THE CLAXTON SHIELD: 1934-1989
Excerpts from The History of Australian Baseball
By Joe Clark
This period of Australian baseball saw the game come of age. Changing from being solely a ‘keep-fit-in-winter’ sport for cricketers into a high standard Australian sporting competition, it saw home grown players being developed from juniors in state and local clubs around the country. Until 1989, the national competition was the Claxton Shield; the highest level any Australian could play. Although it’s patron, Norrie Claxton, intended the shield to belong to the state which won it three times, the Claxton Shield eventually became the yearly trophy for the state winning the carnival series.
Australia’s first Claxton Shield was held in Adelaide, between the 4-11 August 1934. Played on Hindmarsh and Adelaide Ovals, the first was won by South Australia.
Melbourne held the second Claxton Shield in 1935. It was here that St Kilda Baseball Club began a tradition in Claxton Shield baseball which continued for many years - a social ball in August, which became a highlight of the Claxton Shield period. The series included one of rarest occasions in baseball - a tied game between South Australia and Victoria which was declared a draw, after 15 innings at 5:40 pm due to failing light. 112 batters appeared in the match, which was a priceless pitching duel between two of Australia’s best ever; Mick Carr of Victoria and Ron Sharpe of South Australia. The draw gave South Australia the Claxton Shield. In 1936 the competition was held in Sydney at Marrickville Oval. South Australia won the shield for the third straight year but declined to keep it for good, realising Australia needed an annual baseball award.
Adelaide hosted the 1937 Claxton Shield with South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and a new competitor, Western Australia. South Australia lost the shield for the first time since the start of the Claxton Shield competition in 1934; the prize going to New South Wales. The highlight of this competition was when South Australia deliberately allowed Victoria to tie the score 1-1 in the 9th inning so South Australia would extend the game and have a chance to score another three runs. To be eligible for the finals, South Australia had to win the game by at least three runs. The ploy failed; the game went to 14 innings and was declared a draw, knocking South Australia out of the finals.
Western Australia joining the Claxton Shield helped the Australian Baseball Council decide to hold the 1938 Claxton Shield in Perth. Despite the distance and considerable time required for travelling west, Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales made the trip. Western Australia was pleased to be runner up to the winners for the second year in a row, to New South Wales.
Queensland club baseball became national in 1937. Graceville was the first locale for Brisbane baseball, later followed by Ipswich, Toowoomba and Maryborough. Now all five mainland states had viable state associations with a competitive entry for the annual Claxton Shield.
Accordingly, the 1939 Claxton Shield was the highlight of all interstate baseball matches to that time. Held in Melbourne, it received extensive press coverage and patronage from the sporting community. If not for the onset of the war, Australian winter baseball in 1939 had gathered such momentum that it commanded attention across the nation. For the first time, the five leading baseball states attended, with much made of the debut of Queensland. The 1939 final between NSW and WA produced a thrilling 1-0 contest highlighted by an amazing run scored by NSW third baseman Ernie Yum.
For many Claxton Shield players of that era, the late 1930s marked a sort of golden age in Australian baseball. The players were mainly club and Sheffield Shield cricketers, who saw each other on the cricket pitch in summer and the baseball diamond in winter. Both games were enjoyable and complementary. It was also the lull before the decisive days of the war which was to change the style and face of Australian baseball.
The post-war years of Claxton Shield produced many new players, with at least 30 from New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia in 1947 alone. Some of these leading players who started to reach new heights with Australian baseball were: NSW - Jack Rowley, Ray Lawler, Neville ’Chookie’ McDougall and Max Yuile; VIC - Lyn & Ross Straw, Bob Black, Glen Tippet and Neil Harvey; SA - ‘Chalky’ White and Fred Catt; WA - Jim Dore; and QLD - Ern Toovey, Stewie Beck and Jack McLaughlin. In the years after the war, NSW in 1946 and VIC in 1947-49 won the Claxton Shield. Victoria considered their day had finally arrived and years of dominance by NSW were at an end. For NSW, it was only a matter of time, for their resources and depth indicated they would succeed often. A feature of the 1949 series was 12 innings of no hit ball with NSW against WA. Melbourne winter rain interrupted the series but with careful reorganising grounds and covers, the series went ahead.
The early 1950s saw a fully restored national Claxton Shield competition held in Sydney, with Queensland returning to national competition in 1950 after a four year absence. The series was held in Sydney, for the first time since the end of the war with all five states attending. It was played in cold and wet conditions which worsened as the week went on. The 1951 Claxton Shield was held in Adelaide. WA hosted and won the 1952 series, judged a success by most states, considering the distance. This was the first time in Claxton Shield history in which some team travel to Perth was by air. Crowds were reported to be among the best ever for a Claxton Shield. A feature of the usual ABC meeting was when the meeting stood for a moment of silence in the memory of Norrie Claxton.
