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A Brief Introduction to the Welshmen Who Played Major League Baseball

Wales is by no means a hotbed of baseball talent, but go far enough back in the sport's history and you'll find a trio of Welshmen who played in the major leagues. All three men have uniquely interesting stories, too.

by Jim Weeks
27 January 2017, 4:31pm

PA Images

It was the opinion of George Washington that "good Welshman make good Americans". The men and women who travelled across the Atlantic were not great in number – they were certainly dwarfed by the Irish – but it is true that the Welsh contributed their piece to the jigsaw that became the United States.

One could also look towards baseball as an important part of building that nation. It is widely known as America's pastime, has been called a national religion by some, and until relativity recently was unchallenged as the country's most popular sport.

The crossover between Wales and professional baseball is, unsurprisingly, something of a niche subject. The Welsh contribution to America's game has been small – but not lacking entirely. Three men born in Wales have played major league baseball, and each has a uniquely interesting story.

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It would be reasonable to say that Peter Richard Morris did not leave a great mark on the game. He played in only one major league match and did so without earning any real distinction, though it could have been different had fate not intervened on a December night in 1884. As it was, his life and career were cut sadly short. Buried among his countrymen in a secluded Wisconsin Methodist cemetery, his significance as the sport's first Welshman was not known for more than a century.

Morris was born in Rhuddlan, a small town in North Wales most famous for the 13th-century castle that sits on the bank of the River Clwyd. Once a residence of Edward I of England, by the time of Morris' birth in the mid 18th century it was overgrown and falling into ruin (today, it is a Grade I listed building).

Had Peter known this, it would have been through stories from his parents. Born on 1 January 1854, the eldest of an eventual eight children, he was less than a year old when his family set sail for the United States that same September. The Morrises were farmers and headed for Wisconsin, settling in a rural area that was already home to a notable Welsh enclave.

This was not the sort of place where the burgeoning sport of baseball would have been popular. In contrast to the immigrant settlements in major cities, communities such as this tended to retain a distinctly Welsh feel, with the old language, customs and trades surviving in the new colony. The devout, chapel-going Welsh were not yet fully sold on sport. Even rugby was very much in its infancy at this time.

Morris became involved with baseball while living in the rather more metropolitan surroundings of Detroit. Having moved there to learn the plastering trade from his uncle, Peter played shortstop on a number of teams in the city, including the Aetna club.

Returning home to Wisconsin around 1877, Morris continued playing with the teams that were springing up in the local area. Little is known about his activities over the next few years, though in 1883 he began turning out for the Milwaukee reserves and another nearby side called the Maple Leaves. A local paper described Morris as, "bright and active, and though small, [he] understands how to cover space between second and third."

READ MORE: A British Perspective on America's Game

It was as a member of the Milwaukee reserve side that Morris came to make his sole major league appearance. Travelling with them to Chicago, Morris was slated to play in a match against the city's reserves – but he did not take his place in the team. When a fixture was played against another Chicago team a few days later, Morris was back in as shortstop.

He had played in Chicago, however, making a one-off appearance for the Washington Nationals in their Union Association league game against the Chicago Browns. There is scarce information on how he performed, just a box score of three at-bats with no hits, and there is no detail of how he did in his primary role as shortstop. The fact he was playing for a team that he was not registered to, hence his name only being recorded as "Morris", goes some way to explaining this. However he performed that day, he had become the first Welshman to play in a major league baseball game.

This fact was not widely known for quite some time. After his one-off outing he returned home. When the Maple Leafs disbanded he moved on to the Stillwater club of the Northwester League, then joined a revived Maple Leafs outfit. His last game was in October of 1884.

As well as playing baseball, Morris was also working as a freight conductor on the railroads in Columbus, Wisconsin. It was to cost him his life. On 9 December, he was coupling a train carriage when his foot became caught in the guardrail. He was struck by a carriage and killed. His final resting place is dotted with other Welsh names: Davies, Evans, Griffith, Jones, Lewis, Owen, and Rees.

