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Alberta's bat and ball game

Batter or batsman, pitcher or bowler...who'll reign in the end on Alberta's playing fields?
History columnist shows it's baseball, not cricket that has stayed most in favour with Albertans through the decades. Photo: Metro Creative Connection

In centuries past, wherever the English people went, their flag, culture, and traditions went with them—and Alberta was no different than any other outpost of the Empire. This province was a British province inside a British Dominion. 

We were home to British flight training schools during WWII, imported British bicycles, boasted the “grain capital of the British Empire” (in Sexsmith) and set our tables with fine bone China. At one time, Britain’s influence in Alberta was overarching and unchallenged. 

But there is one thing most former British Dominions share in common that we do not. Australia, New Zealand, India, and Bermuda all have thriving cricket-playing communities, and yet Albertans have firmly insisted on playing baseball. How come? 

This curiosity first struck me many years ago, and I refused to chalk the answer up to American influence. Though our southern neighbour has undeniably played a role in our development, there are many other vestiges of our British heritage which have seemed to cling on despite the odds. So why not cricket? 

When I started digging, I found the English bat-and-ball sport has a long history in our province, longer even than baseball. The Edmonton Cricket Club was founded all the way back in 1882; its Calgary counterpart just two years later in 1884.  

Newspaper archives from Alberta's two largest cities regularly list cricket among the attractions at church picnics and Dominion Day and Victoria Day festivities all the way into the late 1890s. Tournaments were played across Alberta fairly early in our history, and by the turn of the century, plans for a cricket league were underway. 

Cricket, however, just couldn’t keep up with its southern cousin. According to sources, Albertans simply found the American game of baseball much more exciting. Baseball held no pretensions, and was keen to professionalize by paying players. Cricket on the other hand, held firmly to the English “amateur” ideal, caring much less about the time it took to play a match, when the match started, or how many spectators (if any) came to watch. 

An excerpt from the Calgary Eye Opener in 1911 offers a glimpse into how the two sports were perceived by Albertans prior to WWI: 

“In the case of a cricket match, the first thing is to find out when it is supposed to commence. If announced for two o’clock in the afternoon, you will be in plenty of time if you leave home by three. Don’t hurry…By the time you get there…the two first batsmen, who should have been at the wicket over an hour before [will be] standing around in careless attitudes, attired in white flannel…sipping a final cup of tea before engaging in the coming fray. 

Now in going to witness a game of baseball…if the game is scheduled for 6:45 p.m…precisely at a quarter to seven the players are in their places and the umpire [will cry] ‘Play ball!’” 

Note the times at which the games are scheduled to commence: cricket in the middle of the afternoon, when most people are still at work, and baseball in the evening, when all have finished for the day. 

The development of both sports in Alberta absolutely relied on attracting new players and spectators, and because cricket was mainly promulgated by “high society” Canadians who formed clubs with relatively costly entrance fees, it failed to gain traction. Baseball on the other hand, was an everyman’s game. 

By the First World War, baseball was on a trajectory to make it the most popular sport in the province, second only perhaps to hockey. By the time the war was over, nearly every settlement in the province had a baseball diamond, while cricket remained a somewhat exclusive game for amateur ex-pats from the Mother Country. 

Today, cricket is seeing a strong resurgence as immigration from strong cricketing countries like India & Pakistan is on the rise. Some old cricket clubs are more active than ever, and newcomers to the sport are being added every year. Who knows? Perhaps cricket will be giving our old friend baseball a run for its money once again. 

Danny Randell writes about history and the vintage lifestyle for Alberta Prime Times.