Ross Kendrick: the hero of the 1938 World Cup triumph

Thu 16 Aug 2018

Possessing grit and guile in equal measure, Ross Kendrick was an adversary that no pitcher would have wished to do battle with in British baseball’s heyday of the mid-to-late 1930s.  His 1938 season saw him at the centre of the action in some of the hardest-fought contests in the history of the game on these shores, including a grueling National Championship final that will probably never be surpassed as a pitchers’ duel.

But Kendrick is best remembered as the pitcher who shut out the visiting team of American Olympians twice in August 1938, when England defeated the Americans 4-1 in a Test Series and was later crowned World Amateur Baseball Champions as a result.

Kendrick was the sole inductee in the player category when the British Baseball Hall of Fame announced its inaugural class in 2009.  British baseball historian Josh Chetwynd has written the following account of Kendrick’s life and career, which also tells us a lot about British baseball during its golden era before the Second World War.


Background

What are the most desirable qualities in a big-game pitcher?  First and foremost, you want talent.  He has to be a guy who possesses the skill-set to compete against any hitter.  Then there’s “make-up” – that intangible quality that allows a pitcher to shake off pressure and consistently throw to the best of his abilities.  Finally, you want durability.  The ideal ace is going to go the distance, or close to it, when it matters most.

Ross Kendrick was the epitome of that type of pitcher.

From 1937 to 1939, during the heyday of professional and semi-professional baseball in Great Britain, Kendrick started more high-pressure games on the mound against top-quality opposing pitchers than most pitchers experience in a career.  And while he didn’t always post a victory (in fact, he lost as often as he won), Kendrick always gave his club a chance to win, no matter the depth of talent on his team’s roster.

Moreover, when he was backed by a first-class line-up – as was the case when he took to the mound for England against the United States in what would be dubbed the first Baseball World Championship – he was unstoppable.  Amazingly, he did all this despite carrying a secret that likely weighed heavily on him during those halcyon days of British baseball.

Born on 25 August 1909, Kendrick grew up in the idyllic Canadian town of Merrickville, Ontario, approximately 45 minutes west of Ottawa.  Local foundries and an electric company formed the hub of commerce for this small town, which became known as “The Jewel of Rideau” and in modern days has been described as Canada’s most beautiful village.  The right-hander took to baseball at a young age and by the time he was in his mid-20s, he emerged as one of the area’s star pitchers.

In 1936, Kendrick secured a place in the rotation for the Smith Falls Railroaders in the Ottawa Valley Amateur Baseball League.  It was his first full season playing high-level adult baseball in Canada and he rose to the challenge – especially in the most high-profile match-ups.  For example, he was tapped to pitch against a team featuring a line-up full of athletic National Hockey League regulars on Dominion Day (1 July).  Kendrick yielded just four hits as his team administered a 13-1 thrashing.

Thanks in large part to Kendrick’s pitching, Smith Falls earned a spot in the league finals and Kendrick made the most of the opportunity.  In Game Two of the best-of-five series, he tossed a three-hit shut-out and then clinched the championship in Game Four with another complete-game effort. The win meant Kendrick’s club would advance to the Eastern Ontario Baseball Association play-offs.  In a best-of-three series, he would pick up the win in Game One against an Ottawa club called Eastview.  But after his team dropped Game Two, he would come out on the wrong end of a 2-0 pitcher’s duel in Game Three.

Nevertheless, Kendrick was an emerging talent at just the right time.  British baseball officials were on the hunt for proficient players from Canada.  A few years earlier, after witnessing the game during a trip to the United States, successful businessman Sir John Moores decided that baseball deserved a place in the British sporting landscape.  He started professionalising the sport in England in 1935 and by the following year was running three top-notch leagues across the country, packed with scores of hired players from Canada and the States.

Kendrick’s standout efforts in 1936 made him a target for Moores’s scouts.  For a player who was competing at the amateur level, the thought of getting paid to play the game must have been very appealing.  It is unclear how much he was offered, but the average British baseball professional made between £1.50 and £3.50 per game.  In modern terms, that was a tidy sum, in the region of £80 to £190 per contest.

