In 1964, the USA was in thrall to Beatlemania. The British Invasion was underway: bands like The Dave Clark Five, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, and Gerry and the Pacemakers were among those striking gold. In September that year another group of cocksure young men crossed the Atlantic to try and break America: Freddie and the Seamers, otherwise known as Yorkshire CCC.
Organised by Ron Roberts – a colourful journalist and author who had already organised private tours of India, Pakistan, Kenya and Rhodesia – Yorkshire’s tour of North America and Bermuda was the first by an English county side. Roberts dreamed of the seemingly impossible: making the Americans fall in love with cricket. If British music could create a stir there, he reasoned, how about its cricket? Despite being a Somerset man, he knew exactly the team he wanted to take…
The closest thing to The Beatles in English cricket was a swaggering gang of Yorkshiremen: for John, Paul, George and Ringo substitute Fred, Brian, Geoffrey and Ray. Even The Cricketer magazine, shedding its stuffy image like a dad at a disco, had made the link with the Fab Four: two weeks before the tour it put Trueman on the cover with the words: “We Love Fred Yeah Yeah Yeah”.
Also among the touring party was 23-year-old Geoff Boycott, on his first trip overseas, still basking in the glow of a maiden Test hundred; daredevil captain Brian Close; and future England captain and supremo Ray Illingworth. All cricketing giants. The supporting band weren’t too bad, either: Test players like Richard Hutton, Doug Padgett, Don Wilson and Phil Sharpe. In all, ten of the eleven who left London on 17 September for New York had played or would play Test cricket. They had won the County Championship in four of the previous five seasons and were in their pomp. How could America resist?
The itinerary was ambitious. (The Yorkshire lads would employ fruitier adjectives in private.) Five matches in the USA, including games on both east and west coasts, three in Canada and four in Bermuda; in all, a dozen games of cricket over the space of three weeks, covering a distance of 15,000 miles. They crossed so many time zones that by the end of the tour some of the squad had given up on sleep.
The USA was a country in flux. This was less than a year since John F Kennedy had been assassinated. Lyndon Johnson was in the White House seeking election. Earlier that year he had signed the Civil Rights Act and abolished racial segregation. And the Vietnam War – “no bigger than a man’s fist on the horizon” at the time of Johnson’s appointment – was starting to escalate, bringing with it an undercurrent of protest.
All of this was far from the Tykes’ minds as they went through customs at New York’s newly renamed Kennedy Airport. First a customs officer started to tap their bat handles as if looking for a “secret cavity for smuggled hemp”. Then he and his colleagues embarked on a ruthless search through their cricket bags. One official rooted through Trueman’s bags, emerging with a pair of batting gloves. “Whadda you?” he asked, in a thick Brooklyn accent. “A goalie?” Trueman was never one to shy away from a bust-up with authority, but he made an exception for those armed with Colt 45s. With rare diplomacy he explained they were cricketers and not ice-hockey players. The officials continued asking questions, but out of interest rather than suspicion. The inspection concluded with the officials handling their first cricket bats and being instructed in the virtues of a stout forward defensive, while the Yorkies were given a rudimentary lesson in how to handle a revolver.
After a day’s acclimatisation, including lunch with the Ford Motor Company and then at trip to the top of the Empire State Building, the tourists played their first game against the Brooklyn League.
The matting pitch was best described as “sporting”; if the visitors were expecting an easy introduction they were mistaken. Eric Dyal – drawn from the city’s West Indian community, like all his teammates – delivered the first ball of the game: a rapid bouncer that soared over Phil Sharpe’s head. Game on.
Sharpe was only opening because Boycott had started to feel unwell during the warm-up. His legs and ankles had started to swell. A local NYPD cop, Frank Harte – coincidentally born only a few miles from Boycott’s West Yorkshire home in Fitzwilliam – put the ailing batsman in his squad car and rushed him to hospital, sirens blazing. “Like something out of Kojak,” Boycott later said. His temperature was dangerously high but was swiftly brought back under control. The cause was an adverse reaction to a smallpox jab administered before leaving England.
