Bart King scored 2,134 runs and picked up 415 wickets from his 65 First-Class matches
Bart King scored 2,134 runs and picked up 415 wickets from his 65 First-Class matches

John Barton ‘Bart’ King, born October 19, 1873, was easily the greatest cricketer in the history of USA. A champion in the Halifax Cup, King ran through the Englishmen and Australians whenever he was up against them, in USA or on tours. Widely credited as one of the earliest exponents of deliberate swing bowling, King also developed a delivery called ‘angler’ — a by-product of baseball — that confused batsmen to no ends. Abhishek Mukherjee lists 16 facts about a turn-of-the-20th-century legend who lived to his surname as much as anyone has.

John Barton ‘Bart’ King was easily the greatest cricketer in the history of the United States. When I talk about cricket in USA, do take it seriously, for cricket was played in USA, especially Philadelphia, well before it was played in Australia. It is well-documented that the first international cricket match was played between USA and Canada in 1844, over three decades before Australia and England played the first Test. George Parr’s motley group of Englishmen that toured North America in 1859 was the first overseas cricket tour by any English team.

Unfortunately, cricket faded out in the early 20th century as baseball gained in popularity and stature in the country. Cricket remained popular in Philadelphia, that hub of American cricket, but not for long. Even Halifax Cup, the premier cricket tournament in the city, closed in 1926.

Fortunately, Bart King had already peaked before that: he played the Australians and Englishmen when they toured North America, and went to Britain thrice with Gentlemen of Philadelphia — in 1897, 1903, and 1908. King was a ‘professional’, which would ideally have made it impossible from qualifying for a team of amateurs, but how could they possibly have left their greatest cricketer back home?

Once his talent was exposed to the world, the who’s who of cricket went gaga over King. Don Bradman called King “America’s greatest cricketing son.” Plum Warner called him “one of the finest bowlers of all time,” adding that “had he been an Englishman or an Australian, he would have been even more famous than he was”. CB Fry added: “the best swerver I ever saw in my life was J Barton King of Philadelphia.” And Ralph Barker hailed him as “the American Lillee.”

King was an outstanding bowler, relying on his ‘angler’ (a by-product of his baseball days), something the world had not seen before, but more of that later. He is usually credited for being one of the earliest to invent the art of swing bowling deliberately (others swung the ball before King, but accidentally).

Originally a batsman who could bowl, King established himself as one of the foremost all-rounders in contemporary cricket. His considerable frame (6’1”, 81 kg) helped.

From 65 matches that got First-Class status, King scored 2,134 runs at 20.51 and claimed 415 wickets (6.38 a match) at 15.66. He took five wickets in an innings 38 times (once in only 1.71 Tests). In all recorded matches his 15,398 runs came at 33.48 and 1,935 wickets at 10.74. Not many have achieved something of that level.

1. Acute angling

Had King been a more famous cricketer, the ‘angler’ would probably have been named after him. Before going into that, however, a short introduction to King’s bowling prowess and features merits a mention.

King could swing the ball (even the old ball). His out-swinger was probing, but it was really the vicious ‘other’ in-swinger that tormented champions on either side of The Atlantic. This was no ordinary ball: during the action King’s right hand came down from above his left shoulder — a trick he had picked up during his baseball days. The innocuous-looking ball followed a straight trajectory before changing direction about 3 to 5 yards from the batsman.

King called this his ‘angler’. By his own admission he unleashed the ball only against the best of batsmen, so the mortals were spared.

In 1896 George Giffen, no less, had to pay the price of being a champion cricketer: “The Philadelphians really have some high-class players, but it was the fact of their bowlers playing us with baseball curves that upset our batsmen.”

2. The pitcher

Bart King’s father was a linen merchant, a profession he himself adapted later. He did not have the financial status of being part of the Philadelphian aristocracy. Like most American boys, King took to baseball in his teens before joining Tioga CC in 1888.

Unlike Belmont or Merion (or Germantown of later days), Tioga was not one of the top sides in the city. Tioga lacked quality bowlers; the teenager had to shoulder extra responsibilities. In his second season he took 10 wickets against Merion Juniors. In his next match, against Young America Juniors, he had 4 for 1 and 5 for 5. The opposition was blown away for 10 and 25 before they knew what had hit them.

3. Maple leaves and leprechauns

Still in his teens, King wreaked havoc in Halifax Cup of 1892 for Tioga. His 34 wickets came at an astonishing 8.73; it was not a low-scoring tournament, for both George Patterson and Arthur Wood averaged above 40. King himself got 216 runs at 21.60.

