'Undoubtedly one of the finest bowlers of all time'. It would surprise many people to hear that this quote by Sir Plum Warner was about an American bowler. His name was John Barton King, and he was seen by many critics as the greatest bowler of in the world, and the greatest of his generation.
The story of the first ever test match in 1877 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground between the touring England team and the Australian eleven is well known. However, what is not so commonly known is the fact that the first ever international game between two countries took place at New York in 1844 between the USA and Canada. Cricket was primarily introduced to the USA by English immigrant mill-workers within the New England area. Cricket thrived within Philadelphia, which became the centre of game within the country from the 1890's through to the First World War.
The USA, or perhaps more correctly, the Philadelphian Gentlemen, undertook five tours of England and played tour games against most of the first class county teams. They recorded victories over many sides, including a number of defeats for Australian teams who played against them during their return from tours of England. Much of their success during this period can be traced back to one man, John Barton King.
John Barton King, or 'Bart' King as he became known, was born on the 19th of October, 1873. As with most of the children his age, Bart grew up playing the American national game of baseball in his home town of Philadelphia. He did not start playing cricket seriously until he was fifteen. He joined the Tioga Cricket Club, which was one of the major clubs within Philadelphia. The first recorded game that Bart played in was for the Tioga Juniors on 27th June, 1889. Throughout this season, Bart took 37 wickets for a total of 99 runs, a very clear sign of his potential. He started off as a batsmen, but the club quickly pushed him into bowling as even at age fifteen he was strongly built and over six foot in height. At this stage he primarily bowled just above medium pace, however over the next three years for Tioga Juniors he gradually built up his speed until he was considered to be genuinely fast.
The secret to Bart's bowling success can be largely traced to his ability to swing the ball in both directions. Whilst he was rated by his contemporaries as one of the first truly fast bowlers, his most dangerous ball was an inswinger. He referred to it as his 'angler' and he only used it rarely as he felt that the less batsmen saw it, the less chance there was for them to get used to it. His normal ball was an outswinger, but he commented that this merely increased the danger of his inswinger. It is said that Bart's ability to swing the ball was developed as the result of his early years as a baseball pitcher. The unique component of his action was that in the final strides of his run, he held the ball above his head in both hands, much in the manner of baseball pitcher. In spite of this, there were never any claims that he threw, unlike other fast bowlers of the day, and he renowned for his very high and pure action.
The years with Tioga Juniors provided Bart with an excellent grounding for the game, and in 1892 he became a permanent member of the Tioga senior team. Bart's career for Tioga continued until 1896, when the club disbanded. He then joined another major Philadelphia club Belmont, before he finally finished with the Philadelphia Cricket Club in 1916 after the Belmont club was dissolved in 1913. During this extended playing career in the USA, Bart took a total of 2, 088 wickets at an average of 10.47. In addition to this, he also scored 19,808 runs at a very good average of 36.47. His score of 344 for Belmont in a Hallifax Cup game against Merion in 1906 is still considered to be a record score within North American cricket. It is naturally difficult to determine precisely what this record represents, as obvious questions can be asked about the standard of cricket within the United States. It would appear from anecdotal evidence that the standard of Philadelphian cricket was at least the level of minor country cricket in England at the time, and therefore his record stands as one of merit.
Ignoring all arguments surrounding the relative strength of cricket in the USA during this period, it is Bart's performances in international games that remains the outstanding aspect of his career. He was first selected to play in an international match in 1892 for the Gentlemen of Philadelphia against the Gentlemen of Ireland during his initial season in the senior ranks with Tioga. Still only eighteen years old, Bart took 19 wickets at an average of 13.53 in the three game series. Following this success, he was selected for the USA in their annual match against Canada, and he responded by taking 3 for 6 and 2 for 15 in the USA's win.
The following year saw the Australian team play a series of games against the Philadelphian Gentlemen on their way home from England. It had been a long and arduous tour, and unwisely Australia agreed to play the Gentlemen on the day following the conclusion of their rough crossing of the Atlantic. Winning the toss, the Gentlemen smashed an impressive total of 525. Bart batted at no. 11, but he scored a very quick 36 to help the Gentlemen to top the 500 mark. The Australian team was very rusty, dropping numerous catches and misfielding regularly. The game was to go from bad to worse for the tourists however, as Bart ran through the Australian top order to take 5 for 78. Australia were bowled out for 199, and then shot out again for 258 after being forced to follow on. Australia had been beaten by an innings and 68 runs by the Philadelphian Gentlemen, with a nineteen year old Bart playing a pivotal role in the victory. Whilst Australia won the return game by six wickets, Bart had been noticed and his fame was starting to spread.
