(In 1984, I was a young fifth-grade teacher at The American School in England – pictured here. In my spare time, I also served as the Cobham Yankees starting pitcher during the baseball season. We played our home games on the TASIS campus, situated 18 miles west of London. In the right portion of this photograph, a local Norman landmark, St. Mary’s Church, consecrated in the historic year, 1066, is clearly visible).
34 years ago this month, I was the starting pitcher in the British Baseball League for the Cobham (Surrey) Yankees at a reconfigured baseball field in pastoral Thorpe, England. Working on a makeshift mound, I kept a roster of the opponent team in order to know the nationality of each batter. As I had learned that year, native Brits loved low balls because of their prowess in cricket. Therefore, they would be served nothing but belt high-and-above pitches. For my American and Canadian counterparts, each sphere would be hopefully thrown at the lowest point of the strike zone, the traditional “out” zone for most North American batters.
The matronly tower of St. Mary’s Church, which sat imposingly a few hundred yards behind home plate in the azure sky, framed my view behind the backstop. 20 years previously, a Roman cinerary urn, dated to 120 -150 A.D., had been discovered buried in its ancient churchyard. Local archaeologists then determined that the mainframe of the church had been completed in 1066, the year that William the Conqueror had become the king of England. In addition, the infamous Doomsday Book listed St. Mary’s Church as the main center of worship in the area.
As I glanced toward home to get the sign one glistening Sunday afternoon in late May, a familiar target wearing an authentic New York Yankees baseball uniform was motioning to me with his expansive catcher’s glove. Johnny Munson, our team’s receiver, who was then stationed at a US Air Force base in England, was Cobham’s star player. The older sibling of the late Thurman Munson, Johnny resolutely adorned one of his brother’s old uniforms and took charge of us all as his brother Thurm had during his ten-year career as a New York Yankee.
After I had gotten to know him a bit, I informed him that I had seen his brother play a handful of games in the Cape Cod Baseball League 16 summers previously. Even though I was a diehard Red Sox fan, I instantly won the elder Munson over. Johnny enthusiastically informed me that Thurman’s favorite summer growing up had been those golden months when he had starred for Chatham at the emerald ball field that was frequently shrouded in a thicket of fog at the elbow of the Cape.
After I struck out the first batter for the London Knights that afternoon on the Thorpe cricket pitch, Johnny Munson bellowed, “Keep throwing that slop, Kell,” as I then set the first six batters down in the batting order.
After a foul ball was sprayed well behind the screen, I noticed a middle-aged man and his wife timidly approach the backstop area. By the look on their faces, they seemed stunned that they had stumbled onto a baseball game in an archetypal English town just a ten-minute drive from Windsor Castle. Eventually, the couple sat down in the stands behind our dugout and watched the game silently.
As I sauntered off the mound to end the top of the third inning, my face broke into a broad smile when it was clear who had chanced upon our game. Sitting with his spouse, the gray-haired gentleman, Bowie Kuhn, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball at the time, smiled broadly as I approached him. “Mr. Commissioner and Mrs. Kuhn, welcome to the British Baseball League!”
Bowie Kuhn cackled audibly and exclaimed, “Luisa and I are here on vacation in the UK visiting some local landmarks, and we couldn’t believe when we observed that a baseball game was being played so close to St. Mary’s Church! Talk about doing a double-take; seeing good old American hardball here in the heart of Merry Olde England!”
When I then pointed out that there was actually a Munson wearing a Yankees uniform catching behind the plate, he blurted. “We’ll all be damned!” The Commissioner was obviously pleased that Johnny was wearing his brother’s old Yankee uniform.
Mr. Kuhn then asked me where I was from. “Wellesley, Massachusetts, sir,” I replied.
The couple collectively lit up like a scoreboard. “That’s where our daughter went to college!” they shouted simultaneously. Mrs. Kuhn then added, “Isn’t Hathaway Bookshop the greatest anywhere, Shaun?
When I nodded in the affirmative, I then introduced the Commissioner and his wife to Mr. Gerry Murphy, my former history teacher and mentor from Wellesley High School who was then spending a sabbatical year teaching with me at TASIS England. Murph, who enjoyed attending our games, began waxing poetic to the Kuhns about the storied Hathaway Bookstore as well.
“Hey, Shaun,” Johnny Munson blurted out from our bench. “You’re up. Remember, National League rules today.”
I politely excused myself, approached home plate fingering a Ted Williams 33 ounce bat, and promptly launched a home run that hit the top of a European ash tree 75 feet beyond the rickety left field fence, well over 400 feet in left-center. It proved to be the farthest ball I ever hit in my life.
“Wow, a Mass Pike shot!” Johnny Munson roared from our bench.
Without blinking an eye, Gerry Murphy nudged Bowie Kuhn’s shoulder and barked, “Mr. Commissioner, you’ve now seen two historic home runs: Henry Aaron’s 715th – and Shaun Kelly’s first.”
Yup, he had.