Why are Londoners using baseball bats instead of cricket bats in the riots?

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Aug. 10 2011 6:25 PM

Why Are They Using Baseball Bats Instead of Cricket Bats in the U.K. Riots?

A history of mob violence and sporting goods.

A general view of a computer games store in Brixton after looting on August 8, 2011 in London, England. Click image to expand.
London riots

Widespread rioting has created a surge in demand for baseball bats in the United Kingdom, although it's not clear whether the buyers are would-be looters or people trying to defend themselves from said looting. Why would Brits choose baseball bats over cricket bats?

Movies, possibly. Many people in the U.K. seem to associate baseball bats with violence, perhaps on account of the long association between the two in American films (like The Warriors), television shows (like The Sopranos), and video games (like Grand Theft Auto). The idea of baseball-related combat has become so common in England that theater companies regularly call BaseballSoftballUK, the country's development agency for the two sports, seeking bats for staged beatings. In addition, one of the organization's female members was once singled out on a bus by a police officer who demanded that she produce a softball to prove that she wasn't carrying her bat as a weapon. There may be some logic to preferring a baseball bat for self-defense. Aluminum baseball bats are typically around 40 percent lighter than cricket bats, and are therefore easier to wield.

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While baseball bats dominate stage and screen, cricket has made at least one notable appearance. The lead character of the 2004 British film Shaun of the Dead famously fought off a horde of zombies with a cricket bat. They also seem to work perfectly well against the living (and in real life). Many Londoners have reached for their trusty cricket bats to defend their homes and businesses from looters over the past several days. British youth have wielded cricket bats in race riots in the past, and angry mobs—as well as those who oppose them—have toted cricket sticks in Australia, India, and Pakistan.

Violence and criminality used to be as much a part of cricket as V-neck sweaters. Dominic Malcolm chronicled the stunning brutality of early cricket in the 2003 book Sport: Critical Concepts in Sociology. Disputes over calls led to so many duels and brawls in the 18th century that English officials considered banning the sport. By 1775, killings were so unremarkable at cricket matches that one William Waterfall was given a lighter sentence for cricket-related manslaughter than sheep thieves and bigamists convicted during the same week. (Waterfall spent nine months in jail and had his hand branded with an M, for murderer.) Britain even exported cricket violence. In 1933, a riot broke out when a Hindu child's cricket ball struck a Muslim pedestrian. Three people were killed and 26 injured.

Baseball bats have their own ignominious history in America. Rioters participating in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877—which started in West Virginia and spread across Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Missouri—reportedly carried baseball bats. Prisoners rioted with bats in 1892 at Deer Island prison near Boston and at New York's Randall's Island in 1895, back when the precise dimensions and composition of the baseball bat were still being worked out.

Hockey sticks have played a role in mob violence in Canada. They have also been reported in riots in India, although it's not clear whether the hockey sticks in question were of the ice or field variety. (Men's field hockey is very popular in the country.)

Another potential explanation for yesterday's online sales surge is that baseball bats are hard to find in English stores. Only around 3,000 people participate in organized baseball games in the U.K., with an additional 12,000 playing softball. Some of those teams, like the Enfield Sidewinders, are composed mainly of first- and second-generation immigrants from baseballing countries. In the biggest of big box shops, you'd be lucky to find one baseball bat on offer, sometimes as part of a toylike set with a cheap glove and ball. Most British baseball players have to rely on cricket-equivalents for peripheral equipment, like protective cups. (For reasons the Explainer can't possibly fathom, cricketers wear a wider, less elongated crotch-guard than baseball and hockey players.)

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Bob Fromer and Jason Greenberg of BaseballSoftballUK. Thanks also to reader Mike Hirota for asking the question.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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