John Barton “Bart” King is thought by many (J.A. Lester, P.H. Clark and numerous other contemporaries) to have been the best American to ever play Cricket. He was a devastating fast bowler. For many years, Bart held the single-season English bowling record of 11.01 set in 1908 against county level teams during an extended summer tour. Here is a very rare photo of him batting. Overshadowed by his bowling reputation, he is not as well known for his exceptional batting, but he does hold the US record with 344 in an innings and had 39 centuries during his career. Many of Bart King’s trophies are on display in the CC Morris Library.
Obituary of John Barton King
17th October 1965
From: Cricket Quarterly, EV911-C91, 1966, page 61
He was one of the greatest cricketers of all time and he died within two days of his ninety-second birthday in the City of Brotherly Love where he was born: two months after his contemporary and bowling partner, P. H. Clark. Those left to attend the funeral who had played with him were few indeed: it is remarkable that there were any. Yet when MCC last played in Philadelphia in 1959, no fewer than 8 of the last first-class Philadelphian team to visit us, fifty-one years ago, came down to watch the match: it is impossible to refrain from the speculation that cricket, by virtue both of its physical and of its ethical demands, had prolonged their lives.
“Bart” King was, without question, the greatest of all the many fine cricketers to have come from North America. He was one of the first half-dozen really great fast bowlers: there are some who would say that he was the greatest of them all and it is indeed difficult to think of convincing arguments or reason to disagree with this assessment. But whether the greatest of one of the top six, he must forever remain on a very high eminence.
Even in the great days of Philadelphian cricket, which lasted for the fifty years [prior] to 1914 when the first war effectively put an end to them, few American boys did not come to cricket without some preliminary dabbling in baseball. Bart King was not exception, but when he turned to cricket, in 1888, he was young enough to learn, and to learn a very great deal. It was in that year that he joined the Tioga Cricket Club, then one of the principal Philadelphian clubs, though it is not till the following season that we find his first-recorded match, when he played for Tioga juniors against Germantown juniors on June 27th: his bowling was not remarkable but he scored 39 in his first innings, batting first wicket down. In the season he took in all 37 wickets for 99 runs and gave notice of the devastation he was to wreak, on placid pitches, against top-class international batsmen. Twenty-seven years later, he played his last game for the Philadelphia CC (another of the principal clubs) against Frankford, on July 20th 1916: his bowling again was nothing remarkable, nor, his batting, for he scored 18: but his batting average was 43.33 for the season.
This tells us something else about this extraordinary man. Not only was he a quite outstanding fact bowler: he was also an very fine batsman, not indeed world class, as was his bowling, but certainly not to be sneered at. To this day, his 344 for Belmont v Merion B stand as the North American record: he scored 39 centuries in his career and he topped 1,000 runs in a season six times, in 4 of them also taking over 100 wickets. He took over 100 wickets on 4 other occasions also. In his whole career he scored 19,808 runs at an average of 36.47 and took 2,088 wickets at an average of 10.47. None of this was in knock-about cricket: Philadelphian club cricket was at least as good as good minor county cricket, or comparable with the best cricket played by our leading wandering Clubs, and of course King’s career figures include much international and other first-class cricket. They surpass any other in North American cricket and are likely to stand for many years. Had he been an English or Australian cricketer, it is difficult to guess what statistical heights he might have ascended: there was no falling off when he met teams of those players for he was of, and above, their standard.
The statistical bones tell us something about the man: let us see him in more detail. He played for Tioga until 1896 when he joined Belmont, the Tioga Club then being disbanded. It had been with Tioga that he had been chosen first to play in an International match, in 1892 against the Gentlemen of Ireland. He toured this country in 1897, 1903 and 1908. In this last tour, he topped the English bowling averages with figures not to be beaten for over 40 years and which were better than any others in the previous 15 years or so. But the most outstanding matches in which he played had been in the two previous tours. In 1897, he took 7 for 13 against the full Sussex team (this followed his own first innings of 58). helping to dismiss the side for 46. There was nothing at all wrong with the wicket but there was a strong side wind blowing of which King took full advantage. He had bowled Ranji first ball (that season he got F.S. Jackson with his fourth ball, and L.C.H. Palairet clean bowled for 0–Palairet remarked on returning to the pavilion that he seemed to be in fashion) and in the second innings, by taking 5 for 102 he materially helped the Philadelphians to a victory by 8 wickets.
