Sergeant," the colonel informed me with exasperation one May morning in 1952, "Third Air Force is not happy about those stories in the national newspapers. I mean the stories about my airmen picking up girls in the streets of Kingston and Teddington and Hampton Wick." Then, in a mutter more to himself than to me, "You'd think that with all that's going on in the world, these Limey newspapers would have something better to write about."
The harassed commander of the U.S.A.F. base in Bushey Park was expressing an annoyance that all of us U.S. airmen in England were feeling at the time, YANKS, GO HOME! was daubed on walls up and down the country. And many other things suggested to us that our presence as paying guests of the Crown was no longer appreciated. We in public information spent most of our working hours trying without much success to get our Air Force a better shake in the British newspapers.
"Our problem, sir," I tried to explain, "stems from the fact that the British weekly newspapers pay reporters badly."
"Eh?" said Lieut. Colonel Samuel Marsh, frowning.
"You see, sir," I went on, "local reporters resell their stories to Fleet Street, and any nasty story about American troops is good for linage, especially where there's a sex angle. That wartime joke about our being 'overpaid, oversexed and over here' may be wearing pretty thin, but...."
"How," the colonel broke in, "do you keep papers from printing what you don't want them to?"
"Well, sir," I went on, "newsprint is rationed, and that puts a limit on the amount the papers can print about us. Probably the best way to kill a bad story is to offer a good one in its place."
"Anything good been happening around here?" he asked doubtfully.
"Sir," I said, "our softball team plays exhibitions at various local gatherings. But doesn't it seem to you, sir, that instead of showing these people our national pastime, we ought to be trying to learn theirs?"
Colonel Marsh was losing patience. "What," he asked, "has all this to do with my airmen and these local girls?"
I answered with another question: "Don't you think, sir, that you ought to start a base cricket team?"
"Sergeant," the colonel replied, his voice steel hard, "I doubt if there's a man jack on this base who knows or cares the first damn thing about cricket."
I smiled. "That, sir, is precisely what I'm counting on."
Colonel Marsh did not smile back, but I sensed that the penny had, as the British say, dropped. He promised that he would discuss the matter with Captain Jack Grant, his Special Service officer, which he did.
Grant wangled a challenge from the cricket team at the Royal Air Force station at nearby Uxbridge, then told me, "This job is a natural for our Basil."
Born and brought up in London's working-class district of East Hackney, Basil Kane had left England to live with an uncle in Chicago in 1948, had been naturalized and at draft age had joined the Air Force—which sent him right back to London. Basil smoked fatter cigars, chewed more gum and spouted more American slang than any airman at Bushey Park, and I remember him emerging from Grant's office, shaking his head and muttering, "Cricket, shmicket! So what's wrong with baseball?" Then he saw me. "What's with this cricket nonsense, Lampe? Can you see any of our blokes volunteering for a cricket team?" Basil must have been shaken; he'd said "blokes" when he meant "guys."
I tried to calm him. "Appeal to our men's sporting instincts," I suggested. "Tell 'em that cricket is so much slower than baseball they'll make monkeys out of the Limeys." But Basil was right: nobody volunteered. Finally Captain Grant arbitrarily detailed 11 men from Bushey's baseball squad to become cricketers. A 12th man was Lieut. Don Bell, the base adjutant, a former radio announcer who presumably would be able to cope with reporters.
At the first practice Basil lined up the team and began a lecture only Bell listened to. The rest tossed baseballs from hand to hand, whispered to each other and thoughtfully scratched themselves.
"Now listen, you guys," Basil pleaded, "cricket is not the same as baseball."
"You can say that again!" somebody hissed.
Basil pretended not to hear as he launched into a long muddled lecture about "bowlers" and "wickets," "creases" and "slips," "bails" and "stumps." A remark about "bowling a maiden over" got a laugh, but terms like "googlies," "silly mid ons," "cover points," "square legs," "leg byes" and "out for a duck" were just ignored. Basil did manage to get across the fact that the paddle he brandished was a cricket bat and he was able to explain that a "bowler" was a pitcher, a "wicket keeper" a catcher, a "batsman" a batter. But then he plunged right back into deep water with "l.b.w." and "hat trick" and "declaring." If Captain Grant had not been there to pull rank, I don't think that his baseball players, some with Texas League contracts waiting for them back home, would have learned anything at all about the English national pastime.
That first session ended with Basil emotionally dripping sweat, the players almost dead of boredom and me insisting to Bell and Grant that my idea had been a very good one indeed.
