Category Archives: Baseball History

A Tale of Tom Phillips

I don’t really have a good explanation for why I like the early history of hockey as much as I do. I still watch plenty of the current game, but as I often say to people when they ask me, I can tell you with a lot more authority why the Kenora Thistles won the Stanley Cup in 1907  than I can tell you why I think a team might win it this year.

Thistles captain Tom Phillips (who I’ve written about extensively for the Society for International Hockey Research and mentioned a couple of times on this site) is one of a handful of early era Hall of Famers (along with Art Ross, Frank & Lester Patrick, Cyclone Taylor, Newsy Lalonde, Joe Hall and Fred Whitcroft) that I find fascinating.

Phillips 3
Tommy Phillips reclines to the right of the huge trophy symbolizing the senior championship of the Manitoba Hockey League, which the Kenora Thistles won for the
second of three straight seasons in 1905-06.

Tommy Phillips was the Sidney Crosby of his day. In his era, he was considered one of the top two players in hockey. If you were from the West, you’d likely pick him; while Easterners were more partial to Frank McGee. McGee was a goal-scoring machine with the Ottawa “Silver Seven” who was famously blind (or at least had his vision impaired) in one eye. Turns out, Tommy Phillips was playing under a pretty severe handicap too.

 Phillips 1
Articles from the Toronto Star on August 4, 1904 and the Ottawa Journal one week later.

Several years ago, I came across the Toronto Star newspaper clipping above claiming that Phillips had injured his hand while working in a lumber mill near his hometown during the summer of 1904. Recently, I went searching for more stories about this, and discovered a couple of clips that make the injury sound a lot more serious than just a bad cut. It seems Phillips had actually lost parts of three fingers on his right hand.

 Phillips 2
Articles from the Winnipeg Morning Telegram and Winnipeg Tribune on November 29, 1904.

Look again at the team picture above, and then have a look at the (slightly blurry) blow up below. Clearly, there’s something up with Phillips’ right hand.

Phillips 4

There appears to be a strap leading to what is either a protective cover or some sort of artificial right index finger. His pinky as well as the finger next to it (which certainly seems to be abnormally short) both look to be similarly protected or replaced.

Unlike Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown of the same era – who had his right hand mangled in farm machine as a youth but learned to grip a baseball in such a way that it gave him an exceptional curve ball – it’s hard to believe that Tom Phillips’ accident gave him any sort of physical advantage.

Phillips Brown

Yet given that Phillips had the best years of his career from 1904-05 through 1907-08, he was clearly able to perform at an extremely high level despite his injury. He may not have been Bobby Orr on wounded knees, or Mario Lemieux beating cancer, or Sidney Crosby coming back from a concussion, but it’s still pretty remarkable.

Nobody’s Perfect…

I was at the Blue Jays’ home opener on Friday. As I no longer live in Toronto, I don’t get to many games anymore, but Opening Day is something special. Forget about Christmas, early April, when spring is supposed to be springing, baseball is getting started, and the hockey playoffs are here… THAT’S the most wonderful time of the year!

The Zweig boys, with their mother/grandmother on Opening Day. For Joyce, Jonathan
and me, this one made us 40 for 40 … but I’m the only one who was also at the
makeup game for the rained out opener in 1980.

Baseball, of course, is a game bound by tradition. And I am a big fan of sports history. But while I admit that I’ve been known to complain that “the game [ANY game] was better when I was younger,” I wouldn’t say I’m truly a traditionalist. I don’t mind modern innovations … but I have to admit that instant replay irks me.

It’s long been called “a game of inches” but now, it seems, that baseball is “a game of painful exactitude which we can measure in fractions of seconds … if we get a good shot in super slo-mo that we can blow up large enough.”

Yes, it’s pretty hard to argue against “getting the call right,” but as others have argued before me, there are rules, and then there is the spirit of the rule. Of course a runner can’t wander off the base with impunity, but is he really supposed to be out if his foot pops off the bag for a fraction of a second? And I really hate the way, in baseball, they linger and waste time while the clubhouse pre-checks the replays first. If you want to challenge a play, I think you should have to challenge it based on what you think you actually saw! After all, that’s how the umpire has to call it.

