About the Author: Priscilla Linn is the Senior Curator at the U.S. Diplomacy Center.
The words, written in 1950, on the silver plaque holding the cigarette lighter, shaped like a cricket ball, are formal, simple and true: "To their excellencies the Ambassador and Mrs. Briggs with the appreciative good wishes of the cricketers of Prague."
Who were the “cricketers of Prague,” and why were they so appreciative?
This group of diplomat sportsmen, assembled from various embassies in the Czech capital, had nowhere to play in Prague during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Soviet leaders reacted harshly to all Czech citizens having cultural contact with the capitalist West, including observing “decadent sports.”
Ambassador and Mrs. Briggs rescued the team by inviting them to play on the grounds of their residence, or “Petschek Palace,” the name used at the time. Thick shrubbery around the property’s perimeter protected the players’ privacy. The cricketers alternated with a joint embassy baseball team, each playing alternate weeks. According to Ambassador Briggs, the stand-out cricket star was the Indian embassy’s maharajah of Alirajpur.
When sports and diplomacy gain media attention, the news is usually good, such as the ping pong diplomacy with China in the 1970s, or bad, like the armed attack of the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, Pakistan on March 3, 2009. The cricket ball shaped cigarette lighter tells a story about the complexities of diplomacy.
The gift came about because relations between the governments of the U.S. and then Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia were badly strained. Ambassador Briggs commented in his memoir, Proud Servant (1998 edition, page 281) “it became impossible for non-Communist diplomats to enjoy any kind of social relations with the citizens of the country. . . .” Non-Communist diplomats did not want to endanger the lives or well-being of Czech citizens, and as a result, spent virtually no time face to face in public diplomacy. The diplomatic corps of Prague had to rely on each other for information, intelligence and recreation.
The gift — the cricket ball shaped lighter — represents multinational friendships among a stalwart diplomatic corps managing during adverse times.
The Diplomacy Center would be pleased to hear from anyone who knows anything more about any of the sports played at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in then Czechoslovakia or the origins of the silver lighter at email@example.com.