British & European Baseball / Features

Total Honkbal: The Baseball Team of Ajax Amsterdam

Late 1950s Amsterdam. A post-war generation grapples with boredom, awaiting with solemn fortitude the very revolution which would define it. All around, denizens chase light relief from the daily grind, whizzing via bicycle to chosen hobbies which help pass the time, divert the gloom, stir the awakening. A nascent pop culture attracts many to the cinema. Others listen to radio, hatching plans for life when the economy is fully recovered. But for one lanky kid, such slow-paced pursuits are definitively banal. Mr Cruyff needs fresh air and green fields in which to kick and throw and catch. Young Johan turns to baseball.

We know him better as the leading exponent of Total Football; a Pythagoras in boots; an icon in the colourful rise of Dutch sophistication. But before he dominated European soccer with breath-taking ingenuity, Johan Cruyff fell in love with baseball. A proficient catcher and occasional pitcher on the successful Ajax summer team, Cruyff gained a glowing reputation within baseball circles. At one point, his dominant performances piqued the interest of national selectors, who were keen for the future three-time Ballon d’Or winner to represent Oranje in youth baseball. A natural athlete, Cruyff excelled with immaculate technique, whilst learning lessons in camaraderie and team spirit which were eminently transferable to his illustrious career.

By the time Cruyff arrived at Ajax, the venerable club was an established force within Dutch baseball, or honkbal. As the twentieth century dawned, Ajax searched for a summer sport to compliment its successful football operation. Whilst the details are somewhat quixotic, many theorists point to Jack Kirwan as the founding father of Ajax baseball. Kirwan, an Englishman who steered Ajax to the top tier of Dutch football in 1911, first experienced baseball whilst playing for Tottenham Hotspur back home. At this time, baseball was booming in Britain, with investment from America supporting professional leagues intermittently. Many football teams adopted baseball as a means of recreation through the off-season, and Kirwan won a National Championship with Spurs in 1906, ahead of Preston North End, Nottingham Forest and Derby County.

After assuming control of Ajax in 1910, legend holds that Kirwan introduced the sport to his players. By 1922, Ajax were founder members of Holland’s first formal honkbal league. In quirky competition with clubs like Blauw-Wit Amsterdam, SC Haarlem and Hercules, Ajax held their own; de Amsterdammers winning national titles in 1924, ’28, ’42 and ’48. The baseball team, a vehicle for enhancing Ajax pride year-round, shared a smart facility with OVVO, one of the oldest clubs in Europe, and attracted modest crowds on warm summer days.

The spectators watched teams mainly comprised of youth footballers eager to maintain fitness through the lazy summer months when soccer took a backseat. Johan Neeskens was a fine ballplayer, perhaps even better than Cruyff. Cor Wilders dominated for Blauw-Wit in football and honkbal, even twirling a no-hitter during his dual career. Joop Odenthal and Henk Schijvenaar joined him as the only players to represent Holland in both sports. Even Marco van Basten played baseball as a youngster, according to local legend. But few loved the game like Johan. Where others saw it as mere fun, or a necessary evil mandated by the Ajax establishment, Cruyff developed a natural affection for baseball. To this day, he still refers to honkbal in his revered newspaper columns, often advocating its ability to teach the underlying values of unity and belief. In 2007, Cruyff attended the European Baseball Championships in his adopted Barcelona, watching with fascination as the Netherlands won their twentieth title. It resonated in the heart of a man who once illuminated Dutch diamonds with agility, elegance and spirit. It made him proud.

Nowadays, the notion of football clubs endorsing a second sport is absurd. Such is the delicate procedure of insuring gargantuan contracts and choreographing the development of young players, paranoid clubs ban activities like skiing and rock-climbing and mountaineering. The contemporary footballer is a sensitive figure. The perils of baseball would render the modern Director of Football apoplectic. Just imagine the scandal, the uproar, the carnage if a prized Arsenal academy graduate was hit in the head by a 90-mph fastball! The legal process would rage for months, years, decades. But Ajax operated in a different era. It was natural for Cruyff to stay alert by playing baseball. It was encouraged.

