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Cricket in America – Don Bradman meets Babe Ruth

Don Bradman meets Babe Ruth. Photo courtesy: Ric Sissons
Don Bradman meets Babe Ruth. Photo courtesy: Ric Sissons

In 1932, Arthur Mailey organised a party of Australian cricketers to embark on a voyage of North America. The star attraction of the tour was obviously Don Bradman – billed in United States and Canada as cricket’s Babe Ruth. Arunabha Sengupta traces the quaint and enjoyable visit, ending with the seminal meeting of The Don and The Babe.

The Don’s Dilemma

It was early 1932 and Don Bradman was in a quandary.

Obviously, it had nothing to do with his cricket. The previous season had seen him score 1403 runs at 116.92 and in a non-First Class game at Blackheath he had hammered 100 from three eight-ball overs.

He was about take on a new job — a three way post with Associated Newspapers, 2UE Radio Station and FJ Palmer & Son Ltd, men and boys outfitters. Additionally, he was set to marry his childhood sweetheart Jessie Menzies on April 30. And around this time he was approached by Arthur Mailey, the former Australian leg-break googly bowler and one of the most colourful characters to have played the game.

In collaboration with his America based friend Foxy Dean, Mailey was setting up a four-month tour of North America. Financial and organisational support was forthcoming from a number of sources, including Canadian Pacific Railway, the various cricket associations of Canada and shipping companies such as the Canadian Australasian Lines. The Australian Board of Control, perennially fussy about players organising their own tours, had given their consent. The only non-negotiable terms laid down by the sponsors was that Don Bradman had to be a member of the team. The Canadian tour promoters were already publicising Bradman’s star status as the ‘Babe Ruth of cricket’.

Bradman, apart from the employment and matrimonial prospects, was also not quite eager to undertake a strenuous tour just prior to the 1932-33 Test series against England. But, Mailey was persuasive. Ultimately a deal was struck. His new employers agreed that he could have leave, albeit without pay, for the duration of the tour. Jessie was willing, provided she could accompany her husband. Bradman himself was allured by the opportunity to see USA and Canada with his wife. Mailey offered to reimburse Bradman the lost salary and consented to pay his wife’s travel and accommodation costs. Hence, the great man said yes.

The Bradman feats on the ship

The team assembled was ax motley crew, rather uncharitably summed up by one contemporary journalist as ‘has beens, social members, Test possibles plus Don Bradman.’ However, it was somewhat more than that. Vic Richardson was chosen captain and he was still a force to reckon with. Additionally, there were two excellent Test batsmen in Alan Kippax and the youthful Stan McCabe. Among the promising young prospects taken for the voyage was a young left-arm chinaman bowler called Leslie ‘Chuck’ Fleetwood-Smith. Some useful first grade cricketers and some eminent men with rudimentary cricketing credentials but enormous passion paid their own ways. The wicketkeeper was the veteran Sammy Carter, 54 years of age but still fit as a fiddle. And of course there was the 46-year-old Mailey himself.

The regular players were to get £100 as tour fee apart from accommodation and travel costs, but obviously it was different for Bradman. It was a cricketing holiday, and a most enjoyable one.

Assembling at the Sydney wharves on May 26, the party set off on board the cabine de luxe liner RMS Niagara for the cruise to Victoria in British Columbia, calling on Auckland, Suva in Fiji and Honolulu. As the ship passed the tropics, Bradman started on his winning ways. In fact both the Bradmans were at it. Jessie won the ladies doubles deck tennis and quoits while Don triumphed in the mixed doubles deck tennis and quoits singles. In the Niagara’s fancy dress ball, Don Bradman won the first prize for the most original costume after going in as a polar explorer.

Don and Jessie Bradman in Vancouver – photo courtesy Ric Sissons
Don and Jessie Bradman in Vancouver – photo courtesy Ric Sissons

Seven ball overs, bails with chewing gum and adjudged leg-before from mid on

The tour itself was an enchanting — if tiring — experience. They played in front of small crowds, who were seldom charged for their entry. The standard of the local talent was abysmal, with the great traditions of Philadelphian cricket also having died out after the Great War. The Australians won 43 of their 51 games, losing just one. However, a few adherents journeyed huge distances, sometimes from New York to Toronto, to watch Bradman bat.

The Don did not disappoint. He made 3,777 runs during the trip at his customary 100-plus average. Against a Vancouver XV at Mount Tolmie School grounds he also captured six wickets in an eight ball over including a hat-trick, the sequence being W,1,W,W, dot, W, W, W. He went on to break the Canadian record of highest score by amassing 269 against Western Ontario. In the same match, Stan McCabe skittled the eighteen member home side with figures of 11 for 33. For the only time in his life, the classy batsman was enjoying the role of demon bowler.

The Australians were further delighted when as guests of the Niagara Parks Commission they had dinner laid on for them at the Falls.

There were some unusual happenings as well. In one particular match, an umpire called over after eight balls at one end while his colleague allowed six from the other. The same sequence continued in the third and fourth overs as well. When captain Vic Richardson asked about it, the officials said they could not agree whether to use the Australian or English rules. Richardson put his foot down when the umpires suggested they compromise on seven balls. Ultimately the match was played with eight ball overs.

And then there was the game on a windy day at the wonderfully named Moose Jaw. The bails, blown off several times, were held in place by chewing gum provided by a local player. It was perfectly fine till a batsman was stumped, and the bail hung by the gum thread at the side of the stump. After long and hard deliberation, the umpire decided to rule not out, saying the bail must fall to the ground for the batsman to be dismissed.