His significance remained forgotten until more than a century later, when a baseball writer and historian also named Peter Morris set out to discover who his lost namesake was as part of a book project. In doing so, Morris also discovered the first Welshman to play major league baseball.

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Jimmy "Pepper" Austin has been described as possessing "the most famous rear-end in the history of baseball". Coming from humble beginnings in South Wales, it's not a bad claim to fame.

He was born James Philip Austin on 8 December 1879 in Swansea, the son of a shipbuilder named Alfred. In 1885, the father moved to the United States to work for the Cleveland Shipbuilding Company in Ohio. Two years later, having saved enough money, he brought his family over to begin a new life in the United States.

Austin would have been seven or eight years old when he joined his father in the U.S. and cannot have known a thing about baseball. He was, he later confessed, more interested in teaching his new friends rugby, a sport that swept through Wales like wildfire during the final quarter of the 19th century. He gave in, however, perhaps realising that it would be difficult for one young boy to convert a vast nation to a sport that, even to the Welsh, can at times seem idiosyncratic.

Unlike Morris, Austin came from a large industrial town in Wales and settled into a more mixed immigrant community; given this, there is little chance he spoke his native tongue, which was more commonly found in rural areas at this time. Rugby forgotten, he became a convert to baseball and played throughout his school days. After leaving education, Austin became a machinist's apprentice, though shortly after his four years of training ended the union went on strike and Jimmy was left jobless.

Baseball would later make Jimmy's ass famous; on this occasion, it would merely save it.

Austin was asked to play in an independent league in the neighbouring town of Warren, for which he'd be paid a salary of $40 per month. He accepted enthusiastically (indeed, enthusiasm is a word that crops up often when reading about Austin). A year later he was picked up by a team from Dayton and, thanks to more good showings, was later offered a move to the Atlanta Crackers. He turned this opportunity down, however, wishing to avoid the stifling summer heat in Georgia. For a native of Swansea, this would no doubt have been too much to bear.

Ty Cobb slides into third, while Austin tumbles over the Detroit Tigers player // Public Domain Image

Instead he went to play in Omaha – Nebraska being a far closer climactic relation of South Wales – where his knack for stealing bases caught the eye of New York's Highlanders club (who adopted their vastly more famous "Yankees" name in 1913). For 1909, Austin would relocate to the city.

He made his major league debut on 19 April 1909, already 29 years of age but with the enthusiasm of a man 10 years his junior. During his first season he stole 30 bases and got the nickname "Pepper" from manager George Stallings. Soon, he had become part of what is perhaps the most famous baseball photograph of all time. Taken by Charles Conlon at a game in 1910, it shows Ty Cobb of the Detroit Tigers sliding into third base. Jimmy was the third baseman, shown stumbling over Cobb with his face obscured. He later said he was happy to be part of such an iconic image, even if it was not recognisable as being him.

READ MORE: This is Baseball – British Style

In February 1911, Austin was traded to the St. Louis Browns, where he would remain for more than 20 years. His first season with the club is considered to have been his best on the field. As his playing career wound down he became a coach for the team, only leaving when the effects of the Depression forced the Browns to cut their staff. He found new work with the Chicago White Sox, spending eight years as a "one-man coaching staff".

He retired in 1940 after a career in the major leagues that spanned more than three decades. He would later become mayor in his adopted home town of Laguna Beach, California. Towards the end of his life he spoke to author Lawrence Ritter and is featured in The Glory of Their Times. Austin did not live to see the book published, however, dying in March 1965 at the age of 85. Though his accent became distinctly American, even as an elderly man there remained a recognisable Welsh twang.

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Before Austin, but after Morris, there was Ted Lewis. For many years, this multi-talented Welshman was believed to be his nation's first representative in the major leagues, until Morris' full background came to light.