At the same time, there must have been some doubt in Kendrick’s mind.  The reason: he had a young wife and three small children.  In an era when a voyage across the Atlantic was arduous and often cost-prohibitive, one would expect Kendrick to have worried about what this choice would mean to the family he was leaving behind.

We’ll never know just how much – or little – Kendrick fretted about this, as it appears he never discussed his Canadian wife or kids with anyone in the British baseball community.  In fact, one long-time teammate and friend in England, Buck Jones, had no idea that Kendrick had married or produced kids in Canada until 2006, decades after Kendrick’s death.

“He was a very private man, so that even people who travelled to games for many years with him did not know all the facts of Ross’s life,” said Jon Prescott, an umpire who knew Kendrick later in his life.

Other than some correspondence with his local newspaper in Ontario, Kendrick made a seemingly clean break with his native country.  After he set sail to England on the SS Andania with three other ballplayers in early 1937, he would never see his Canadian wife and children again.

If Kendrick was weighed down by this unspoken past, he never showed it on the mound.  The hurler shone from the start of his British baseball career.  In 1937, he played for the York Maroons in the Yorkshire Baseball League.  The year-old circuit boasted a bevy of impressive imported talent.  Most notably, American pitcher Max “Lefty” Wilson joined the league that season, and the future Major Leaguer was on his game in 1937, serving as the driving force for the ultimate league champions, Hull.  Wilson was also one of Kendrick’s greatest foes on the mound.

The two squared off for the first time on 23 May at Hull’s home field, Craven Park.  Kendrick pitched well, but Wilson struck out 23 (and hit a home run) to beat Kendrick and his York squad 2-0.  The pair had two more epic battles later in the campaign.  In one game Kendrick struck out 18 batters but was bested by Wilson and his 24 strikeouts in another 2-0 Hull triumph.  The final match-up was probably the most excruciating for Kendrick.  Wilson fanned 18 and Kendrick 12 in a 1-0 Hull win that knocked York out of the National Baseball Association Challenge Cup.

It was clear in 1937 that Kendrick was limited by the talent on his team.  He faced Wilson three times and Kendrick’s team scored a grand total of zero runs in those contests.  In contrast, when Kendrick represented Yorkshire County in an All-Star exhibition against Lancashire (in what was dubbed the “War of the Roses” game), he cruised, picking up the win 9-3.  Kendrick calculated that he struck out 348 batters in 204 innings for the Maroons in 1937.  He also said he allowed 44 runs.  If all those runs were earned, he would have sported a nifty 1.91 earned-run average, but his actual average was probably a lot lower as the runs were “mostly unearned as the English lads, accustomed to soccer, can’t help booting a baseball,” he wrote in a letter to the Smith Falls Record News back in Canada.


Story of a season

In 1938, Kendrick was determined to avoid the same fate.  The British baseball landscape was changing dramatically.  Sensing that the game was being dominated by foreign imports, Sir John Moores consolidated his two circuits up north – the Yorkshire Baseball League and the North of England League – to form the Lancashire-Yorkshire Major League.  Each team in the new league would be allowed only two or three non-British participants. 

This crucial feature would impact the likes of Kendrick greatly.  The rationale behind the change was a positive one: if baseball was to grow in the United Kingdom, domestic players needed to develop and a glut of foreign pros was not helping that growth.  “A stern attempt is being made to cut out sham amateurism in the game,” The Green Final in Oldham wrote on 26 February.

This solution may have helped meet that goal, but it was going to hurt all the Canadians and Americans who had been lured to Britain to play ball.  Some, like “Lefty” Wilson, would return across the Atlantic, while others refused to end their British baseball experience.  Those in the latter group flocked to the International Baseball League, a breakaway circuit with no restrictions on foreign players.