Back at the ground, the Tykes were in a tussle. “We wondered whether we had come to the right place,” said Hutton. Faced with pace, bounce and hostility, only one man prospered – who else but Dennis Brian Close? He tamed the pace attack and then attacked, hitting four sixes in a 76 that laid the base for a total of 217 for 8 in 43 overs. The left-arm spin of Ophnell Larrier (who would represent the USA in the inaugural ICC Trophy in 1979 aged 40 but still their best bowler) did most damage with 4 for 63.
In reply, Trevor Best and Tony King added 95 for the second wicket and there were a few concerned faces among Close’s team. It was only after the match they learned both men had played first-class cricket, for Barbados and Trinidad respectively. Bad light brought an early close and a draw, but in refusing to flinch in alien conditions that favoured the bowlers heavily, Close and his men had earned the respect of their opponents and those watching.
The next day the opposition were the Joint Leagues of New York; an almost identical side to the one they had played the day before. Boycott was back, albeit in the middle order, and the visitors made a solid start. But from 54 for 0 they slid to 125 all out; Larrier did the damage again, dismissing Hutton, Sharpe, Hampshire, Boycott, Illingworth and Trueman for only 41 runs.
The Los Angeles Times correspondent was moved to remember the time Smith was asked to field slip and called for his butler to bring him his glasses. The next ball he dropped an absolute dolly. Smith removed the spectacles and peered at them with some malevolence: “Damn fool brought me my reading glasses.”
Anxious times called for desperate measures. In the first match Trueman had bowled off only a few paces because of the uneven outfield, but now he roared in, taking 6 for 21 in a match-winning spell that his teammates thought was as fast as any he’d bowled that season. “Our victory was solely due to a magnificent spell of fast bowling by Trueman,” said Hutton afterwards. The New York press agreed: “Trueman threw his balls down with ferocity,” one newspaperman said memorably. The Los Angeles Times referred to him as the “Fastest Cricketeer.”
The crowds for both matches were unspectacular, in particular the second at Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island, which could hold 22,000 people but contained only a few hundred, mostly West Indians. Might this have been because, on the other side of the East River, The Beatles were playing the final gig of their second US tour that year? More than 100,000 hysterical fans had gathered during the day outside the Paramount Theatre on 43rd and Broadway, while a lucky 3,622 were crammed inside. The Beatles did not take the stage until 10.45pm, so the Yorkshiremen would have been able to make the concert after play. Alas, no one had had the foresight to put them on the guest list. The Fab Four were instead treated to the company of Bob Dylan at their hotel where, so the story goes, he first introduced them to cannabis. Who knows? Had they smoked Woodbines and drunk ale with Closey and Fiery Fred at the Riviera Idlewild Motel, it might have been LBW rather than LSD that later fired their imaginations. Such are the crossroads of history.
From New York, the Tykes travelled to Washington to play a British Commonwealth side in rather more genteel surroundings, a park beside the Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial. Trueman took one look at the Potomac River behind the trees to one side of the ground and announced to all in earshot that he would hit a ball into it.
Once again there was a sticky start for the Tykes but at 96 for 6 Ray Illingworth broke free, striking the county’s first century on American soil, accompanied by Don Wilson’s sketchy 62, during which he was dropped eight times. Trueman scored a frisky 20 but for once failed to live up to his boast, failing to hit a six, never mind finding the river. But with the ball he was so menacing that to spare their hosts’ embarrassment Close was forced to take him off for after four wickets in his first five overs. Yorkshire won by 304 runs.
The next day was set aside for sightseeing. First on the schedule was Capitol Hill, to parlay with the acting Vice-President and Speaker of the House, John McCormack. Given that McCormack was renowned as a man with no interests beyond the confines of the Beltway politics, conversation must have been limited, but as the meeting ended with the players each being granted a few seconds to sit in the Speaker’s chair, it must have gone well.
Perhaps of greater interest to the tourists was their meeting with Miss West Virginia who, according to Close, “was present as part of her prize of winning the title.” Miss West Virginia was in fact Ellie Dee Kessel, who held a degree in music, a Masters degree and doctorate in education, and later became the First Lady of West Virginia. Despite that, after meeting Trueman and the gang, she was photographed wearing gloves, pads and the sort of frilly bikini rarely seen on Scarborough beach.