This side wind must have made him unplayable: his most destructive ball was this in-swinger ( which he called the “angler”): he used it sparingly, on the whole, lest batsmen should learn how to play it, so when he did bowl it generally took wickets. His swerve was very pronounced, learnt from his baseball days: but the pitcher “throws” and “Bart” King never threw at cricket, but always bowled, always with a very high action. This was partly derived from his own stature for he was a fine upstanding man of well over six feet (and carried himself well to the end of his days, nor, even at the end, did he look his years).
He used his in-swinger sparingly, but this tale is told about C.B. Fry, that Fry asked him to send down a few balls in the nets. King obliged, and bowled him his in-swinger which Fry learnt to play. In due course, Fry came to the crease, shaped for the same type of delivery and was flabbergasted to find himself caught first ball in the slips, for King had bowled his more usual out-swinger. (We have not been able to trace which match this was, and think it must have been some unrecorded minor match.)
In 1903 came King’s even more wonderful performance against Surrey. In the first innings, he scored 98 runs (run out) and took 3 for 89 (P.H. Clark, whom we noted earlier on, took 5 for 102): in his second he made 113 and took 3 for 98, (Clark 5 for 112): Surrey thus lost by 110 runs. He showed a complete mastery of Tom Richardson’s bowling. After the match, at a banquet, he fell asleep during a speech by the Lord Chief Justice.
He took all 10 wickets in an innings on three occasions (on five others he took 9 wickets): one of these against the Gentlemen of Ireland in 1909 was followed by his taking the hat-trick in the second innings.
In 1912 he took part in his last two international matches; against the 1912 Australian Test team- a weak team, no doubt, but his performances were of high quality for a fact bowling nearing his fortieth year: in the first match, which Philadelphia won by 2 runs, he took 9 for 78 runs and in the second, which Australia won by 45 runs, he took 8 for 74.
After that season the Belmont ground was sold and the club disbanded and he joined the Philadelphia CC: he did not turn out till August 30th, yet, so late in the season, he scored 75 and took 5 for 32. He had only one more match that season, but played more games in 1915 and 1916 and then retired.
His early employment had been in the linen and yard goods trade, in his father’s company, but later he embarked on insurance as a career. He was not one of the aristocratic and wealthy Philadelphian families from whom came so many of the leading cricketers of that City, and it has been stated that his insurance career had been found for him by members of those families, as a means of keeping him in the game. He was a man with no “side” to him as the following anecdote shows. He once met a well-known English professional in the street in London: the latter said “Hallo Mr. King”: King “Hallo, call me Bart”: professional “But you’re a gentleman cricketer, sir”: King “Aren’t you a gentleman too?”: professional “Oh no sir, I’m a professional”.
King was elected an honorary member of our Incogniti CC in 1908 and an honorary life member of the MCC in 1962. The nearest he came to cricket administration was to represent the Belmont club on the Board of the “American Cricketer” until 1912: he also acted as a Philadelphian selector.
He married a Miss Lockhart in 1913, whom he survived for a year or two, the marriage having lasted happily for fifty years. His wife’s sister-in-law has provided the rather unusual photograph of King “at bat”, as he would have said, for Belmont in 1906, which we reproduce :photographs of him batting are hard to find. We also reproduce a vary much better known photograph which has been described as the finest photograph known of a fact bowler in action: sufficient justification for its appearance again now, as a monument to Bart King.
(In compiling this appreciation, we owe a great deal to the files of The American Cricketer, to George Mann, and Basil Lacey, both of Philadelphia, and to Fred Heather and Donald King, both of Toronto. We have also used material kindly provided by J.M. Crossman, H.A. Haines, T. Irving and T. Pryal, all of Philadelphia and C.H. Winter, of Wilmington, who has sent us some further personal comments which we shall print in our next issue. Winter, it will be recalled, “kept” to King).