After his impressive 1937 campaign, Kendrick had options.  The Oldham Greyhounds in the nascent Lancashire-Yorkshire Major League wanted him, but he was also being wooed by an International Baseball League club in Leeds.  Maybe Kendrick had memories of his British footballing team-mates kicking ground balls when he was with York or, possibly, he just liked
what Leeds had to offer, but Kendrick opted to take a chance with the renegade league.  Leeds made sure Kendrick would be comfortable on the mound, securing the services of Don Adams as his battery-mate.  The catcher had been “Lefty” Wilson’s catcher for the national champion Hull side the previous year.

At season’s start, Kendrick appeared to be returning to the same vicious cycle with Leeds that plagued him in 1937.  He had put up a sparkling performance, only to be outshone by another.  Wilson was gone, but Jerry Strong, who had been a key player for the London club West Ham for the previous two seasons, joined Halifax in the north.  He immediately served as a replacement adversary on the hill.  In one early contest, Kendrick struck out 18 batters and allowed just two runs but would still be handed a loss thanks to Strong’s one-run outing with 21 punch-outs.

Even with losses like the one to Strong, respect for Kendrick in the playing community was sturdy.  Tom Forgie, who played for Newcastle in the breakaway circuit, was among Kendrick’s many admirers.

“When I first went up there, they said, ‘Wait ‘til you see Ross Kendrick -- he’s a great pitcher,” Forgie told author Harvey Sahker for the book The Blokes of Summer.  “I said that I looked forward to seeing him.  And he was a very good pitcher.  I found that out when I was batting against him!  Some of the other pitchers were just guys who could throw the ball somewhere near the plate, and hope that you didn’t hit it.  But Kendrick knew where it was going.  He was exceptional.”

One programme from the 1938 season lauded Kendrick, calling him a “pitcher with a very clean style of hooks, speed and endurance.”  And the Halifax Daily Courier and Guardian offered this summation: “Kendrick: outside of Lefty Wilson, the finest pitcher to have played in England.  One who is a credit off the field as well as on.  Star pitcher in the St Lawrence League in Eastern Canada.  Noted for his control and unhurried style of delivery.  One of the most popular players in the Major League last season.”

As much as Kendrick’s talent was undoubtedly a calling card for the International Baseball League, it was not enough to keep the fledgling league in business.  With crowds as small as 500 or less, the league could not draw enough to cover costs.  After just a handful of games, the season was suspended in mid-June.

At the same time, Oldham – the team that had coveted Kendrick as far back as February – still needed him.  The club had been relying on another import named Alan Forrest to anchor its pitching, and it was not going too well.  Forrest had put up some credible performances, but the club lacked depth and Forrest’s arm was getting sore.  The Greyhound’s 20-10 loss on 18 June to front-running Halifax was emblematic of their pitching woes.  “The secret of the Halifax
success was that the Oldham pitchers between them walked no fewer than 11 men, and in the sixth frame it would almost be correct to say that the Halifax side walked round instead of batting round,” the Oldham Evening Chronicle lamented two days after the game.

Kendrick was the perfect antidote for the Greyhounds’ ills.  Within days of Oldham’s embarrassing defeat, the briefly unemployed Kendrick was in uniform and on the mound for them – and he made an immediate impact.  In his debut against a solid Greenfield Giants club, he allowed seven hits and struck out 14 in a 13-4 triumph.  “Kendrick’s obvious ability had a tonic effect on the team as a whole,” the Oldham Standard proclaimed on 24 June.

The Greyhounds had been mired mid-table before Kendrick joined the squad.  Now, the team was playing with confidence behind the righty’s ace performances.  After a heartbreaking 3–1 loss to Halifax, the newest Greyhound carried the team throughout the summer.  Following the Halifax game, Kendrick dominated one of the league’s top teams, the Rochdale Greys, striking out 15 and yielding just two hits in a 9-1 victory.  Kendrick even slammed two doubles in the contest.  He then beat the Liverpool Giants in the third round of the National Baseball Association Challenge Cup, and in a league game against his old club York, Kendrick stuck out 17 in a tight 3-1 win.

Kendrick’s “red-hot pitching has put new life into the Oldham Greyhounds,” wrote the Oldham Standard on 8 July, “and so long as he maintains this form they must be considered challengers for the championship of the Lancashire-Yorkshire League.”