As I said, it’s hard to argue against getting the call right — and, of course, Armando Galarraga SHOULD have had that perfect game in 2010, and Derek Jeter probably should have been out for fan interference on that Jeffrey Maier home run in 1996. Still, what can I say? The delays (and the fact that they still don’t seem to get the call right every time!) just bother me.

I’m not really trying to argue that we should do away with instant replay … but then again, no one else in a game gets a second chance if they screw up! And once upon a time, it was clear that people believed it was ridiculous to allow TV cameras to make the final call. Of course, this was a long time ago…

Ten years before the first Blue Jays opener, in the last game of the NHL regular season in 1967, Chicago’s Stan Mikita picked up two assists to finish the season as the scoring leader with 97 points. That happened to tie teammate Bobby Hull’s single-season scoring record … but Mikita thought he’d earned a third assist in the Black Hawks’ finale against the New York Rangers.


Stan Fischler, writing in a special to the Toronto Star on April 3, 1967, reported that: “[Black Hawks coach] Billy Reay was bubbling with anger in the Chicago dressing room… Reay was furious over the confusion surrounding Stan Mikita’s point allotment in the game at Madison Square Garden. Officially, Mikita got two assists … [b]ut unofficially, the belief was that Mikita deserved another assist on Doug Mohns’ goal at 2:14 of the third period.

Official scorer Lamie Crovat promised, “I’m going to study a video-tape of the goal in the Madison Square Garden office on Monday and make a final determination.” Reay snapped back, wondering, “Why doesn’t he (Crovat) keep his eyes on the ice instead of the tape?” And it soon became clear that the NHL had no interest in what a video review might show.

Writing in The Star on Tuesday, April 4, the dean of Canadian sportswriters Milt Dunnell pointed out: “Conn Smythe used to say the customers had a right to know the result when they left the rink. That’s why he never would permit a protest of a Leaf hockey game. Contests were for the ice – not the committee room.


Clarence Campbell, the NHL president,” Dunnell said, “applied the same principle to Stan Mikita’s claim of a third assist in Sunday afternoon’s game at New York. What Campbell said, in effect, is that he doesn’t care what video tapes of the game prove.

So, Mikita didn’t get his extra point, nor a new scoring record … and Dunnell clearly believed this was the right decision. “If [Lamie Crovat] even hinted he might change his decision in the event the film showed Mikita’s claim was justified, he exceeded his authority.

And Dunnell wasn’t finished yet. “The video tape has no official status in the NHL, nor in football, baseball – any team sport you can mention.” He adds that when Stafford Smythe had a TV monitor installed near the penalty box at Maple Leaf Gardens “for the possible guidance of officials,” the referees got rid of it “by refusing to look at it.

The day referees, umpires, linesmen, and judges of play consent to be influenced by the eye in the sky, they will be as dead as the dodo bird,” Dunnell argued. “Hockey coaches being the mourners which, as a group, they are, would challenge every decision of the officials. Any contest that was completed in less than five hours would be a rarity.

But, of course, times change…

Baseball’s Maple Leafs (The Sequel)

Around these parts, winter has been nothing like the long, tough slog it’s been the past two years. Then again, the forecast is for a big blizzard tomorrow! So, it’s always a good feeling to know that pitchers and catchers have reported to Spring Training. It means summer can’t be too far away. Last January, I posted a story called Hockey Stars Join Baseball’s Maple Leafs. Today’s post continues the story of Babe Dye and Lionel Conacher.

Seasons started later in 1926 (the Maple Leafs opened on April 14 that year), but spring training was already in the news by this week in February. Even so, Toronto’s baseball team wouldn’t actually get down to business until about March 10. At that point, there was still a week to go in the NHL season. When it wrapped up on March 17, Babe Dye’s Toronto St. Pats had missed the playoffs, but Lionel Conacher’s Pittsburgh Pirates qualified for a semifinal series against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Montreal Maroons.

Manager [Dan] Howley is none too well pleased that post-season hockey may further delay the reporting of Babe Dye and Lionel Conacher,” reported the Toronto Star on March 22, 1926. “Howley feels that since St. Pats have finished the NHL season that Dye should lose little time joining the Leafs, and Conacher should also come on at once if Pittsburgh is eliminated by Montreal.

