“IT doesn’t happen in Cardiff or Newport. People know baseball. Outside Cardiff, or Gwent? Ask about baseball then they’ll talk about American baseball.” 

It’s a sport with its roots in Victorian Cardiff and has been, or at least was, for generations, the summer pastime of the city, and is almost unique to south east Wales. 

Welsh, or British, baseball is not to be confused with its American cousin. Where baseball in the United States is a multi-billion dollar enterprise in Wales it’s a grassroots sport that has never strayed far from its origins. 

“Baseball is a sport that came up through the docks. Liverpool, Newport and Cardiff. It’s almost 130 years old,” says Greg Pelleymounter who doesn’t fear any loss of recognition for the sport – that has significant aesthetic and rule differences to the US version - in its Welsh enclave. 

Despite its humble origins and surroundings, with the ‘diamond game’ played on open parkland, it was once the dominant recreational and spectator sport of summer in the city. 

The game flourished in the years after World War I with more than 1,400 players registered with 60 clubs in south Wales during the 1920s – and crowds of up to 10,000 could be drawn to venues such as Cardiff’s Roath Park, a simple recreation ground. 

The National Wales: British baseball bats have a flat surface and are a batter's only protection while a backstop wears gloves and a face guard.British baseball bats have a flat surface and are a batter's only protection while a backstop wears gloves and a face guard.

Large spectator crowds were still a feature of the sport through to the 1980s when Welsh Cup finals and the annual international against England would be televised live on BBC Wales. Rugby stars, including Mark Ring and David Bishop, were dual internationals having also represented Wales with bat and ball. 

Though television lost interest and crowds dwindled the game remained. It may have become low-key but it was still played by committed players even if the crowds were no more than passing dog walkers. 

But when 2015 progressed to summer the parks of Cardiff and Newport had a strange silence on Saturday afternoons. No bats hitting balls or competitive shouting from 22 men fighting over four bases on a diamond could be heard. 

The sport had almost faded out of existence. 

That it didn’t die entirely is down to Greg and a handful of friends and that section of the sport which had refused to give in and never stopped playing, the women’s game. 

This year the Welsh Men's Baseball League has been back up and running, having resumed with a tournament last year, and features seven sides; Llanrumney, St Albans, St Peters and Splott Albion, all from the east of Cardiff, Grange Albion and Fairwater, from the south and west, and Newport. 

As four of the sides battle it out on a sweltering Sunday afternoon at Rumney Rugby Club in east Cardiff, they are supported by a loyal band of baseball enthusiasts. 

Justine Chinnick is more than a baseball fan. She is a player, she runs the Llanrumney Women’s team, a sometimes referee and seemingly knows everyone at the vast playing fields. 

She has a vested interest today, however, her 15-year-old son Jake is due to make his debut for Llanrumney. 

He admits the prospect of facing Fairwater’s shaven headed bowler, who is about the size of your average prop forward, and whose underarm delivery appears to carry all the power of a charging rugby scrum, is “terrifying”. 

His only protection will be his baseball bat. Rather than the slim round bat, used in America, Jake will be holding a wooden bat with a flat surface that looks almost like a condensed cricket bat. 

The National Wales: Justine Chinnick, standing, seems to know everyone at the ground.Justine Chinnick, standing, seems to know everyone at the ground.

Where once young baseballers would progress through the youth leagues before making their senior debut the game’s decline meant playing against other boys hadn’t been an option for Jake. 

But he was able to play in what had been a girls team with the daughter of one of his mother’s teammates, Danielle Daley. 

“My daughters are 15 and 13 and started playing and our league allowed boys to play up to 15,” says the 40-year-old who was introduced to the game at primary school and by 11 was playing senior baseball in the women’s league which at that time had seven divisions. 

Friendships are formed through the sport and Danielle, who plays backstop, travels in tandem with her “adopted mother”, Denise ‘Dinny’ Johnson. The 62-year-old is a feared bowler in the women’s league where she forms a partnership with her younger friend. 