Each capital city held at least one series during the decade with Brisbane hosting it’s first in 1953. The series featured NSW, VIC, SA and QLD without the shield holders WA present. WA declined to attend because of the travel costs. NSW won that year. WA attended in 1954 when the hosts Victoria won in their home city. In 1955, the Claxton Shield was held in Sydney in fine weather where NSW once again won. Victoria won the Claxton Shield in 1956.
1957's Claxton Shield in Perth was noteworthy for being another rain fest, as it rained every day of the carnival. Even so, the series went ahead, with South Australia winning the shield. The 1958 Claxton Shield series was held in Brisbane. The 1959 Claxton Shield was played in Melbourne and it rained throughout the series.
South Australia won the Claxton Shield in 1960 and at home in 1961 after New South Wales had won the final game of the series and tied with South Australia on match points but lost the series on runs scored for and against. This was the first Claxton Shield where all five states played each other twice. A highlight was a 17-inning game won by Western Australia over South Australia. Perth hosted the 1962 series, breaking with long standing tradition, holding the series in October instead of August. This was as close to cricket season as the Australian Baseball Council dared to venture. The immediate benefit was to bring the national competition closer to a season with warmer weather. Transport expenses were always a difficulty for eastern states going to Perth for the Claxton Shield and vice versa. Queensland made the long trip to Western Australia for their first time in 1962. Victoria won the series with a crushing 7-1 win over New South Wales in the final.
New South Wales had victory in Brisbane in 1963 at Bannister Park, later to be Holloway Park. The series was won in a thrilling finale game between NSW and VIC where Victoria led near the end but Kevin Cantwell of NSW hit a two out/grand slam home run to give NSW a 5-4 last inning win for the Claxton Shield. A national series record was also set with four extra innings games played including an 18-inning marathon between NSW and WA, called on account of darkness. South Australia won in 1964, led by newcomer Ian Chappell, who batted in seven runs against Victoria alone. In the 1964 series in Melbourne, the ABC that the weather, which turned nasty and with constant rain threatened to ruin the Series... After four days, the grounds were quagmires and baseball has never been played under worse conditions.’ NSW proved in 1965 that bad winter baseball weather was not only confined to Victoria. Victoria won the shield in Sydney, ...in mud two or three inches thick with rain pouring down on occasions.’ ”It rained almost incessantly, and the NSWBU performed miracles in managing to complete the program under the atrocious conditions which prevailed.’ Host South Australia won in 1966 after beating Victoria on percentages. The standard of play was below average, with 114 errors committed in 20 games. 1967’s series in Perth was the first time most teams had travelled to the Claxton Shield by air. It was also the first time a Claxton Shield series was held outside July. The ABC noted the warmer (October) weather experienced was appreciated by both players and spectators alike, and could be the forerunner of other series being staged around the same time.’ South Australia won the series for the second year in a row.
The 1968 Claxton Shield series in Brisbane was touted as being the first partly held on a baseball controlled ground, which was at Albert Park, in Lismore, NSW. Victoria took the shield that year. 1969’s series was in Melbourne and won by South Australia, who went through undefeated. After the torrential rains of the series, ABC Secretary Bob Black of Victoria declared: "The lesson from this series surely must be in the need for future series to be staged under summer conditions…" Summer baseball was coming to the Claxton Shield. The 1970 series was in Sydney at Auburn’s Oriole Park, in September, and won by South Australia. During the 1971 series, the first night game was held, between Queensland and South Australia, with Queensland winning 4-1. Victoria won the shield though, and expatriate American, Don Knapp, became the first player from Western Australia to win the Helms Award. Next year, the Claxton Shield was held in Brisbane as Cyclone Emily came through. Brisbane’s leading baseball venue, Holloway Field, was under a metre of water the day before the game. Still, the game proceeded, needing only an hour’s delay. When the cyclone passed, the weather was fine for the rest of the series.
Victoria defeated Western Australia for the championship in a very close series in Perth in 1973. It was the first time that the series could not be decided on percentages, because Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria were all tied. Victoria was destined to play two finals games on a day with 40o heat, and beat South Australia in 12 innings. Victoria won the shield again, this time at home, in 1974. For the first time in 22 years, Western Australia won the Claxton Shield, held in Sydney in 1975, at Auburn. The 1976 Claxton Shield was held in Adelaide and won by the host state.