Conny Dye team
From the Toronto Star on April 28, 1926. Babe Dye is in the red oval near the centre; Lionel Conacher at the right. (Baseball Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell is to Conacher’s left.)

Conacher’s Pirates were eliminated the following day, and the Star noted: “The failure of Babe Dye to report is causing Manager Howley some anxiety. He is expected to join the club the latter part of this week. It is likely that Conacher will accompany his fellow-hockeyist.The Globe reported that “Babe Dye today wired Manager Howley asking permission to delay his reporting until March 28, as he is not feeling very well. His wish has been granted.

Dye finally showed up at the Maple Leafs’ Augusta, Georgia, training camp on March 29. Conacher didn’t report until April 6. Dye had only had one hit in 18 at-bats before that day, but suddenly went 5-for-6 with a pair of doubles. Conacher was in uniform the next day, taking batting and fielding practice with the team.

As noted in my story last year, Conacher was a great all-around athlete. He was best known as a lacrosse and football player but had made himself into a fine hockey player too. He’d been a good amateur ballplayer in Toronto, but hadn’t really played the game in three years! Still, “Manager Howley feels confident that the Toronto boy will develop into a good outfielder,” reported the Globe on April 7. Conacher was put into his first game the next day, and recorded his first hit, first run (the game-winner, in fact) and first putout as a professional baseball player in a 9-8 Toronto win over a team from Richmond, Virginia.

Conny Dye
This photo appeared in the Winnipeg Tribune on June 14, 1926.

Both Dye and Conacher broke camp with the team, though neither played in the season-opening 8-2 win over Reading on April 14. Dye was a proven minor-league star, and was played up in the publicity to promote Toronto’s home opener at the brand new Maple Leaf Stadium on April 28 … but as also noted in my story last year, neither hockey star contributed much to what would be a championship season for the baseball Maple Leafs in 1926.

With the Blue Jays set to mark their 40th season this year, I for one think it would be cool to seem them wear the 1926 Maple Leafs uniform as a throwback nod to the 90th anniversary of the old ballpark at the foot of Bathurst Street. For some even better photographs of the uniforms, check out this web site.

Price Check

I wish the Blue Jays had signed David Price. I’d love to have him back. Still, $217 million over seven years seems like too much money for too long a time. So, I’d like to take Mark Shapiro at his word that the $31 million per season will be better spent filling the various spots that still need addressing. It’s not that I doubt Shapiro’s integrity … but I don’t trust Rogers. My guess is they learned nothing from last season – “If you build it, they will come”, not “If everything goes perfectly, we might win” – and will put most of that money into their pockets while jacking up ticket prices (which they’ve already done!) and cable rates.

I admit I’m conflicted by the huge salaries in sports. On the one hand, if there really is that kind of money to be made, I like to see the players getting their share. On the other hand, the older I get the harder it is for me to cheer for people making five times as much money for every single game they play (and starting pitchers like Price watch four out of every five of those games!) as I’m earning in an entire year. But the truth is, no matter how much money is involved, fans and/or the media have always been angered by player salaries since the days they started getting paid.

Professional baseball in the United States dates all the way back to the mid 1860s. Pro hockey in Canada didn’t get started until the winter of 1906-07 when two of the country’s top leagues decided they would allow professional athletes play alongside of amateurs. This was quite the controversy in its day, and by the 1907-08 season people were already expressing amazement, if not quite outrage, at what the top stars were earning.

Price Phillips

On December 15, 1908, a story in the Vancouver World discussed the lucrative offer Tom Phillips had recently turned down to return to the Ottawa Senators for the 1908-09 season. “Two hundred dollars a game for ten games of hockey!” the story started. “How would you like to be offered that amount? Would you refuse $2000 for practically two months work? There are few men who would; yet that is just what was declined with thanks the other day by Tom Phillips, the celebrated Ottawa hockey player, who is now in Vancouver.”

