John Barton King, Cricket’s First and Greatest Swing Bowler

Published: 2014

Bart King had until recently, for anyone with an interest in the ‘Golden Age’ of cricket, been a source of frustration for years. The fact that he was a bowler who relied on swing was part of that, the fabled delivery known as ‘the angler’ another, and then there was the mere fact he was an American. As a youngster the fact that there was a time when a single city in the US could produce a cricket team that was not that far behind England and Australia certainly sounded to me like the stuff of fiction?.

The problem was that because the game had, to all intents and purposes died in Philadelphia after the Great War, there was nothing to be found on King until I managed to acquire a copy of Ralph Barker’s Ten Great Bowlers, and realised just what an outstanding cricketer King was.

And that was largely that until last year when, finally, a full biography appeared, and what a book it was. The late Roger Mann and Stephen Musk produced the excellent Bart King of Philadelphia. I am aware that another writer, based in the US, was also working on a biography albeit that one has yet to be published, and now we have this one, self-published by Steve Smith.

Is there room for another book on King, or even another two? If for no other reason than only 130 copies of the Mann/Musk collaboration were printed the answer to that must be yes, but even though one person made the observation on my 5 star review of Bart King of Philadelphia that another book, The Tented Field by Tom Melville, was more interesting I cannot see its quality ever being matched.

So what has Steve Smith put together? It probably does amount to a biography, although it is essentially only a cricketing one. If any criticism could be levelled at Bart King of Philadelphia it would be that it recorded too little of the personality of its subject. Smith’s research has produced nothing that advances that one (although the US based gentleman who is potentially biographer number three did assure me he had material no one else would have).

Altogether King played in 65 First Class matches between 1893 and 1912. With one exception these were all during the visits of 12 touring sides to Philadelphia (eight English, three Australian and one Irish) and the tours made by the Gentlemen of Philadelphia to the UK in 1897, 1903 and 1908. Tour by tour, Smith’s book describes all of those matches and makes full use of contemporary reports in doing so.

The book’s plus points are that it is comprehensive, and does give its reader the sort of detailed account of King’s career that was missing for so long. In addition there are brief biographical interludes that introduce King’s Teammates of Note, and there are plenty of photographs and illustrations of contemporary reports and other material, albeit the quality of their reproduction is occasionally a little disappointing.

Few who hear of Bart King and his cricketing record will disagree with the assertion that he is one of the most interesting cricketers of his age. Learning more about him is now straightforward, at least for the fortunate 130 who were able to snap up a copy of Bart King of Philadelphia, and I would still recommend that one above Steven Smith’s book. But for those unable to track down a copy of that one John Barton King, Cricket’s First and Greatest Swing Bowler, self published and available on Amazon, is certainly a decent purchase.


Melville’s ‘A Tented Field’, which covers cricket in the whole of America is indeed an interesting read. His new book ‘This Too Was America’ concentrates on cricket in Philadelphia and is a very well researched and important work. It’s currently a little expensive but is required reading…

Comment by Stephen Musk | 8:43pm BST 12 June 2023

The Melville book is more than just a “history book.” Read it closely. It’s a guidebook for cricket’s very future in America. How so? Cricket in the USA today is facing THE SAME problems the Philadelphians faced over a hundred years ago.

Comment by Tim Johnson | 7:19pm BST 15 June 2023

As anyone who’s read Tom Melville’s new book will know King was by no means the first swing bowler…not even in Philadelphia.

Comment by Tim johnson | 10:08pm BST 3 August 2023

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