“I’m the oldest player in the league,” says Dinny proudly: “I’ve been playing since school, from the age of 12. Bill Barrett was my headteacher at Moorland Road and he was known as Mr Baseball.” 

Many of the players recall the enthusiasm of teachers for the game as having introduced them to the sport and for also encouraging them to join local clubs. 

Answers as to why baseball has declined, range from “kids spending too much time looking at their phones” to a “health and safety” approach in schools which may favour the less intensive game of rounders. Or, if baseball is played at all, the solid ball is replaced with a tennis ball, and games are called off at the slightest drop of rain. 

But other than the obvious answer, that men and boys stopped playing the game, no one can really say why that was. While the women are pleased to see the recovery of the men’s game, they also fear for the future of their own section. 

The National Wales: Nathan Alderman, of Grange Albion, keeps his eye on an incoming ball bowled at pace, and as per the rules, underarm.Nathan Alderman, of Grange Albion, keeps his eye on an incoming ball bowled at pace, and as per the rules, underarm.

Dinny says: “Most girls now want to play football. I asked my granddaughter if she’d like to play and she said, ‘I’d rather play football, Nan’. My daughter never wanted to play she said she couldn’t live up to my standard.” 

Societal changes have clearly impacted baseball. The Cardiff folk singer Frank Hennessey wrote ‘Baseball Song’ in tribute to the sport and told its history as simply: “We’re sons of dockyard workers/sitting on a dockyard wall watching our fathers playing baseball/And when we get older we’ll be dockyard workers too and just like our fathers baseball will do”. 

Much has changed since the now Radio Wales presenter wrote those lyrics, in 1981, at what was already a time of uncertainty for industrial Cardiff. While the city still has an active port, its bayside is now better known for leisure than employment opportunities in the dockyards and the city’s steel industry is also much reduced. 

Baseball Song by The Hennessy's

But it is changes in the media, rather than traditional industries, that have probably had a greater impact on baseball. What was once a fixture of the BBC Wales summer TV schedule disappeared from our screens with the 1980s.  

Neither is baseball featured as prominently as it once was in the pages of the local paper. Justine says there would be a “write up” every Wednesday and while she now reads the title online says baseball doesn't feature and Danielle, who reads her grandad’s copy of the South Wales Echo, says the sport is absent. 

Even when the former broadsheet evening paper was “that big”, Dinny says- holding her hands apart – coverage of the female game was minimal compared to the men’s. 

“There would be a whole page for the men and just a little bit for the women’s,” she says complaining the women’s game is still overlooked: “When there was no more men’s baseball we, the women’s game, kept it going but as soon as the men’s game came back it got a big, massive write up.” 

The National Wales: Mike Brind from St Albans batting has to take evasive action when a ball is delivered high and to close to his unguarded face.Mike Brind from St Albans batting has to take evasive action when a ball is delivered high and to close to his unguarded face.

On the other side of the playing fields Splott Albion are in bat against St Peter’s Rugby Club. 

“We made these boys into a team because we play for Splott ladies. The boys are predominantly a football club but we use the same facilities at Splott Park and they’d seen us play and thought it was a way to stay together in the summer,” says 36-year-old Rebecca Parsons. 

She has fond memories of when baseball was still a big draw: “When I was younger it was huge and I used to go to watch the international, Wales v England. It was massive back in the day.” 

Splott are trained by Ellie Jackson Clarke who though she is just 20 is happy to take charge of a team of older men and says the different sexes are happy to learn from each other. 

The National Wales: The Splott Sluggers baseball team. Second from left is Ellie Jackson Clarke, who at 20 is coaching the Splott Albion men's side, and pictured, far right, is Rebecca Parsons.The Splott Sluggers baseball team. Second from left is Ellie Jackson Clarke, who at 20 is coaching the Splott Albion men's side, and pictured, far right, is Rebecca Parsons.

While Ellie is passing on skills to a new generation of male players she and her teammates, from the Splott Sluggers side they formed some five years ago, were taught the game by their coach, former Welsh international Malcolm Curtis. 