The story then went on to explain how Phillips, longtime captain of the Kenora Thistles who’d led them to the Stanley Cup in January of 1907, had received a salary of $1,600 to play in Ottawa during the 1907-08 season, but that wasn’t all. “Ottawa paid Tom Phillips $1600 cash,” the story said, “with a $60 a month job [which is a pretty fair indication that a yearly salary of $720 was not a bad bit of money for a working man in 1908] and all living expenses last winter, for approximately two months’ hockey, which figured out at ten league games.”

In all, Phillips earned about $1,800 for a little more than two months, and the paper compared his take to the $7,500 Napoleon Lajoie had been paid to play for the Cleveland Indians for a season of five months numbering approximately 154 games. “Getting down to real figures, Lajoie received about $49 every time he went on the diamond. Phillips practically cost his club … $180 ever time he went out to play a league game.” The hockey star, it was said, “would have received the stupendous sum of $17,720” if his season had as many games as a baseball season.

But the numbers were about to become even more outrageous!


On the same day the Vancouver paper reported that Phillips had turned down the $2,000 offer from Ottawa came news that he had agreed to join Edmonton for its two-game, preseason Stanley Cup series against the Montreal Wanderers at the end of December, 1908. It was soon learned that Phillips was promised $300 per game plus a bonus of $200 if the challengers beat the defending champions.

If Edmonton wins the Stanley Cup,” the Vancouver World trumpeted on December 29, “Tom Phillips will receive: $800 for two games, or $400 an hour, or $6.66 a minute, or $0.11 a second. A man is supposed to involuntarily wink about a dozen times a minute. Therefore every time Phillips bats an eyelash it costs the Edmonton club about 50 cents.”

The paper went on to explain that the highest-paid person in Canada was the Governor-General (by coincidence, Lord Grey, whom I wrote about two weeks ago) with an annual stipend of $50,000. That was broken down as $5.80 per hour for every hour of every day for an entire year … which meant Tom Phillips was to be paid more per minute by Edmonton to play hockey than Lord Grey made in an hour. Sixty-nine times more to be exact. At that rate, the World reported that he would make just over $3.4 million in a year. “Pierpont Morgan, John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie had better look out,” the paper mocked.

As it happened, Edmonton lost the Stanley Cup series. Phillips played the entire 60 minutes of the first game despite breaking his ankle partway through it. He had to sit out game two. It’s unclear if he actually received the full $600 or just $300 for his one game.

Burns Johnson

Whatever Phillips got, it paled in comparison to what another Canadian athlete earned at virtually the same time. On December 26, 1908, world heavyweight boxing champion Tommy Burns of Hanover, Ontario, was paid $30,000 to fight Jack Johnson in Sydney, Australia. The fight lasted 40 minutes, meaning Burns earned almost as much as per minute ($750) as Phillips could have potentially made in both games for Edmonton. Johnson – the controversial African-American whom many other white boxers refused to face – was paid $5,000 and won the fight.

We’ve Got a Series Now…

The Blue Jays gave me an early birthday present with a big victory last night! Hoping for a similar present on my actual birthday today.

Me & Jorey
My nephew Jorey and me before the game last night.

I was more than a little worried that they’d be facing the same challenge as the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, who were the first team in history to rebound from a three-games-to-nothing deficit in a best-of-seven series when they rallied to beat the Detroit Red Wings for the Stanley Cup.

Toronto media seemed pleased by that victory, but few seemed to note its historic significance. Perhaps that was because the Stanley Cup Final had only expanded to a best-of-seven in 1939. Then again, the World Series had been a best-of-seven (and sometimes a best of nine!) since the beginning in 1903, and nobody had pulled of this type of comeback there … and wouldn’t until the Boston Red Sox rallied to beat the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship series.





Matty and Me

My first professional writing job came 30 years ago this month when, with the Blue Jays in the playoffs for the first time, I wrote a month-long “World Series Flashback” feature for the Toronto Sun and CHEX Radio in Peterborough.

Friday of this week (October 9) until Wednesday of next week (October 14) marks the 110th anniversary of probably the greatest pitching performance in baseball history. In games one, three, and five of the 1905 World Series, Christy Mathewson pitched three straight complete game shutouts in the space of six days. He tossed a total of 27 innings, while allowing just 13 hits and striking out 18 against only a single walk. Mathewson’s New York Giants defeated the Philadelphia Athletics four games to one.