Repaying the paper’s faith, Kendrick pitched Oldham into the finals of the Challenge Cup, which would determine the national champions.  His semi-final performance was masterful.  He allowed two runs on three hits and struck out 22 in a hard-fought 4-2 win against Hull.  Kendrick must have taken particular pride in that win, as he beat recent Hull addition Jerry Strong, who had bested Kendrick while a member of the Halifax team earlier in the season.

Kendrick had gone a long way towards burying the memories of the gut-wrenching losses that marred his 1937 campaign.  While Oldham would end up finishing just a game outside first place in the Lancashire-Yorkshire League, Kendrick could take credit for almost single-handedly making them a contender.

More importantly, he had manoeuvred the team into a shot at British baseball’s most prestigious hardware: the Challenge Cup.  That said, the results Kendrick delivered had come at a price.  In order to keep Oldham winning, Kendrick threw 16 innings in the five days leading up to the Cup final.  No doubt, all that hard work must have left him fatigued as he trotted to the mound to face Rochdale in front of an estimated 5,000 fans at Spotland on 6 August.
If Kendrick’s recent workload did not leave him at enough of a disadvantage, he was facing yet another marquee pitching opponent.  Rochdale was relying on Bruce Hanks, who had been a standout hurler for the Catford Saints in southern England the season before and, in 1938, continued to impress up north.  The two men lived up to expectations.  Their performance that day remains arguably the most spectacular pitching duel in the history of British baseball.

Inning after inning, the two pitchers matched zeros.  By at least one account, Hanks was the sharper man on the mound, but Kendrick was the grittier competitor, shrugging off the dead arm he likely had from over-work.  At the end of nine innings the score remained 0–0 and neither pitcher was ready to yield to a reliever.  The battle continued like a prize fight between boxers … 10th inning, 11th inning, 12th inning, 13th inning, 14th inning.  No runs were scored and both pitchers stayed in the game.

Finally, in the 15th inning, one of the pitchers blinked.  With two out and a runner on first, a Rochdale batter hit a weak dribbler back to Kendrick.  Blame exhaustion or a momentary lack of focus, but Kendrick’s throw sailed off the first-baseman’s glove.  As it rolled away, the baserunner hurried around the bases to score the only run of the game.  Kendrick had gone 15 innings, allowing no walks, five hits and striking out 20 (in comparison, Hanks gave up three hits and one walk and fanned 16).  Sadly, for all that Kendrick did so well, his error was the difference.

While this monumental moment might have been the psychological end for some players, Kendrick proved his mental fortitude in the aftermath of the crushing championship defeat. What came next would be his finest baseball hour.


England v USA

On 11 August 1938, the United States Olympic Team arrived in Plymouth.  The squad was run by former Major Leaguer Leslie Mann.  The ex-catcher had ferried a team of Olympians to England in 1936 to play a couple of exhibition contests following the Summer Games in Berlin.  This time Mann had devised an “International Test Series” to serve as a tune-up for Team USA, which was getting ready for the 1940 Olympic Games planned for Tokyo (World War II led to the cancellation of that event).

The format was a five-game series across the north of England between the Americans and an All-Star team from English baseball.  It was a great opportunity for domestic organisers to show the depth of talent in England.

Nevertheless, they decided to put one key restriction on the English roster.  Canadians would be allowed to compete, but no American players would be included.  From an international sport standpoint, this made sense.  Canada was part of the Dominion and Canadian players had been allowed to represent England in the Olympics.  In fact, Canadians figured prominently on the Great Britain squad that won the gold medal in ice hockey at the 1936 Winter Games.
By late July, Kendrick backers were pushing for his inclusion on the England squad.  Under the headline “Tipped for England,” the Oldham Evening Chronicle wrote: “It is difficult to see how, on this form, Ross Kendrick can be overlooked as England’s first choice in the international.”

