A slice of England in West Philadelphia? There was once a “Sherwood Forest” — a grove of trees that stood at the intersection of 58th Street and Baltimore Avenue. Nearby was the Belmont Cricket Club at the intersection of S. 50th Street and Chester Avenue, which for a few short years competed against the still-extant Germantown, Merion, and Philadelphia clubs.
On hot, hazy summer afternoons in the 1890s, the residents of the surrounding brick twin houses — porches bedecked with striped awnings — would stroll to Belmont Cricket and watch the local and international legend Bart King (1873-1965) play on the crease.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the “Gentlemen of Philadelphia” were a juggernaut that mowed down the best teams from England and her colonies. The Associated Clubs of Philadelphia proudly declared that “with the vast improvement made in cricket at Philadelphia (and in fact everywhere in the country) since the last team visited England, there is every reason to expect very different showings this year. Since the last time crossed the Atlantic, the representatives of the Quaker City have laid claim to more than ordinary honors. In 1891, Lord Hawke’s team suffered a defeat at their hands. The following year the Gentlemen of Ireland had to lower their colors when they met the Philadelphians. In 1893, the Australian team of that year lost in Philadelphia. In 1894, Lord Hawke’s team was again beaten. The visiting Cambridge and Oxford teams lost to home players in 1985. ”
Leading the charge during cricket’s brief golden age was Bart King. A star bowler and a hitter, King would later be known as the “Bob Hope” of the cricketing world, for according to one account he, “told his impossible tales with such an air of conviction … that his audiences were always in doubt when to take him seriously. He made their task doubly difficult by sprinkling in a fair mixture of truth with his fiction.” When King died in 1966, his obituary noted that, “his 344 for Belmont v Merion B stand as the North American record: he scored 39 centuries in his career and he topped 1,000 runs in a season six times, in 4 of them also taking over 100 wickets.”
In those days, watching a cricket match was just as popular a past time as going to a Phillies game. West Philadelphia’s Belmont was the scrappy sibling of Philadelphia’s league. The haughty Pennsylvania Railroad built the Main Line and Chestnut Hill, while Peter Widener’s humbler trolley lines built the more democratic suburbs of West Philadelphia. The Belmont Club, founded in 1874, was prosperous, its grounds and buildings beautiful, but it did not put on aristocratic airs. Neither did Bart King. What John B. Kelly was to rowing, King was to the even more rarified world of cricket Unlike most of his peers, the middle-class King had to work for a living. In those days, a Philadelphia cricketer did not play for money. To support his amateur habit, King worked in his father’s linen business — there were many textile mills in West Philadelphia at this time, which drew their power from Cobb’s Creek. To preserve his status as a “gentleman amateur,” wealthy friends secured him a low-stress job at a Philadelphia insurance company.
By the early 1900s, America lagged behind England when it came to compensating its best players. In fact, King was surprised to learn that British cricketers actually got paid for their sport.
“Hallo Mr. King,” said an English professional who ran into King in London.
“Hallo, call me Bart,” King responded.
“But you’re a gentleman cricketer, sir?” the professional queried.
“Aren’t you a gentleman too?” King asked.
“Oh no sir, I’m a professional,” was the reply.
Despite its aristocratic associations, cricket in America had proletarian origins. English textile workers from Nottingham brought the game to American in the early 19th century, and played six hour matches with gusto on their precious days off. Spectators drank ale and freely placed bets. Many cricketers also tried their hand at baseball, a faster American variant of the game (also with runs and innings) which gained traction during the Civil War. By the 1880s, the well-heeled Wisters of Germantown and the Clarks of West Philadelphia — developers of the Spruce Hill neighborhood — took up the British sport and transformed the game of the millworkers workers into the past-time of the wealthy. The local, blue-collar cricket clubs such as Tioga — which King played for as a young man — and Frankford closed their doors, their creases and clubhouses replaced by blocks of row houses.
Belmont held out longer but succumbed on the eve of World War I. The surrounding neighborhood was populated by comfortable factory managers and small business owners — like King’s family — who could not afford to be “gentleman amateurs” or attend games that lasted three to five days. More importantly, the rise of professional baseball teams — with their big stadiums and open seating — were a more democratic way to spend an afternoon for the industrial city’s growing population. Philadelphia formed its first official baseball team in 1883. Soon, the Phillies attracted bigger crowds. Spectators could cheer from the stadium bleachers when their favorite players scored runs, rather than demurely clap behind ropes at private clubs. The rules of baseball were also much less arcane, and the “seventh inning stretch” replaced leisurely breaks for lunch and tea.
Belmont Cricket Club closed its doors in 1914, but not before visiting English cricketer C. Percy Hurditch introduced its members to a more fast-paced field sport: soccer. King saw which way the wind was blowing in West Philadelphia, and joined the Philadelphia Cricket Club in Chestnut Hill, two years before Belmont went defunct. He continued to play and tour internationally until his death at age 92. The London Times eulogized: “Had he been an Englishman or an Australian, he would have been even more famous than he was.”
The Belmont Cricket Club was torn down in 1918 and was replaced by the fields and buildings of the Kingsessing Recreation Center, which continues to serve the neighborhood’s athletic needs to this day.
Footage of the Colin Jodah Trophy Match at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, with a mention of Bart King.
Barker, Ralph (1967). Ten Great Bowlers. Chatto and Windus. pp. 124–155.
P. David Sentence, Cricket in America: 1710-2000 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2006), pp. 93, .278 .