Soon afterward a reporter who had heard that Bushey Park's new cricket team was going to play R.A.F. Uxbridge on Friday, June 4, visited me, tingling with excitement, already adding up what this story was going to earn him in Fleet Street. I played it cool. "I've seen our guys practicing," I admitted, "and personally I don't think they're very good. They've got a lot of baseball reflexes that they just can't discard."
"Well, for one thing, when they hit the ball they drop the bat before they run." Then I gave him a generous dose of the stuff about our men wanting to learn his national game instead of teaching his compatriots ours. And he covered pages with Pitman scratchings.
Meanwhile, Basil had held several more practice sessions and Lieutenant Bell had assured me, "I think the men have begun to get the idea of the game. More or less."
The day before the game, tipped by my reporter (from the Surrey Comet), the Fleet Street papers all telephoned.
Yes, they would be welcome to visit Bushey, but they shouldn't, I warned, expect very good cricket.
That weekend, instead of the usual stories about American airmen and peroxide floozies in the main streets around Bushey Park, the press was filled with good-natured reports of our cricket game. I still have a clipping from the tabloid Daily Graphic headlined CITIZEN KANE PUTS SWING INTO CRICKET.
It begins with an entirely fictitious encounter between Basil and Colonel Marsh in which the colonel states, "America depends on you this day, my boy." And eventually it gets around to the game:
"Yesterday he [Basil] led his cigar-smoking, fatigue-trousered, gum-chewing American team against an R.A.F. side resplendent in white flannels.
"On a tree-fringed green, America's openers, Corporal George Buckley, from Yakima, Washington State, and Airman John Barn, from New Jersey, stepped out.
"Thirty minutes and several baseball swings later the innings closed for 27. And three occasions were recorded on which batsmen dropped their bats and ran to cover point—which was a baseball reflex but Not Cricket.
"The R.A.F. put on 70 for three and declared. They said it had been a 'jolly good show' and the Americans agreed it had been 'swell fun.'
"But the silence had them unsettled. Said a sergeant from Arkansas: 'This "Howzat" business is what I like best.' "
During the next weeks Bushey Park's cricket team was invited to play all over Surrey and Middlesex. Usually they took along softball equipment and, after the novelty of Americans fumbling at cricket palled, they would hand out their bats and gloves and play the cricketers a few innings of softball, which is enough like the British children's game of "rounders" so that the sides became evenly matched. All this was good for Anglo-American relations, as well as achieving the intended goal, providing good stories to edge out bad ones. Several weeks after our first game England's leading newspaper cartoonist, Giles of the Daily Express, drew a typical English village cricket pitch being invaded by an American Air Force baseball team. And in July BBC-TV sent cameras out to Bushey Park for our return game with Uxbridge.
This time our men remembered not to drop their bats and this time the R.A.F. team did not have to play in slow motion. One of our batsmen, Al Negrete, actually scored 45 runs before being put out, which, if not exactly test match stuff, was not bad for an American who had been playing the game only a month. Writing about this in our own newspaper, the UK Eagle, I quoted Lieutenant Bell: "We have a long way to go before we can play test matches. But if we had two complete teams and more practice sessions, I think we could give any regular cricket team a good match." I called Bushey Park's players the "top American cricket outfit in England," the safest of assertions.
In fact, the R.A.F. beat us by only 111 to 97—thanks, it must be admitted, to our bowler, Airman Cummings from the U.S.A.F. hospital at Northwick Park, North London. Cummings, a black, fascinated the BBC cameraman. Instead of winding up and tying himself into a knot like a baseball pitcher, he raced forward with the ball and hurled it overhand, straight-armed, in the correct cricket manner. This startled the first R.A.F. batsman who swung, missed and heard the wicket fall. Cummings then bowled out the next two batsmen. In cricket, I noted down for my article, they call this a "hat trick."
After the game the British spectators and pressmen crowded around our hero. Had he ever played the game before? Cummings shifted from foot to foot, then finally admitted that he had. "Much?" somebody asked. Cummings looked at me, and I nodded. Yes, he admitted. Rather a lot. "Who for?" somebody asked. Cummings again looked at me, and again I nodded. "I'm from the West Indies," he said. "I used to bowl for a pro team that played demonstration matches all over the States."
By the time my own tour of duty in the Air Force ended two months later, the great American cricket team was no more. The enthusiasm of one bowler and one public relations-minded lieutenant had not been enough to keep it going. But if our exploits on the cricket pitch were forgotten, also forgotten were our airmen's conquests on the street corners of Kingston and Teddington and Hampton Wick.