Yet Lewis was far more than just a baseball star. "If ever a player did not seem to fit with the rough-and-tumble nature of the game that was popular in the 1890s, it was Ted Lewis," wrote Bill Felber in A Game of Brawl. Nicknamed "The Pitching Professor", Lewis was a highly educated man who dovetailed his baseball career with one in academia – then gave up the former to full immerse himself in teaching.

Lewis was born on Christmas Day 1872 in Machynlleth, an historic old market town that lays claim to the title of "ancient capital of Wales". For its many good points, Machynlleth is not a name that comes easily to an English-speaking tongue; one wonders if Lewis ever bothered to explain it to his adopted countrymen, or if instead he simply informed them that he was a Welshman.

READ MORE: Remembering Gil Heron, the First Black Footballer to Play for Celtic

He was eight years old when his family moved to Utica, a city in New York State. Here the Lewises remained part of a Welsh community by attending eisteddfodau, traditional festivals of Welsh culture that include literature, song and dance. His father, John, was a talented poet who Lewis later recalled winning awards for his compositions.

Lewis' life was far more rooted in academia than his two ball-playing countrymen. Whereas Morris learnt plastering and Austin served a machinist's apprenticeship, Lewis attended Williams College, a liberal-arts school in the hills of western Massachusetts. His interests here were many and, of course, included baseball. An excellent pitcher, he became captain of the college team, taking on sides from Yale and Harvard, as well as the Cuban Giants, the first professional African-American club. Lewis also became an ordained minister, earning him a second nickname: "Parson".

Lewis in 1922 (left) and in 1899, during his baseball days // Images via Wikimedia Commons

After graduating, Lewis was able to take his talent to the big leagues. But he played major league baseball not as an end in itself, but as a means to earn money that would allow him to further his studies. This was how he came to join the Boston Beaneaters of the National League, where he won a pair of championships in 1887 and '88.

He remained with the Beaneaters until 1901, when he joined Boston Americans (a forerunner of today's Red Sox) in the American League. After one season he retired to devote his energy to studying and teaching. Not yet 30, Lewis was described as "a superb pitcher, with great curves and fine speed, both of which he used with rare judgment," as well as "a fine batsman".

He left baseball to teach full-time at Columbia University, then returned Williams College in 1904 where he became a public speaking instructor. In 1910, he stood for election to congress as a Democrat, losing by just 736 votes in a Republican stronghold. He would later move to Massachusetts Agricultural College as an English professor, rising to become its president between 1924 and 1927. According to the college's website, he resigned after "proving too liberal for the trustees." His next stop was the University of New Hampshire, where he again served as president, and he remained there until his death in 1936 at the age of 63.

Lewis made a number of famous acquaintances outside the game during his career in academia and kept up a correspondence with the likes of William Howard Taft, Calvin Coolidge, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. At his funeral, the poet Robert Frost read two of Lewis' favourite poems in memory of his friend.

His life stands in stark contrast to his two countrymen: whereas they were working-class Welsh, he was clearly from a middle-class family. His baseball career, short and strictly professional, thus feels like something of an anomaly.

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It should not be surprising that so few Welshmen made it to the major leagues. Welsh emigration to America was never significant, only ever representing a fraction of the total newcomers.

Still, there should be a sense of pride that these men, who left Wales as children more than a century ago, made an impact in America's national sport. Morris has the distinction of being the first; Austin enjoyed a successful career and stumbled into an iconic photo along the way; while Lewis led an incredible double life that combined excellence in sport and academia. Few in Wales will have heard their names, but they deserve to be remembered.

Perhaps, coming from a small country, we feel a desire to link ourselves to a greater narrative. In 2008, just before his landmark election win, it was suggested that Barack Obama's great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents were a Welsh couple, Henry and Margaret Perry. Anglesey's Welsh Assembly Member, Ieuan Wyn Jones, responded by inviting Obama to visit the island. Maybe now, with a little more time on his hands, he will take up the offer.

@Jim_Weeks

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