King was selected to play for USA against Canada shortly that same season. Bowled out for 65 in each innings, Canada lost by an innings and 222 runs; King had 3 for 6 and 2 for 15. In a week’s time he played for Gentlemen of Philadelphia against the touring Gentlemen of Ireland. From 3 matches King had 19 wickets including 3 five-fors.

4. Aussie attacks

Jack Blackham brought his Australians to USA in 1893. Gentlemen of Philadelphia piled up 525, King scoring 36 at No. 11. King then ran through the illustrious tourists with 5 for 78 (including Alec Bannerman, Giffen, William Bruce, and Harry Trott) and 2 for 90 (including Henry Graham), leading his side to an innings win.

Giffen, as mentioned above, toured USA in 1896, along with an extremely formidable side that consisted of Trott and youngsters Clem Hill and Joe Darling. The three matches fetched him 15 wickets with 2 five-fors.

In the last match, an innings win, King bowled unchanged through both innings, taking 5 for 43 (he got Frank Iredale, Syd Gregory, Henry Donnan, and Trott) and 3 for 47 (Darling and Hill among them). There was no stopping King from there.

5. Amateurish stuff

Did you notice that King had represented the Gentlemen? His linen trade certainly did not fetch him enough money to give up his career as a professional cricketer. King had his share of supporters and resourceful teammates who found him a well-paying job in insurance.

Not only did this help King play against Gentlemen of Ireland, it also helped him tour the Britain Isles thrice with Gentlemen of Philadelphia.

6. Child’s stuff

Tioga was not able to get King the stature he deserved. He made a move to Belmont in 1896. That year he won the Child’s Bowling Cup for the best bowler in Halifax Cup: King had taken 34 wickets at 8.94 (along with 166 runs at 23.71).

Improving on that was not easy, but King was not going to remain content success against club sides. That would happen the following season.

7. England Part I: A King is born

Despite their sporadic success against the touring English sides, it was not expected that the Philadelphians would take England by storm. They played 15 matches in all, winning 2 and losing 9. King played all 15, scoring 441 runs at 20.04 and taking 72 wickets at 24.02.

King had an ordinary start to the tour, taking 7 wickets from his first 3 matches. Then came the Sussex match at Hove, where he caught the star-studded hosts (the line-up included KS Ranjitsinhji and Billy Murdoch) unaware.

The tourists scored 216 first, King getting 58. Sussex were shot out for 46 in less than an hour. King had 7 for 13, 6 of them (including Ranji for a duck) bowled; following-on, Sussex reached 252, King taking 6 for 102 (4 bowled). He got Murdoch in each innings. The other win came against Gloucestershire, where King had 5 for 95 (4 bowled) and 7 for 72 (6 bowled, 1 LBW).

It was not only about King’s excellent numbers. While he took 72 wickets, nobody else in the side got more than 35. King also sent down 3,294 balls on the tour, way more than the Henry Baily (1,808), the next man on the list. It must be remembered here that Baily was an off-spinner, not a fast bowler like King.

8. The seven-thousand proposal

While the tourists did not create a massive impact in the English cricket circuit, King and his swing bowling certainly did. Several counties tried to sign up, only to find out that King was not really interested in staying back on this side of The Atlantic.

They tried to marry him off to a rich widow, which would have guaranteed King of £7,000 a year, almost the income of a king (if you mind the pun). Even that could hold King back. In retrospect, he had turned down what could have been the path to Test cricket.

King would later marry Fannie Lockhart. The marriage lasted for fifty years till she passed away in 1963. King himself died two years later, just two days before his 92nd birthday.

9. Warner warned, Bosanquet bossed

Before they could settle down in America again, the Philadelphians were up against a new batch of tourists, led by Warner. Warner’s men were shot out for 63. King, bowling unchanged, had 9 for 25 (7 bowled), including Warner himself.

Warner returned the following season, only to find his men against King: this time he had match figures of 4 for 47 and 9 for 103.

King continued to run rout in Halifax Cup, but his feats mostly went unnoticed as England and Australia dominated cricket with South Africa joining as a third force. However, his name surfaced whenever a major side toured USA.

The next big side to face King was Bernard Bosanquet’s men in 1901. King played 2 matches, finishing with match figures of 14 for 135 and 9 for 132.

10. England Part II: Return of the King

The Philadelphians came to England again in 1903. This was also the tour where King put all doubts regarding his prowess to rest, taking 78 wickets at 16.06 (in addition to scoring 614 runs at 29.23).

There were also some Second-Class matches. In one of these, against a Lincolnshire XVI, he took 11 for 115 in an innings.

Against the two Universities he took 17 wickets from 3 innings; against Lancashire he had 5 for 46 and 9 for 62; against Glamorgan, 7 for 38 and 2 for 30; against Surrey, he slammed 98 and 113* in addition to taking 3 for 89 and 3 for 98; and against Kent, he had 39, 41, 7 for 39, and 1 for 55.