Bart toured England for the first time with the Philadelphian Gentlemen in 1897. This was the first major tour of England planned by an American team. It was to last two months, and was composed of fifteen first class games against county teams. The highlight of the tour was the game against the full-strength Sussex side. The Philadelphian Gentlemen batted first and totaled 216, thanks largely to a 106 run partnership between the team's best batsman, John Lester and Bart, who made 58. The Sussex innings started off with Bart opening the bowling with a wind blowing over his left shoulder. This made his 'angler' deadly, and in less than an hour, Sussex were bowled out for 46. Bart took 7 for 13, including the prized wicket of Ranji clean bowled first ball. Sussex followed on with 252, with Ranji redeeming himself with 74. Bart's figures in the second innings was 5 for 102, giving him twelve wickets for the match, which the Gentlemen went on to win by eight wickets. In all first class games on the tour, Bart took 72 wickets at an average of 24.20 and scored 441 runs at an average of 20.1. He received many offers to play county cricket, however he chose to return home instead.
International games were few and far between back in the late 1890's and early 1900's, as a consequence of the distances between countries. Bart's next major performance was in 1901 against a touring English team led by the famous spinner B.J.T. Bosanquet. Bart took 23 wickets in the two games, including a best of 8 for 78, at an average of 10.3. His ability to swing the ball late, combined with his express pace, simply proved too much for the tourists to cope with. His place as the pre-eminent Philadelphian, and by default, United States cricketer had been established by now, and he continued unchallenged in this role until his retirement.
Bart toured England again with the Gentlemen of Philadelphia in 1903. There were sixteen first class games between the Gentlemen and the county teams. Bart took 93 wickets at an average of 14.91, and scored 653 runs at an average of 28.89. The two highlights of this tour were defeats of Surrey at the Oval and Lancashire at Old Trafford. As with any win by the Philadelphian Gentlemen, Bart's performances were central to both of these victories. Against Surrey Bart took 3 for 89 and 3 for 98 in the game, but his batting was the highlight for once. He scored 98 in the first innings before being unfortunately being run out, however he followed this up in the second innings with his highest first class score of 113 not out. His bowling was again to the fore against Lancashire, taking 5 for 46 and 9 for 62. His chance of taking all ten wickets in the second innings was ruined by a run-out. In all the Gentlemen won seven games, lost six with the other three games drawn.
Once again, Bart's first class career came to a standstill, with no first class games for the next five years. He continued to play inter-club cricket for these years, reining supreme with both bat and ball. He won the Batting Cup three times and the Bowling Cup four times between 1904 and 1908, revealing his dominance of his local competition. The absence of tours did allow Bart to concentrate upon games against the United States near neighbour, even though these games were not deemed to be of first class standard. He played eleven times for the USA against Canada from his debut in 1892. His performances were pivotal in the USA rarely being challenged in these games.
Bart toured England for the third and final time in 1908 with the Gentlemen. Despite being in his mid-thirties by this stage, Bart produced his best bowling performances in English condition. He took 87 wickets in only ten first class games at an average of only 11.01. This average was the best performance by any bowler in the summer, was better than any average for the previous fifteen years, and then was not matched for another forty years. Bart by this stage was balding, but still in magnificent physical condition. At six foot one and 178 pounds, Bart had long and loose arms, a powerful torso with strong shoulders and wrists. His team mate from the Philadelphia Gentlemen John Lester said that of Bart that 'nature endowed this man completely with the physical equipment that a fast bowler covets'. Bart's batting had dropped off a little by this stage, but he still managed to score 290 runs in the ten games, at an average of 16.11.
Bart's first class career was drawing towards a close following the 1908 tour of England, however he still had a few world class performances left. Playing against the Gentlemen of Ireland in 1909, Bart performed the amazing effort of bowling all eleven batsmen (G.A. Morrow was bowled off a no-ball and remained not out at the conclusion of the innings). This was one of three occasions that he took all ten wickets in the innings, however it was probably against the best opposition. The last two international matches that Bart played in were against the much weakened 1912 Australian test team. In spite of the fact that he was approaching 40, Bart took match figures of 9 for 78 in the Philadelphian Gentlemen's victory by two runs in the first game, and 8 for 74 in the second game that Australia won by forty five runs.
For a golden period from the mid 1890's until the First World War, the Philadelphia Gentlemen were able to put forward a representative team that could match many of the best sides around the world. Whilst there were other players of significance in the side such as batsman John Lester and bowling partner P.H. Clark, without the performances of Bart it is doubtful that the Gentlemen would have been anywhere near as successful.
Outside of cricket, Bart's first source of income was with his father in the linen trade. Later on, he worked as an insurance agent, a job that was supposedly obtained for him by members of a Philadelphian family who wished him to continue playing cricket. He married in 1913 to Miss Lockhart; a happy union that was to last over fifty years. John Barton King was elected as an honorary life member of the MCC in 1962, and died on the 17th of October, 1965 just two days short of his 92nd birthday. He remains the greatest of all American cricketers, and indeed the only player from the USA to ever be considered to be the best of his craft in the world.
As Bart was born in the United States, he was not able to take part in test matches. His first class record is therefore composed of games primarily against touring international teams such as Australia, and matches against counties on the three Philadelphian tours of England. Bart played 65 First Class Games from 1893 to 1912.
Bart took 415 wickets at an average of 15.66. His best bowling figures were 10-53. He took five wickets in an innings 38 times, and ten wickets in a match 11 times.
Bart scored 2134 runs in 114 innings at an average of 20.51. He scored one century, eight fifties and took sixty seven catches. His highest score of 113 not out.