dollars.

Traveling by special trains, the troubadours first played 31 games in 33 days in the United States, not including rainouts in Abilene, Sacramento and Seattle. On Nov. 19 they left Seattle for Japan on a steamship. So rough were the seas they did not arrive in Yokohama until Dec. 6, four days late.

Everywhere they went the players encountered enthusiastic crowds, though the fervor in Japan impressed them the most. “The Japanese surprised us with their knowledge of inside baseball,” Callahan said. “No matter where we went in Japan the crowds followed us after the games were over. American fans have nothing on the Japanese as rooters.”

On Feb. 1, the Giants and White Sox played a game in the shadow of the pyramids in Cairo. It ended in a tie, only the second such tie in the series. Games in Rome and Paris were rained out. By the time they reached London, the White Sox led the series 23–20 with two ties. (In four other games, the teams combined rosters to play against local teams, winning all four.)

The traveling party arrived in London from Nice on Feb. 24. A few players, including Tip O’Neill and Jim Mullen, left London for Ireland to fetch Callahan, who had left the tour in Paris for the Emerald Isle and was lost in the wilds of Kilkenny.

That night the ballplayers in London attended an evening show in their honor at the Prince of Wales Theatre. The next morning, they toured the House of Parliament before heading to the luncheon at the Hotel Savoy. Presiding over the lunch, with 300 people filling the ballroom, was John L. Griffiths, Counsel General of the United States to Britain, a garrulous, beefy man and noted dinner speaker. (He would die suddenly of a heart attack three months later at age 58.)

Griffiths compared baseball to cricket, noting how each sport suited its country’s temperament. Cricket, he reminded the audience, allows for a recess of tea.

“But imagine such a condition in baseball,” he said, “yet both games build up a people from whose loins spring men of greatness.”

He painted a scene of a batter hitting a ball with the score tied and a full count in the bottom of the last inning.

“While the result is impending,” he gushed, “a man may be pardoned for forgetting his home ties, the names and ages of his children, and even his own name or whether he is married or single.”

Meanwhile, a controversy brewed. McGraw was quoted by a New York newspaper saying American soldiers were superior to their British counterparts because of the athletic discipline in the states and how baseball benefited the mind as well as the body. The Pall Mall Gazette, a London Daily, chastised McGraw as impertinent. Talk of a boycott began to grow around London.

McGraw did not attend the luncheon, blaming his absence on a severe cold contracted from the “damp, foggy weather here.” He denied making any such statements comparing American and British soldiers.

United Kingdom’s King George V attends a baseball game at London’s Stamford Bridge in 1914.
King George V (center) was among the 30,000 or so in attendance. / Courtesy James E. Elfers

The controversy blew over, especially after King George announced he would attend the game. According to a wire service report, the announcement had “almost a magical effect in London, which has a touch of baseball fever. It was the chief topic of conversation not only at the American bars of big hotels but even where Englishmen gathered around for their 5 o’clock teacups.” The game sold out in two hours. Stamford Grounds accommodated about 30,000 people for the baseball game.

A royal box was built behind the plate, replete with screening to protect the royals from foul balls. The box was draped in red cretonne and trimmed in palms, lilies, hyacinths and narcissus. It was furnished with Louis de Quinze armchairs upholstered in white flowered silk. Looking back, it was the day the luxury suite was born.

On game day, the players dressed at their hotel and were driven to Chelsea in automobiles bedecked with silk American flags on the hood. They received a police escort.

“Had it not been for this protection,” McGraw wrote, “we would never have been able to reach the grounds on account of the immense crowds.”

King George was driven there by “ordinary limousine,” according to Runyon, the legendary writer whose account included this preface as a nod to the wonder of technology: “Special by cable to New York, and leased by wire, the longest in the world.” The world was getting smaller, and baseball wanted a bigger piece of it.

Wearing a derby, not a crown, the king and his party entered Stamford Grounds at precisely 3 p.m. Noticing his majesty, the spectators rose from their seats and let out a great roar. The king bowed in appreciation at the welcome. The players walked toward the royal box and serenaded the king with three cheers. King George told McGraw and Comiskey, “I am very glad to have you gentlemen here with your baseball teams.” McGraw expressed his appreciation. King George then tossed a baseball to Callahan, who gave it to Klem, who gave it to Jim “Death Valley” Scott, the starting pitcher for the White Sox.

The king’s enjoyment was visible. He cheered wildly when White Sox righthander Red Faber pitched out of a one-out, bases loaded jam. When Joe Benz of the Sox was hit by a pitch, King George laughed when he heard an American fan yell, “That’s right, kill him!” Said the king as Benz took his base, “He certainly deserves something for being hit.”

When a foul ball whizzed past the royal box and broke a window above it, King George scooped up a piece of broken glass as a souvenir. He laughed when he saw how a police officer had to track down foul balls. With Page’s help, he kept score in the game program, using a table set up next to his upholstered chair for that very purpose. He looked mystified when a fan, upon watching Thorpe swing and miss at a pitch, yelled, “There’s a hole in the bat!”

