When the summer of 1975 is reckoned with in English history books, I expect to see mention of the oppressive July and August heat wave and surely a line or two on Arthur Ashe's scientific dismantling of Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon. But what of that other sporting landmark? Lest it be swallowed up in the mists of time, I want to disclose how baseball came to the Sussex village of East Dean.
East Dean was my home for six weeks that summer. I shared a cottage called The Stables with my brother, Joe, in a setting straight off a Turner canvas. The green-gold South Downs rose and fell all around us, the sea was only 10 miles away, and Chichester with its Gothic cathedral and summer theater festival was even closer. While East Dean may have lacked the Country Life polish of Singleton, Midhurst and other West Sussex villages, it had all of life's necessities: a pub, a shop that tripled as a grocery, a post office and a news agent's, a 12th century stone church nestled on a hillside and, of course, a village green, on which sports history was made.
East Dean's was not one of your hands-off, showpiece village greens. In fact, when we moved into The Stables in mid-July, the incipient heat wave had already dried up the duck pond on the green and driven the ducks to a neighbor's garden for refuge. Further damage was done daily by the village kids, who used the green for cricket, soccer and any other sport of the moment.
The historic date, according to a journal I kept that summer, was July 26. Down in Sussex most villagers take their evening meal—tea, they call it—around six o'clock. So at 6:30 that day the kids were on the green playing a pickup game of cricket with hours of the wonderful English summer light still ahead. I was passing on my bicycle when a small voice called out, "Would you like a go at our national sport?" All of the East Dean regulars were there—Dan O'Leary and his sister, Jane, who lived in Pond Cottage just across the road from the green; Eric and Melanie Long; the Stevens brothers, Alan and Neil; and Angela Keyes, whose parents operated the grocery/post office/news agent's.
June 20, 1982
Dan O'Leary, I think it was, thrust the funny paddle-shaped bat in my hands, stepped back and sent the skidding, bounding ball my way. On one of my first awkward swipes I did a very ungracious thing. With a crrr-ack, I sent the ball skying over a droopy willow and onto the road, splintering the Pakistani-made bat. I had some quick thinking to do. Anyone could see that as a cricket bat, the Peshawar Slugger was doomed, but perhaps it still had enough lumber in it to suit another purpose. "Would you like to have a go," I offered, "at our national sport?"
To this day I am amazed at how swiftly and thoroughly the transplant took. I doubt that any of the East Dean kids had seen baseball on television—Kojak and Steve McGarrett, yes; Pete Rose and Pudge Fisk, no. Either they had played enough rounders or stoolball—those English country cousins of baseball—to have gotten the hang of catching, batting and throwing, or else I was surrounded by a band of budding little naturals.
We used a balding tennis ball, planted cricket stumps for bases and installed The Stables' righthander, myself, as everlasting pitcher. Ground rules? A ball hit onto the road was a home run; anything into the willow tree above the dried-up pond was in play. To be sure, there were assimilative problems. There was some confusion over the foul lines—in cricket, after all, the ball may be batted in any direction. And how does one explain that while it is permissible, even advisable, to overrun first base, when you approach second or third, you must stop on a farthing?
At any rate there was a new game in town, and for days the hot, pale Sussex sky was rent with the English-accented cries of "Foul ball!" "Easy out!" and "Come on, Yank, get it over!"—this last from Jane O'Leary, the best little bench jockey in the South Downs.
I must confess I was somewhat torn by the success of the transplant. After hamburgers, jeans and cowboy boots, did England really need another American import? Brother Joe, who handled the pitching chores once or twice, suggested I had created a monster. Robert Gittings, our landlord, had deeper fears. Gittings, a poet, biographer and passionate weekend cricketer, told me one day in early August, "You have changed the course of English history." He was smiling, but I sensed that he doubted the future of West Sussex cricket.
In mid-August I went up to Yorkshire for a visit, half wondering if baseball would survive my absence. When I drove down the familiar road through the hedgerows a week later, it was as though the seasons had turned. The heat was gone, the sky was heavy with clouds, and the duck pond was filled with water, and ducks, again. From the cries that rose above the village green I knew one thing hadn't changed. The kids needed a Kuhnian hand, however. To speed up the game and preserve the ball supply, I ruled that a ball hit into the pond was an out.
On the day I left East Dean, they came by one by one to say goodby—the O'Learys, the Stevens boys, Eric and Melanie Long. Eric, 14 then, was a shy and quiet boy with a natural home run swing and a way with woodworking tools. He peeked into The Stables just before I left, carrying with him a rough, rounded stick of wood about a yard in length. He said he was going to borrow a lathe to finish the job and he wanted to know, "How long is a baseball bat?"