Bart King of Philadelphia

Published: 2022
Pages: 313
Author: Musk, Stephen and Mann, Roger
Publisher: Matador
Rating: 5 stars

Cricket is decidedly not an American game. There have been concerted attempts from time to time to make it so, but despite the efforts that have been made even the shortest formats have found it difficult to spread the word far beyond the ex-patriate communities. Casual observers of the game will assume, not unreasonably, that that has always been the case. On the other hand those with an interest in and feel for the history of cricket know that the reality is rather different.

Back in 1844 the first international cricket match was played between USA and Canada. Fifteen years later the first overseas tour by an English team was to North America. Real enthusiasm for American cricket was limited even then to the North Eastern states but, for a few years in Victorian and Edwardian times, one of the finest all-rounders the game has seen operated on the other side of the pond. Bart King also toured England with the Gentlemen of Philadephia in 1897, 1903 and 1908. On the last of those visits King headed the First Class averages when, at age 35, he took 73 wickets at 12.26.

It may be that if the Americans could have found a couple more players approaching King’s standard history might be different. As it was although in King’s day the Gentlemen of Philadelphia were quite capable of beating the English counties, they probably wouldn’t have been strong enough to justify Test status and, sadly, after the Great War and without a talismanic figure like King, Philadelphian cricket declined rapidly.

Personally I have always liked to think that despite that decline having proved to be virtually terminal, the name of Bart King still resonated down the years. He was, after all, one of the early pioneers of swing bowling and deserves remembering for that alone. In recent weeks however I have been led to believe I may be wrong about the number of cricket lovers who are familiar with his story, in which case this long overdue biography of King will hopefully set the record straight.

Down the years many biographies of cricketers have been written. Most of the subjects are well known, a few less so, but the one thing all have in common is that they come from a cricketing background that their readers will be familiar with. Thus if it is an English player we all know the way in which the County Championship works, how Test cricket fits in to schedules, and the importance of fixtures like, for example, the Gentlemen v Players games of old.

It is helpful therefore that Roger Mann and Stephen Musk have given their book a great deal of context by not concentrating wholly on King’s life. Without being anything like a full history of North American cricket their reader gets a flavour of how the game developed on the continent, with particular reference to the Philadelphia area, the International Series (the matches between USA and Canada) and the Halifax Cup, the main competition that the clubs in Philadelphia and its environs competed for.

There is of course also the compulsory look at where King and his forebears came from, as well as his life outside the game and after he retired. All of his stirring performances on the field are described, and there are separate chapters on each of those three tours of England as well as a detailed examination of the rest of his career.

Following on from King’s retirement from the game in 1916 there is then a summary of the rapid decline of the game in Philadelphia, the more interesting because Mann and Musk take a careful look at the possible reasons for that, dealing with each in turn at some length. There are certainly one or two strands of their analysis that were unfamiliar to me, but which are undoubtedly thoughts that have considerable merit.

And finally, so far as the main part of the book itself is concerned, comes the final chapter and a look at King’s later life, one which went on for many years as he survived into his nineties. The authors close with an account of one of the more interesting tales from King’s playing career, and one which has become the stuff of legend. Despite that the story is surely apocryphal, or at least embellished? What should a biographer do? The answer to that one is set out all the variations on the tale that research can provide, present them and leave it to the reader to take from that what they will, and that is exactly what Musk and Mann do.

Another task that Musk and Mann undertake, and which most cricketing biographers need not attempt, is to look at exactly what King did with the ball. There is no film of his unusual bowling action, which isn’t to say that there aren’t a number of photographs and plenty of descriptions. On that I will repeat the digression that is referenced on the very last page of the book and link to Rodney Ulyate’s fascinating attempt to recreate King in full flow using current technology.

One thing I do know about swing bowling is that, even for those well versed in the science and practice of the game it is an art that is still not completely capable of precise explanation. It must therefore have taken some courage for Musk and Mann to tackle that one but, realistically given King’s reputation, they had little option but to do so. In engaging the assistance for that chapter of the former England pace bowler Bob Cottam they made a sound decision, and the resulting narrative is as convincing as anything I have ever read on that challenging subject.

Which deals with the main part of the book, but then there are another 90 pages to go in the form of seven separate appendices. Naturally all the important statistics from King’s career are in one of them, so that is another box ticked. To tick three more there there is an excellent index, a comprehensive bibliography and the photographs, as you would expect given that Roger Mann owns the most comprehensive selection of cricketing images on the planet, are excellent.

And the other six appendices? The first, and longest, is one that I must confess to having read before I started on the main text, a step I would suggest is well worth considering. Bearing in mind that virtually no one who picks up the book is going to know anything of King’s American contemporaries the 62 short biographies that appear here fill in many gaps. As for the other five they comprise some writings on the techniques of swing bowling, a specific look at those who had the job of keeping wicket to King, a statistical analysis clearly demonstrating the dearth of young players in Philadelphia from 1910 onwards, the transcript of an interview with King and an article by Irving Rosenwater and, last but not least, four pieces of poetry.

Bart King of Philadelphia is by its nature going to have a limited appeal, but I have long since given up trying to find reasons not to give an outstanding book five stars, and there is absolutely nothing to complain about with this book, with one possible exception. Even having conceded that the book will not be a bestseller I am far from convinced that the 130 copies that have been printed are going to be enough to go round so, given that for a book as well produced as this £25 is a far from unreasonable price, I would advise anyone who is interested to purchase now. The book is available from the publisher, Boundary Books and, for those in the Southern Hemisphere, I believe copies are on their way to Roger Page


Tom Melville’s treatment of King in his superb book This Too Was America: Philadelphia’s Era of Cricket far more interesting.

Comment by Tim johnson | 11:14pm BST 28 March 2023

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