Indeed, not only was Kendrick picked for the roster, but the team’s player-manager, George “Chummy” McNeill, also tapped him as the opening game’s starting pitcher.  McNeill would not regret that decision.  Casting aside his Challenge Cup miscue, Kendrick confidently took the hill in front of 10,000 fans at Wavertree Stadium in Liverpool.  The American line-up was an imposing one, featuring two future Major Leaguers – outfielder Mizell Platt, who would log five big-league seasons with the Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox and St Louis Browns, and first-baseman Mike Schemer, who had a brief stint with the New York Giants.

Kendrick’s opposing moundsman was Virgil Thompson, an accomplished collegiate hurler.  Like so many times before in his British career, Kendrick joined another hurler in a pitching master-class.  Through six-and-a-half innings neither man allowed a single run to score.

In past instances, Kendrick’s team often suffered a little let-down at this point and a few errors would lead to runs.  But this was not a usual British club side.  This squad played tight defense behind Kendrick and the pitcher kept throwing zeros up on the scoreboard.  In the bottom of the seventh inning, England’s Danny Wright slammed a solo home run to break the deadlock.  England’s offence would go on to tack on two more tallies and the final score was England 3, USA 0.  Kendrick threw a practically flawless complete game, yielding just two singles and striking out 16.  (According to Baseball Mercury, Kendrick undertook the remarkable in also pitching for his club team – the Greyhounds – later that same day.)

The England righty was not done yet.  He got the call in Game Four, and with England leading the series two-to-one, a win from Kendrick could clinch overall victory.  Brimming with poise, Kendrick made certain his offense would not be required to do too much to assure victory.  Kendrick threw another complete-game shut-out, surrendering three hits and collecting 12 strikeouts.

Decades later, baseball potentates labelled the series the first Baseball World Championship.  A Most Valuable Player award was not given following England’s triumph, but if one had been, Kendrick would have certainly received the accolade.  He earned two wins, tossing 17 scoreless innings.  He struck out 28 batters in all, while allowing just five hits.  It was sweet vindication for so many stellar performances in which he gave his club a chance to win but instead suffered defeat.


Epilogue

While the 1938 season was Kendrick’s most memorable, it was far from his last in Great Britain.  Following World War II, Kendrick moved to the Birmingham area and took a job as an electrician.  He continued to play, and set up numerous teams.  He would also compete for two of the area’s greatest teams – Bromsgrove and Garringtons – and never lost his zest for the game, playing into his 60s.  His stellar attitude and skill brought him scores of new fans in his later years.

“Ross was not only [a] very good [player], but also an exceptional teacher and coach,” recalled Buck Jones, who played with Kendrick in the 1960s and 1970s.  “Although he was getting on in age, he was also still a very difficult man to hit.”

“I had the pleasure of being behind the plate [umpiring] on many occasions when Ross would be called upon to throw a few from the mound,” added Jon Prescott, who witnessed many of Kendrick’s games when the pitcher was in his 50s and 60s.  “Yes, I made mistakes. but credit to Ross -- he never came shouting the odds about a wrong call.  He had the class to get on with the game and was respected by everybody who was involved.”

Kendrick would pass away in 1975. He was 65 years old.

In what was an outwardly exemplary life both on and off the field, the one anomaly was his decision to cut ties with his wife and three children in Canada and to never return.  It was a secret he apparently shared with very few, if any, even in his later life.

Kendrick’s Canadian granddaughter Kristine Morrison never knew the pitcher, but she did extensive research into his life.  She discovered that Kendrick married in England and had two daughters.  She was unable to track them down, but in talking to people who knew him it was clear that he did not share much.  “He was very tight-lipped and kept things quite private,” she said. “I spoke directly to an old neighbour of his and she confirmed he was a private soul.”

As for his Canadian wife, Laura, she was a beautiful – and resilient – young woman at the time Kendrick moved to England.  When Kendrick did not return, she stoically moved on.  “She must have mourned the loss of Ross,” according to Morrison, “but never complained and rarely mentioned him.”

Perhaps it was that ability to compartmentalise elements of his life that made Ross Kendrick such a successful pitcher.  When he faltered in the 1938 national finals, he was able to completely cast it aside, turn the page, and start anew against the United States Olympic Team.  While that quality may not always be handy, it was one that served him well when he took to the mound.

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