He was most awestruck, McGraw said, “by the grace of the players and by the high flies.” King George also wondered how pitchers could make the ball swoop and arc. Giants lefthander Charles Bunn Hearn, known as “Bunny,” was summoned to show him how pitchers gripped and released the ball, which is how Bunny Hearn forever would tell people he taught the King of England how to throw a curve.

Also in the royal box, the Earl of Chesterfield was so mesmerized by this baseball exhibition that it wasn’t until later he realized someone had stolen an ornate pin from him. It was valued at $2,500, or $78,000 in today’s dollars.

Wrote McGraw, “If the King had been at the Polo Grounds at a game which would decide the world’s series he could not have witnessed a harder played battle than the clash today.”

The game was a corker, even though, according to one observation of the English fans, “Before two innings had been played, many of them confessed themselves mystified. For the remainder of the game they sat as though in a daze.” 

The New York Times, in an account it trumpeted with the preface, “By Marconi Transatlantic Wireless Telegraph,” noted parts of the game particularly amused the English fans. They could not fathom why the coaches talked so much. (“It wasn’t right to confuse the players,” as one was quoted.) Others didn’t like the idea that foul balls did not count. (“’Twas a shame when the ball goes so far.”) They were puzzled by the spitball tactics of Faber. (“Why does the pitcher kiss the ball all the time?”)

After the eighth inning, just past four o’clock, hundreds of English fans left their seats to grab afternoon tea. They missed a wild finish.

In the last of the 10th with the Giants up, 4–2, and Buck Weaver on second base, Sam Crawford of the Detroit Tigers, added to the Sox for the tour, smoked a game-tying home run. Wrote Runyon of the wild response in the crowd, “That was when those Americans really began to cut loose with some homelike enthusiasm. Even the British seemed to sense the tense excitement of the situation.”

The Giants did not score in the top of the 11th. Then, as if the bombastic Griffiths had presaged the moment, Tom Daly, the 23-year-old White Sox first baseman, ended the game with a walkoff home run into the left field bleachers off Faber. People cheered the players even as they left the grounds. Ambassador Page told the teams that the game was “the greatest event that America has ever shown England.”

The king stayed for all 11 innings, befitting George’s reputation as an unpretentious monarch who changed how royalty connected with commoners. He and his wife, Mary, would visit working blue-collar families and inquire about living conditions. He often visited troops on the front lines during the war. He preferred collecting stamps and game shooting over the opera, once writing, “Went to Covent Garden and saw Fidelio and damned dull it was.”

Baseball caught his fancy. When the players returned to the Savoy, a message from King George awaited them. He told them he enjoyed the game almost as thoroughly as the day on which his father’s horse won the English Derby.

The next morning, the English dailies offered reviews of the American pastime, mostly expressing a preference for cricket over baseball. “Two runs in an hour is too slow for an Englishman, who wants to see a hundred knocked up in cricket in that time,” the New York Times summarized.

One writer compared the exhibition to a “short music-hall turn,” or limited run show: it wins delighted applause but “it becomes mechanical by its very perfection.”

That same morning, the Americans boarded the Lusitania, sailing out of Liverpool. It took them seven days to cross the Atlantic. On their last night on the huge liner, Germany Schaefer belted out German songs and Mike Donlin, a favorite of the bleacher creatures at Stamford Bridge who elicited chants of “Mike! Mike!”, entertained the crowd with songs and stories.

The exhibition did not ignite a baseball craze in England. The realities of war squelched any momentum for a new pastime. The game, however, did begin to take root in England in the 1930s, when Hollywood motion pictures ignited a fascination with all things American. Again, though, war interceded and baseball in England remained little more than a curiosity.

On the morning after the King of England watched 11 innings of baseball from his finely upholstered silk armchair, the London Daily News put the phenomenon into perspective:

“For about two hours a foreign sort of pandemonium whirled in the arena. Wonderful deeds, no doubt, were accomplished when the world-famous White Sox of Chicago and the universally acclaimed Giants of New York met to fight out a game of the American pastime, but it was all Greek to the crowd.

“After yesterday’s showing, baseball still remains and will remain an exclusively, peculiarly transatlantic dish, such as clams, crackers and canvasback.”

One hundred and 10 years later, as the Mets and Phillies serve up another dish of baseball across the pond, the perspective still applies.


Published |Modified
Tom Verducci

TOM VERDUCCI

Tom Verducci is a senior baseball writer for Sports Illustrated. He’s covered Major League Baseball since 1981. Tom also has been an analyst for Fox and the MLB Network; a New York Times No. 1 bestselling author; and co-host of The Book of Joe podcast with Joe Maddon. A five-time Emmy Award winner across three categories (studio analyst, reporter, short form writing) and nominated in a fourth (game analyst), he’s garnered many honorifics over the years, including three-time National Sportswriter of the Year; two-time National Magazine Award finalist; and Penn State Distinguished Alumnus Award recipient. Tom is a member of the National Sports Media Hall of Fame, Baseball Writers Association of America (including past New York chapter chairman) and a Baseball Hall of Fame voter since 1993. He also is the only writer to be a game analyst for World Series telecasts.