Ultimately, he developed into the greatest European footballer of all-time, but the romantic in me often daydreams about how far Cruyff could have ventured in the world of baseball. He graced Number 14 for Ajax and Oranje, playing for Rinus Michels and alongside Neeskens, but could he have played for the Red Sox or Yankees or Giants, alongside Carl Yastrzemski or Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays? Could Fenway Park or Wrigley Field or Dodger Stadium have enshrined his retired number like Ajax did in 2007?

Probably not.

Cruyff was a one-off, a maestro, a man of skill and destiny on a football field. The course of Dutch history needed Johan startling with a ball and with outspoken temerity.

On the diamond, he was just another guy who loved baseball.

Just one of thousands throughout Holland, a nation highly-interested in the game. The culture and customs of honkbal are unique, almost entirely independent of the popularised American game we adore. The essence of honkbal is unadulterated, its standing as a youthful summer sport well preserved throughout the Netherlands. Arguably, it can be seen as pure baseball, played with childlike enthusiasm and without its gross commercialism. The codified history of baseball in Holland can be traced to the early twentieth century, when JCG Grase, a Dutch schoolteacher, discovered it whilst on holiday in America. Upon returning home, Grase pitched baseball to his students as a summer alternative to soccer. The Amsterdam native even translated baseball’s rule book and coined the term honkbal.

Ultimately, the game mushroomed in popularity, away from school courtyards and into elitist Holland. Soon, baseball became the preserve of dapper professionals, with the first organised club (Amsterdamsche Honkbal Club) comprising of doctors, entrepreneurs, lawyers and technicians. A number of competing clubs sprang up throughout the country, with Hercules and Quick Amsterdam establishing strong identities. By 1934, honkbal was so popular as to facilitate a national match between Holland and Belgium.

During World War I, both ball-playing nations were unified by US and Canadian troops eager for baseball; the merging of leagues forming epic pennant races between teams from Rotterdam and Den Haag and Brussels. Once combat stopped, the growing influence of baseball piqued the interest of football clubs, such as Ajax, who were keen for extraneous recreation. In turn, the involvement of top football clubs lent honkbal a certain credo; a certain seriousness which enabled the growth of a burgeoning domestic league and inspired more interest in the sport. To that end, 6,000 fans attended a Dutch-Belgian game held at Ajax’ De Meer Stadion in 1953. The game blossomed in Holland.

It helped that the Dutch were naturally-skilled ballplayers. Han Urbanus, a dominant pitcher who bewitched opposition batters to the tune of seven career no-hitters, attended Spring Training with the New York Giants in the early-1950s. Whilst playing for Leo Durocher, Urbanus picked-up a wicked curveball from Sal Maglie, a bitter old warhorse who wouldn’t waste his time instructing a no-hoper. Indeed, Urbanus was offered a contract with New York, but he reneged citing practicality issues.

Nonetheless, the path was smoothed between Holland and America, honkbal and baseball. In time, top American coaches like Ron Fraser and Bill Acre were paid to teach the game throughout Holland. Urbanus’ ties to New York saw the Giants send instructional videos and pamphlets to the Netherlands, detailing how baseball should best be played, and providing training methods for young players. Accordingly, the level of skill improved, and more Dutchmen followed in Urbanus’ footsteps in trying-out with modern Major League organisations. Robert Eenhoorn ventured from Rotterdam to become a Yankee. Rikkert Faneyte played in the same Giants’ outfield as McGee and Bonds. Wim Remmerswaal pitched for the Red Sox.

The Dutch became masters of European baseball.

Ajax’ baseball operation ceased in 1972, when executives thought it more prudent to pump funds into a nascent football empire. However, at this point, modern honkbal had been born. Holland began to almost monopolised the European Baseball Championships, and the domestic league has consequently enriched its infrastructure and quality. Nowadays, a salary is provided for most star players and foreign talent is axiomatic. It’s all a far cry from the innocent pastime which Johan Cruyff used to alleviate boredom, but Holland has become a model nation for would-be baseball programmes.

Thus, it’s only fitting that Major League Baseball is looking towards the Netherlands as an ideal host for future games. A £15 million project has seen a 30,000-seat baseball stadium built to MLB specification in Hoofddorp, on the outskirts of Amsterdam. It’s hoped that Major League Baseball and the World Baseball Classic will visit for games here within the next couple of years.

Perhaps Mr Cruyff could throw out the ceremonial first pitch. After all, he may not have played professionally, but Johan remains the most iconic exponent in honkbal history.

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