Belle Isle – A Cricket Venue Since 1915

This week MCA continues publication of an occasional series of articles on the history of cricket in Michigan. MCA’s Information Director has begun a research project to uncover the story of the sport in the State, and hopes to publish the preliminary results of his findings on this web site in the coming weeks and months. He would welcome any information about the story of the sport in the Detroit area and beyond; if you would like to share your memories or any information that might be of interest, please do not hesitate to contact him.

At a recent match on Belle Isle a chance conversation with a spectator led to the beginning of a small research project on the history of cricket in Michigan. The spectator, who watched M.P.C.C. triumph over Lions C. C. in a MichCA T20 match, spoke of his shock at the state of the Belle Isle ground, on which he had played in the 1970s, when it was, he said, in excellent condition. In those days, he continued, two Detroit teams, one representing the East Side and one the West, played declaration games and also 20-over games (a reminder that what we now call the T20 format has been popular in club cricket for many decades) against clubs from southern Ontario. He mentioned Windsor, London, and Kitchener (presumably, these matches were in the Southern Ontario Cricket Association, which has a long, unbroken history of running the sport just across the border). Most of the Detroit cricketers in those days, the spectator added, were West Indian expatriates.

It is well known that Belle Isle has hosted cricket matches for some time (and it is surely regrettable that the two grounds at a location of such potential appeal and pronounced visibility are now in such poor condition – if the island passes into the hands of new administrators, as seems likely, it is very much to be hoped that improvements on the two fields will be on the agenda).

An article in Chicago’s Daily Defender for 2 July, 1957, reports a victory for South Park Cricket Club over Woodlawn C. C. at Chicago’s Washington Park and concludes “South Park this weekend invades Detroit for a July 4 cricket series with the Detroit C. C. at Belle Isle”. Further research will almost certainly reveal a rich post-war history for the game on Detroit’s most appealing island.

More surprising, however, is the discovery that Belle Isle has hosted cricket matches for at least 97 years. A brief announcement in the Detroit Free Press for 12 June 1915 is headlined “2 Cricket Games Sunday: New League Will Start Matches at Belle Isle”. The initial matches would see North Detroit play West Detroit and East Detroit play South Detroit. The games were both to start at 2 pm, so there must have been at least two cricket fields. “A large crowd of cricket fans is expected at these opening games, as the great British sport has taken a firm hold here”. The names of the players mentioned in the announcement – Rennix, Stone, Collins, Dunbar, Dunn, and Robinson – suggest that this “great British sport” may have been played primarily by men of British origin, although West Indian participation should not, of course, be ruled out.

It seems that the Belle Isle league was part of a cricket renaissance, after a relatively fallow period in the early years of the twentieth century. A year later the Free Press ran a piece entitled “Cricket Gains in Popularity: Big Crowds Interested in Game; Many Intercity Matches Planned” (11 June, 1916):

One of Detroit’s most popular summer sports is cricket. If the crowds that have gone to Belle Isle to witness the games may be considered a criterion, and followers of the game are looking for a bumper season this year. [sic]

The league has been increased to six teams and a crowd of new players are on the roll, many of whom are first-class players. Besides the league games, there will be a number of intercity matches to test the caliber of the local players. Last season Detroit played four games with outside clubs, beating St George’s [the great New York club, for which Cricketarchive records matches from 1840 to 1929; the Wikipedia article on the club provides some further information, noting, inter alia, that it was this club that hosted the first ever international match, between the USA and Canada in 1844], losing to Ridley College [St Catharines, Ontario], and at Cleveland, while rain stopped the Cleveland game here when the locals had a good margin.

This season Detroit hopes to prove … one of the best cricket cities and Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, and Jackson are among the teams expected to be seen here. Sunday the league schedule will open… As last year, Belle Isle will be the scene of the games, and three pitches will be prepared…

Quite how long the league lasted and how popular the game was in the later 1910s and beyond remains to be explored, while the discovery of photographs of early cricket on Belle Isle is another goal. However, even this preliminary research may give pause for thought to today’s league cricketers as they struggle across the rutted outfield on the island’s ground – they were preceded as Belle Isle cricketers by Rennix, Stone, Collins, Dunbar, Dunn, Robinson, and many others almost one hundred years ago…

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Filed under Beyond MCA, History of Cricket: Michigan

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