Mighty of bat, humble of spirit

Stan McCabe is one of the greatest batsmen to have pulled on a baggy green cap, but even though he was rated as good as Sir Donald Bradman, the salt of the earth Joeys boy never forgot his roots – or his mates – as a 1930 Ashes tour letter to the College Headmaster reveals.

Cricket has always played a prominent role in the development of Joeys boys. As far back as 1898 Our Golden Days praised the sport’s “educative power”, noting the Brothers gave it their “highest approval” because students had to be “patient, self-denying, brave and obedient” in order to play it well.

Our most revered cricketer is Stan McCabe (1926). Hailing from Grenfell in the central west of NSW, McCabe spent three years as a boarder at the College before making his Test debut in 1930 against England at Trent Bridge. Over the next nine years he played 39 Tests scoring 2748 runs at an average of 48.21, including six centuries. His greatness is such that he was inducted into the ICC Hall of Fame last year. 

English captain Sir Leonard Hutton  ranked him the equal of Sir Donald Bradman, some thought him better. The famous British cricket commentator EW Swanton wrote: “Stan McCabe came as near as any player to one’s conception of the perfect cricketer.” 

When he was on song, close-in fieldsmen said they could barely hear leather on willow, such was his exquisite timing and lightness of touch. An awestruck Bradman said McCabe’s 232 in the fourth Test at Nottingham in 1938 was “the greatest innings I ever saw or hoped to see”. 

Joe Boy for life: McCabe and his teammates in the 1925 College First XI; he was only 14 years old when he debuted for the Firsts the year before.

What also set him apart was his sportsmanship and humility. “He had a cheerful, friendly personality and everyone who knew him was fond of Stan McCabe,” Swanton wrote. He never questioned umpires’ decisions or bore grudges; he never had airs and graces. In many ways he was the embodiment of the Marist characteristic of simplicity – a Joeys boy through and through.

Such was his attachment to the College, that in 1930, three-and-a-half years after leaving, McCabe sent a friendly and informative letter to the headmaster, Br Denis, during his first Ashes tour of England. It is a fascinating insight into both the times and the young tourist’s down to earth personality.

Just 19, McCabe was the baby of the squad, and although he writes that he has had a “wonderful” trip so far, he yearns for  “good old Australia”. The letter, sent from  Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station in London, is dated 8 May.  

The Australians had been in England for just three weeks after an arduous ship and train journey from Melbourne that took in Hobart, Perth, Sri Lanka, Italy and Paris. 

“Stan McCabe came as close as any player to one’s conception of the perfect cricketer and everyone who knew him was fond of him.”

E.W. Swanton

McCabe is particularly taken by Rome, and the splendour of St Peter’s Basilica – “I always imagined it to be a marvellous place but never thought it to be anything like it is” –  but laments that he didn’t have enough time to explore the Vatican and “look at things properly”.

It is said that wherever you are in the world you are never far from the firm handshake and hearty greeting of a Joeys man. Before the tourists leave for Milan, McCabe is met by Old Boy Br Fitzgerald from St Patrick’s Church in Sydney, who had been spending time in Rome. They share anecdotes and converse at length before the Australians’ train leaves.

McCabe is not so enamoured of Paris  – “the only good thing about it was we went to the races and had a good win” – and he is particularly pleased to be able to attend Mass the first Sunday following the team’s arrival in London. 

Alongside tour treasurer T Howard they took communion at Farm St Church, and afterwards had breakfast with the famous Jesuit priest and scholar Fr CC Martindale. McCabe notes that Fr Martindale, a confidant of authors Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, is a “wonderful chap and a good sport”. 

Master of his craft: Stan McCabe in his Australia blazer, was a classical right-handed batsman with exquisite footwork and impeccable timing.

Unfortunately, cricket news in the letter is kept to a minimum for fear it will become ancient history by the time it reaches Br Denis. Indeed, McCabe  signs off in haste  – the train to Sheffield for the tourists’ match against Yorkshire is leaving in 15 minutes – extending kind regards to the Brothers, Joeys students and Old Boys.

McCabe would make two more tours to England in the baggy green but was only 28 when WWII prematurely ended his Test career in 1938. However, his legacy endures.

At Joeys, the award for the most outstanding senior cricketer is given in his name, and students are encouraged to follow his fair-minded approach. Former First XI premiership-winning coach Richard Casamento (1998) says McCabe  is a St Joseph’s College hero. “We ask boys to show the same traits as him by being fearless, trusting your strengths and playing with enjoyment.”

When McCabe passed away in 1968, aged 58, tributes flowed from around the cricket world. Perhaps celebrated Australian writer Ray Robinson’s was the most poignant: “In McCabe the cricketer, you saw McCabe the man — urbane, sociable, unpretentious, straightforward and incapable of anything mean-spirited.” A character description any Joe Boy would be proud of.