There was also the match when the umpire stood two feet wide of the stumps, virtually in the line of mid-on. “You can’t give leg before decisions from there,” Bradman told him. He was answered with an ominous, “You wait and see.” Indeed, the sterling man ruled the legend LBW from that wide angle. “I told you I could,” the umpire said as the batsman walked off.

Amidst all the fun was a sad tragedy. Playing against a West Indian side at Innisfail Park in New York, a ball from McCabe bounced off the uneven coir matting. Carter, standing up to the stumps as usual, was struck on the eye. He was rushed to the hospital, but eventually lost sight in that eye. The old wicket-keeper had kept brilliantly all through, remarking, “I wish I could play just one more Test for Australia and keep wickets to Fleetwood-Smith. He’ll win a Test match for Australia one day.” His prediction came true in 1936-37 when the chinaman bowler castled Wally Hammond with an unplayable delivery at Adelaide.

There was another small hiccup when travelling from Detroit to Windsor by car the party was stranded at the border because virtually none of the players had brought their passports. The immigration officials were unmovable. Luckily the injured Sammy Carter had brought his and he went back to Detroit to fetch the rest of the passports.

Charles Aubrey Smith and Vic Richardson – drawn by Arthur Mailey
Charles Aubrey Smith and Vic Richardson – drawn by Arthur Mailey

Sight Screen and Silver Screen

The players had some excellent time in Hollywood as well. For five days they played and partied alongside men like Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Boris Karloff, Ronald Colman and Clive Brook. And of course there was Charles Aubrey Smith, the great character actor and former captain of England. He was well into his sixties, but the enthusiasm for a game of cricket was undiminished. Karloff, the star of Frankenstein, was a top order batsman for the film stars and kept wickets as well.

The Australian cricketers were graced by action stopping sirens as well, with Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies and Jeanette MacDonald turning up during the matches and in the evenings. Vic Richardson got into a rather close friendship with Joan Crawford, the latter’s marriage to Douglas Fairbanks Junior heading towards a divorce by then. The Australian cricketers specifically enjoyed taking photographs with Jeanette MacDonald – and, curiously, at that same time back in the southern country, the Sydney Sun was advertising the ‘charming, vivacious, elegant’ star’s flimsy lingerie. On a particular day, a famed Hollywood movie dog also came to watch the cricket.

The Australian Cricketers with the Hollywood stars – Aubrey Smith at the extreme right in the first row – photo courtesy Ric Sissons
The Australian Cricketers with the Hollywood stars – Aubrey Smith at the extreme right in the first row – photo courtesy Ric Sissons

While Don Bradman played cricket in Hollywood, Jessie Bradman struck up a close friendship with the daughter of Douglas Fairbanks. She also spent a lot of time riding horses at the riding school run by Australian expat Snowy Baker. Baker, a former sportsman who had represented Australia in swimming, water polo and rugby union, and had fought England captain Johnny Douglas for the Olympic middleweight boxing title in 1908, had become a polo player and a riding instructor to movie stars.

Jessie Bradman with Snowy Baker – photo courtesy Ric Sissons
Jessie Bradman with Snowy Baker – photo courtesy Ric Sissons

The visitors were bestowed with such lavish hospitality and entertainment that Mailey commented, “We heard a great deal about the depression but saw none of it.” It was remarkable given that in 1932 unemployment in the United States had topped 15 million and national income and manufacturing output had dropped by 50 per cent In Chicago, 600,000 workers were unemployed while in New York the number was 800,000.

The Don meets The Babe

The Australian cricketers had played a number of matches against the local baseball players. They were good strikers of the ball, all of them, provided the ball was delivered on the full. The moment it pitched, especially from Mailey or Fleetwood-Smith, they were without a clue.

On July 19, in the final game in New York, Fleetwood-Smith unleashed the wrong-un that took him to 100 wickets on the tour. That evening they enjoyed a banquet at the New York Athletic Club. The following day being free, the party headed for the famed New York Yankee stadium to watch the Yankees take on the Chicago White Sox.

Babe Ruth, the Yankee legend, was injured and not playing in the game. In 1927, he had hit 60 home runs. In 10 of the 12 seasons from 1919 and 1930, Ruth had been the League’s top hitter. 1932 was the final year that the Yankees would win the championship pennant with Babe playing for them. That very season, in October, the Babe had pointed to a spot in the Chicago Cubs stands and had deposited the next ball there. The crowd had clapped in dazed admiration as he had jogged a home run.

Now, Babe Ruth, sitting in the stands, entertained the Australian cricketers in his private box at the Yankee Stadium. It was the meeting of the two greatest hitters of the moving ball. The Babe sat resplendent in a brown sports coat, white striped trousers, buckskin shoes and white cap. The Don met him in his sober grey suit.

The Chicago Flyer welcoming the Australian cricket team
The Chicago Flyer welcoming the Australian cricket team

Ruth was surprised by Bradman’s lack of height, size and weight. He branded him a scientist rather than a powerhouse. “I thought you were a husky guy. But, we little fellows can hit ’em harder than the big ones.” The two hit it off. The Don said that it impressed him that, “In two hours the match is finished. Each batter comes up four or five times. Each afternoon’s play stands on its own. Yes, cricket could learn a lot from baseball … There is more snap and dash to baseball.” The Babe was amazed as he asked, “You mean to tell me sometimes you don’t have to run when you hit the ball?”

The New York Times honoured Bradman with some questionable epithets, including “The wild man of the wicket” and “The ring tailed wallaby of the cricket crease.” However, Bradman did not mind. By his own admission, “over the last sixty odd years, my wife and I have spent many a happy hour talking about the beauty of the Canadian Rockies and other pleasant recollections of a unique experience.”

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry.He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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