That evening they attended a British Embassy dinner where Trueman – not for the first or last time – managed to cause a stir with his blunt speaking. Indeed, it wasn’t even the last time on this tour as, during the next stop in Toronto, Trueman and the local mayor became embroiled in what Close described diplomatically as “a considerable amount of banter.”
Their two matches in Toronto were weather-affected, though not as cataclysmically as the match in Calgary against Alberta, which was abandoned without a ball being bowled because of a blizzard.
The following day, another 400 miles further west in Vancouver, the weather was in the high 70s and the venue was Brockton Point, which Donald Bradman had reckoned to be the most beautiful ground in the world; a backcloth of pine-clad mountains to one side, and the cobalt blue waters of the Pacific Ocean on another. Rows of totem poles decorated the cover boundary edge, a relic of when the field was home to the Whoi Whoi tribe. It was all too much for one local pressman, who was inspired to wax poetic: “Somehow all this is symbolic and significant ¬– cricket where once they danced the war dance, willow bats now for whalebone tomahawks.”
Fred Trueman fancied he could play the British Columbian attack with a whalebone tomahawk. Emboldened by a crowd of 3,000, he indulged in yet more boastful prophesying, announcing his intention to hit one of the totem poles. During a breath-taking lower-order stand with John Hampshire, in which the pair hit almost a dozen sixes, he almost succeeded.
No one had had the foresight to put the Yorkshiremen on the guest list for the Beatles concert. The Fab Four were instead treated to the company of Bob Dylan at their hotel where, so the story goes, he first introduced them to cannabis. Who knows? Had they smoked Woodbines and drunk ale with Closey and Fiery Fred at the Riviera Idlewild Motel, it might have been LBW rather than LSD that later fired their imaginations.
From Vancouver they headed south, over the border to Los Angeles to play two South Californian teams on the C Aubrey Smith ground, named after the distinctive and distinguished British character actor who founded the Hollywood XI club in the 1930s, and where Erroll Flynn, Boris Karloff and David Niven had all played. Aubrey Smith had died in 1948 but his presence in the clubhouse that bore his name was still felt. The Los Angeles Times correspondent was moved to remember the time Smith was asked to field slip and called for his butler to bring him his glasses. The next ball he dropped an absolute dolly. Smith removed the spectacles and peered at them with some malevolence: “Damn fool brought me my reading glasses.”
The ground was alongside a riding school and, true to form, the fearless Brian Close – who had never sat on a horse before in his life – was “soon in the saddle and galloping around the ground,” according to Boycott.
On the pitch, Yorkshire won both matches with ease, even though the Californians featured several men who had or would represent their country and had expectations of giving their illustrious guests a game. The hosts’ disappointment may have been the source of acrimony that crept into the second match. According to Richard Hutton, the first two American-born players the tourists had encountered sought to unsettle them with some robust backchat. “Their actual behaviour on the field of play was more suited to Yankee Stadium than Lord’s,” Hutton sniffed. The backchat turned out to be ill-advised; Illingworth scored a second century of the tour – a rollicking 144 in which “every alternate delivery went for four or six” – and then took three wickets as the chastened South California Cricket Association were bowled out for a measly 63.
If there wasn’t much competition on the field in the City of Angels, the tourists found plenty to amuse themselves off it. The Cockney Inn next to the ground was renamed The Yorkshire Grey for two nights, as the team took up residence and indulged in their favourite pastime: singing. Phil Sharpe, as silky in song as he was at first slip, led the choir as they supped and sang until the wee small hours. “Are you a pop band from Liverpool?” they were asked by the enchanted locals, who thought they were part of the British Invasion, even if Fred and Co’s look was more Brylcreem Boy than moptop.
They also found time to meet with Alan Young, the owner of Mister Ed the Talking Horse and the voice of Scrooge McDuck, while Close took a tour of Columbia Film Studios. “Much to my disappointment no one offered me a screen test and a seven-year contract,” he joked. At least people thought he was joking – there would have been no need for stunt doubles with Close in the cast.