“He helped us as the men weren’t really interested at the time,” says Ellie of their coach who died in 2019 aged 58: “If it wasn’t for Malcolm we wouldn’t have this team, he passed away three years ago and we always wanted to carry on for him.” 

His legacy is now helping rebuild the men’s game, which is also important for Ellie whose family links to baseball stretch back generations. 

“My grandad used to play, he’s in his 70s, I’m pretty sure he played for Wales and he’s got newspaper cuttings. My aunty started playing for Splott and then she played for the Diamonds and I remember going to watch her play at Heath Park when I was younger.” 

The National Wales: Fairwater captain Adam Payne and inset Llanrumney at bat at Rumney RFC's ground.Fairwater captain Adam Payne and inset Llanrumney at bat at Rumney RFC's ground.

With Fairwater now at bat against Llanrumney, Steve Theaker has time to give his thoughts on the sport he has played for 50 years. 

The roofer, whose firm sponsors the Fairwater team, says while his work keeps him “relatively fit” - he still climbs scaffolding a few times a week when he could be in the office - baseball isn’t too demanding. 

“It’s a game for every generation and you haven’t got to be super-fit,” says Steve drawing breath after his bat and quick run around the bases. 

Underling his point – and the family ties in baseball that perhaps make its decline more surprising – is that a number of father and sons play together in the Fairwater side, though his own are absent today. 

MORE SPORT:

Steve began playing with his brothers while at primary school in Fairwater and thinks baseball’s decline mirrors that of a lot of other grassroots sport at a time when there are also a wider range of sports available. 

“It was a good Saturday out. We used to have two sides and at one time every rugby club in Cardiff had a baseball team. But without it being played in the schools you don’t have any young players coming through. 

“It is the same with rugby, they struggle to get a team out where once Fairwater Rugby Club had five or six teams, although youngsters do seem to be playing rugby again as they’ve had a bit of an influx. 

“Baseball used to keep the rugby sides together through the summer but now you have things like touch rugby. 

“But it’s good to be socialising and out with your mates, a lot of young people go on now that their head’s not right, but it you go and play games you meet people and it’s good for you.” 

The National Wales: Action from the 1990 Wales v England international baseball fixture.Action from the 1990 Wales v England international baseball fixture.

Restarting the sport was really a matter of a “few phone calls” says Greg Pelleymounter. He and his five friends, all former players, were able to draw on the remnants of the sport and they now form the committee of the longstanding, but previously dormant, governing body, the Welsh Baseball Union. 

Their ambitions had been delayed from 2020, due to Covid and the lockdown, but they were also encouraged not only by the number of clubs that came forward but a crowd of some 600 to 700 who attended the cup final last year. 

It’s still a long way from when baseball was dominant in south east Wales and the international fixture, which celebrated its centenary in 2005, appears lost. The England team, which for decades had only been able to select from a small number of clubs in Liverpool, were forced to withdraw from the 2014 fixture and it has never restarted. 

“The league in Liverpool actually stopped playing about five years before us, they tried to keep it going for the international but it died,” said Greg. 

The National Wales: Adam Payne, left, delivers a team talk to his Fairwater side before they go into bat.Adam Payne, left, delivers a team talk to his Fairwater side before they go into bat.

At the time it was felt a failure by schools in Merseyside to teach the game had caused the sport’s decline and there were warnings the same could happen in Wales, which is something Greg and his colleagues are addressing. 

Now retired the 67-year-old has spent his summer organising baseball festivals, for boys and girls in secondary and primary schools and the intention is that youth leagues at under 16s and under 14s are restarted from next year. 

READ MORE: 

Bruce Springsteen was probably thinking about US baseball, rather than its more modest cousin favoured in Cardiff, when he wrote Glory Days but after years of longing for the return of a bygone age it appears Welsh baseball may have a brighter future. 

St Albans are playing Grange Albion at Rumney RFC, Cardiff on Sunday, July 31. First knock is 2pm. For more information on baseball contact: baseballwales@gmail.com. 

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.