The Lancashire match deserves special mention. Things were evenly poised at Old Trafford after Lancashire, having conceded a 29-run lead, knocked off the deficit after lunch on Day Two.

King resorted to his ‘anglers,’ for there was a breeze that blew from over his left shoulder. His immediate; spell read 3-1-7-5; all 5 men were bowled. In fact, 8 of the 9 men he got were bowled; the tenth was run out.

11. Triple-hundreds and all that

King, by his choice, decided to stay back in USA. He terrorised both batsmen and bowlers, taking wickets every time he bowled and often notching up big scores. Against Germantown B in 1905 he slammed 305, the highest score in USA till then. The next season he bettered that with 344* against Merion B.

Two days after that he routed Canada with 2 for 25 and 8 for 17 as the tourists collapsed to 90 and 62. Against Germantown B in 1907 he had 7 for 12. A week later he had 8 for 3 (not the other way round) against Moorestown. Five days after this, he got 9 for 66 against Germantown A. And towards the end of the season he skittled out a touring MCC side with 5 for 39.

12. England Part III: Long Live the King

There was a third trip to The Blighty as well. This time the Philadelphians were bolstered by ‘Ranji’ Hordern, a budding dentist at University of Pennsylvania. It was during this period when Hordern was perfecting his googly (he would later take 46 wickets in 7 Tests for Australia).

This time King surpassed even himself, taking 10 five-wicket hauls from 10 matches. He had an outrageous haul of 87 wickets at 11.01 (Hordern had 45 at 20.66). Till Les Jackson in 1958 nobody had a better average in a season with a 50-wicket cut-off.

His ten-fors came against Ireland (14 for 63), Derbyshire (12 for 116), and Nottinghamshire (14 for 130), the last two in consecutive matches.

13. Living till the Morrow

By this time King was universally accepted as one of the greatest in the world. When the Gentlemen of Ireland toured USA in 1909 they were ready for him, but he was still better than what they had expected.

As George Morrow carried his bat through an innings with 50, the tourists were bowled out for 111. King took all 10 wickets (7 bowled, 2 LBW), bowling unchanged. He took 10 for 53, but he achieved something else — he bowled Morrow as well, albeit off a no-ball.

14. Mopping up

King’s last recorded match is from 1916. Two years before that, at 39, he had 9 for 78 and 8 for 74 in the two matches against the touring Australians. As his bowling declined, he concentrated more on batting, reaching double-figures in 14 of his last 15 innings; these included 6 fifties and a hundred.

15. The honour

As mentioned, King lived till almost 92. He was a tremendous after-dinner speaker, gifted with both a remarkable trove of anecdotes, most of them true, and a terrific sense of humour.

In 1962, three years before his death, King was the first American to be honoured with the Lifetime Membership of MCC.

16. The daddy of all anecdotes

No story about King is complete without the most favourite anecdote regarded to him during a match against Trenton. The story might be entirely apocryphal for several reasons.

Though the match was played against Trenton, it is often mentioned it was a Halifax Cup match. Trenton, a team from New Jersey, was not a participant of the tournament.

Scanning through the scorecards, I could find only four matches played by Trenton against any side of Belmont: one of them, against Belmont, was in 1890, when King played for Tioga; two others, in 1905, were against Belmont Colts, and King was certainly not a part of the Colts side (I still checked)!

There was a fourth match against Belmont Summer XI, in 1901, the year typically mentioned as the one in which the match was played. Unfortunately, no scorecard survives.

For a change, however, we have had enough of facts: the story is too delicious to miss out on.

Trenton were playing Belmont. The team did not travel together, and not all of them had turned up when the match had started. Trenton batted first, and as expected, King scythed through their men at breakneck pace.

Trenton were 9 down for a very low score when their captain turned up, looked at the score, and made a remark that had he been there he would have played King with ease.

King was obviously not amused. He sent all ten men away, leaving only the last man, the Trenton captain (who had been requested to walk out), and the two umpires. The confused captain protested, but the umpires insisted that there was no rule regarding the minimum number of fielders required for a match to continue.

When the Trenton captain still insisted, King placed a man just inside the rope, behind where the wicketkeeper would have stood. It could have been a long-stop, but King asked the man to move to walk towards long-leg before making him stop.

As the story goes, the next ball from King was an ‘angler’ that clean bowled the Trenton captain; the bails landed in front of the only fielder on the ground.

Note: The Trenton captain, however, told a different tale, though he agreed with King till the point when King bowled the ball. He claimed to have hit the ball to the cover-fence. It stopped, and King had to run himself, but not before they ran six. The next three balls — for that was left in the over — went for three sixes over the ropes…

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)