By now, the endless air miles and criss-crossing time zones were beginning to take their toll, and tensions were surfacing. John Hampshire had married a week before the players left London and sacrificed his honeymoon to join the tour. By Los Angeles he was doubting his decision. “This is last t’honeymoon I’m spending on my own, laikin’ cricket wi’ you lot,” he was heard to say. Meanwhile, Trueman was muttering to himself because the other players were so knackered after the match, thanks to the insane schedule, that they were passing out rather than passing him the first bottle of beer, as was his privilege as the senior pro.
Thankfully, the final leg of the tour was Bermuda (via a short detour to New York, during which the team watched colour TV for the first time) where they stayed at the Palmetto Bay Club Hotel for almost a week. They swam, snorkelled and sunbathed. Boycott and Hampshire hit the beach hard on their first day, but the naive opener didn’t know he should have put on a protective layer of suncream. By the evening he’d turned a livid shade of pink. The doctor was called, and he advised they follow local custom: taking the fire out of the burn by coating him in vinegar. Boycott spent the next couple of days in agony, “smelling to high heaven”. The experience was so traumatic he rarely ventured out into the sun again, much to the murmurings of future teammates who thought his vampiric determination to avoid the heat was odd. Yet it wasn’t done because he was anti-social, he claimed, but to avoid a repeat of his Bermuda burn.
While Boycott lay pickled, the rest got pickled. Most memorably Don Wilson and Jimmy Binks, who returned to their shared room one night after an evening on the Rum Swizzles. Someone – or rather something – had beaten Binks to his bed: a cockroach that, with each telling, grew in size.
“Binky Boy,” asked Wilson. “Am ah drunk?”
“Aye, a bit,” replied Binks.
“Well then, that mustn’t be a cockroach on thy bed…”
“If it isn’t, I have the DTs as well…”
Binks tried to catch the cockroach but the sure touch that made him one of the county’s finest ever wicketkeepers eluded him, as did the insect. Binks then resorted to less stealthy means ¬– and picked up a bat to administer a swift kill. He swung, caught Wilson on the chin and knocked him out cold. The next morning Wilson tried to explain to his captain the reason for his headache; needless to say, Close was not a fount of sympathy.
On the pitch, the four Bermudan teams lined up as opposition were expected to offer the sternest test of the tour so far. But Yorkshire had a ringer – Garry Sobers, thus becoming an enduring quiz question: the first overseas player to play for Yorkshire and only the fifth non-Yorkshireman (this being the era when anyone who played for Yorkshire had to be born within the county).
His impact was immediate. Against St George’s he scored 117, with a still-sore Boycott also scoring a century, as he dug his new team out of a hole at 48 for 5. Then with Trueman he formed one of the finest new-ball attacks in history, the pair taking eight wickets between them as the home side were dismissed for 48. “He’ll do for me, that lad,” Trueman said of Sobers after.
The next three matches resulted in three more comfortable victories, with Sobers starring again with bat and ball. Brian Close offered the greatest praise he or any other Tyke could possibly muster: “I wish Sobers was a Yorkshireman.”
Yorkshire remained unbeaten. The tour was declared a success and Roberts was so encouraged that the next year he organised a similar trip for Worcestershire. Sadly, however, he died shortly before the team departed, aged only 38. There have been many tours to the USA since, though too few by English county sides.
In a 2010 interview with The Cricketer, Close cleared up the mystery of why Sobers had spent four matches as an honorary Yorkshireman. The original intention was for him to strengthen the opposition and play against the Tykes. But with one eye on Trueman, Sobers wasn’t having it: “I’ll not be playing on matting wickets against your lot,” Close reported him as saying, lending Sir Gary’s Bajan lilt a distinctively South Yorkshire air. “So he played for us instead.”
This interview is all the more pleasing because it took place in the USA. Close had travelled to Hartford, Connecticut, to be inducted into the country’s cricket hall of fame. And one reason behind his nomination was the fine way he had led his men there, 46 years before.
Beyond a few pockets of fanatics and immigrants, America remains resistant to cricket’s charms, while the story of this tour has slipped through a crack in time. Yet as Close’s recent recollections shows, for those surviving members the memories endure, on both sides of the Atlantic.
This article appeared in the ninth issue of The Nightwatchman. You can buy all copies here.