Baseball in the modern format has been around for more than 150 years. The first games were played in the US, with the first official game recorded in New Jersey in the USA in 1846. The professional game started in the USA in 1869 and the US National League was formed in 1876.
Even though baseball is considered primarily an “American” sport it found its way to South Africa just before the First World War. Baseball started in 1898 on the Goldfields of the Witwatersrand (Gauteng). American gold miners who worked on the Crown Mines and City Deep shafts were responsible for starting the game in South Africa and the Giants Baseball Club originated out of the Crown Mines team. The Transvaal Baseball Association was formed in 1905 with Wanderers being one of the first clubs.
South African Baseball did not only have American influences – the Japanese were responsible for baseball being started in Port Elizabeth. In 1934 a Japanese ship – the Paris Maru – beached in Algoa Bay. Its sailors had to wait for 3 months for the next ship. With their baseball equipment on hand, they arranged a game with the locals, who worked for US companies, as well as American Mormon missionaries.
The game between the Japanese and local team was played at the Westbourne Oval in Port Elizabeth, which was the local athletics headquarters. It was such a popular game and drew such a crowd, that the Easter Province Baseball Association was founded on 4 October 1934. The first chairperson was a local attorney – a Dr. de Kock.
A shortage of baseball players led to rugby players being asked to play. This started a long history of support among top-quality rugby players – including a number of Springboks. A little known fact is that baseball was staunchly supported by well-known sporting legends including Dr. Danie Craven, Gerry Brand, George van Reenen and George Smith.
During the Second World War baseball was not played officially in South Africa, but the game resumed in all earnest after 1945. One of the first games to be played was against an American team selected from two American warships, the USS California and the USS Tennessee, visiting South Africa at the time. The game was played at Newlands and was attended by one of the largest crowds to ever attend a baseball game in South Africa. Unfortunately South Africa was beaten by the US Navy with a score of 6-4.
The 1950s was the golden era for baseball in South Africa, with the game enjoying extensive support from both players and locally-based American-owned companies such as General Motors. An American side toured South Africa in 1956. Many well-known Springbok rugby players continued to show strong support for baseball. They include household names like Tiny Naudé, Popeye Strydom and Hanny van Rooyen.
The initial success of the game was based on the face that it was played at central venues, with as many as 2000 to 5000 spectators attending games. The South African Baseball Federation was formed in 1935 with Western Province, Eastern Province, Border, Northern Transvaal and Transvaal. The famed Arthur Berezowski headed up the Federation for 25 years from 1949 to 1974.
On the other side of the fence baseball was also rearing its head. Mr. Edward Henderson of Western Province tells how baseball got started among the so-called “colored” community of Cape Town. He relates the story of how the first baseball club was started in his community. At a soccer presentation at St. Andrews School, Jack Lemkus of Lemkus Sports Outfitters encouraged the boys to play baseball in summer.
The boys took the challenge and in 1949 started the St. Andrews-Dodgers. Soon clubs such as Mowbraves – led by Paul Wilson; City Wolves – led by Raymond de Jonge and Athlone Ohio Cubs – led by Any Abrahams, were established.
1950 saw the rise of the formation of the Western Province Baseball and Softball union. The Union boasted 11 baseball and 23 softball teams. The Group Areas Act forced the union to move its ground from Maitiand to City Park. Mr. Edward Henderson was secretary of this union for 25 years. It seems as if 25 years was a good period to hold an executive position!
Mr. Oswald George from Pacaltsdorp initiated the coming together of the Softball players in Port Elizabeth and the Western Province Baseball and Softball Union. This led to resuscitation of the South African Baseball and Softball Federation in September 1950. Because of another Baseball Federation already in existence, the name was changed to South African Baseball Association. Dennis Brutus, scholar and political leader, played an important role in this Association. Kenneth March was the last serving President of the South African Baseball Association before unification.
In 1952 a break within the Western Province Union led to the formation of the Cape& District Baseball Association with the William Herbert ground as home ground.
1955 also saw the start of the Little League in Johannesburg. The man who initiated this was Rodney Parks. Parks was quadriplegic but this did stop him teaching the likes of Raymond, Trevor and Peter Tew and Pat McKinnon to play baseball. Mormon missionaries ably assisted Rodney Parks to encourage the boys playing baseball at Rhodes Park. In 1958 Mr. Arthur Tew formed and headed the SA Little League.