In an era when baseball players were mostly roughnecks and hooligans, Christy Mathewson was a true gentleman. College-bred, tall, handsome, honest and articulate – not to mention one of the greatest pitchers in history – Mathewson helped make baseball respectable. Had there been a World Series MVP award in 1905, there’s no doubt who would have won it. Had I been alive at the time, I don’t think there’s any doubt who my favorite baseball player would have been. (I’ve always been a fan of great pitching.)

If you’ve read any of the articles I’ve posted on this web site over the past year – or anything I’ve written over the past 30 years – you’ve got a pretty good idea that I love sports history. As a boy, I played hockey and football and loved the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Argonauts. I was a horrible baseball player, but I’d watch the Expos on TV and began following the World Series in 1972 when I was still only eight years old. I saw my first live game in 1973 and was watching on TV in 1974 when Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth with his 715th home run. Still, I didn’t really understand baseball and didn’t care much about it. It wasn’t until the Blue Jays came along in 1977 that everything changed.

I knew that both my parents had gone to minor league Maple Leafs baseball games when they were young. My mother, especially, loved baseball, and was the reason why my family got (and still has) our Blue Jays season tickets. I was first hooked late in the summer of 1976. There was a tent that year at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto hyping the city’s entry into the American League. In it, they were showing the official film of the 1975 World Series. Like so many people, I’d been captivated by that series the previous fall, and this was the first time I’d ever seen one of those “all access”-style films. By the time the Blue Jays took the field on April 7, 1977, I was more than ready to fall in love with baseball. Soon, every radio in the house was tuned to the Blue Jays broadcast. (Not a lot of television in those days!)


With friends who were just as crazy for the fledgling team – and the most inexpensive tickets easy to come by at just two and thee dollars (sometimes less) – it was fun to follow the Jays even if they lost 100 games every season. We also picked pennant contenders to root for and tease each other about, but what really took my interest “to the next level” was my discovery of baseball’s rich history. That began with two things in 1978.

One thing was that my mother bought us Big-Time Baseball by Maury Allen. “A potpourri of major league happenings between 1900 and 1978,” says Google Books. “Includes records, anecdotes, photographs, and biographical information.” My brothers and I devoured it! (And, really, many of the books on hockey I’ve written for children haven’t been all that different from it.)

Big-Time Baseball is where I first learned of Christy Mathewson, but where I came to really know him was as the star pitcher on my own team in Superstar Baseball … the Sports Illustrated/Avalon Hill board game my brothers and I ordered by mail and received at the Christmas holidays in December of 1978. As the box says, Superstar Baseball lets you manage the greatest players of all time (though it’s an admittedly strange mix of all-time megastars and quirky oldtimers). In addition to the number and letter codes on the front of the player cards that let you play the game, the backs of the cards contained career numbers and interesting write-ups about the players’ careers. I read them all, and then started reading all I could about baseball history.

Christy cards

Perhaps Superstar Baseball isn’t the greatest of the dice-rolling/simulation games (I played ABPA Baseball and Football with my friends). Still, my brothers and I played it till we wore it out, ordered another, bought the second player set, and wore them out too. Almost 40 years later, we still play it when we have the time together, and are often joined now by my brother Jonathan’s son.

Over the years, we’ve traded players so many times it’s impossible to keep track of who’s had who, but David has always had Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson on his team, and Jonathan has always had Honus Wagner and Bob Gibson. My all-time all-timers are Rogers Hornsby and …Christy Mathewson.

Me and Matty

If you’ve got a story about what hooked you on sports, or sports history, I’d love to hear it. Please feel free to comment. And GO JAYS GO!

Uncle Sam Says…

Let’s face it. As Canadians, we so often like to feel ourselves superior to Americans when they get caught up in their latest national drama. But we also crave their approval when things are going well for us … such as with a certain baseball team!

In the Toronto Star last Sunday, Raju Mudhar, in his Sports Media column, brought up the issue of Bob Costas raising the ire of Toronto fans back in the 1989 playoff series against Oakland when he commented that: “Elvis has a better chance of coming back than the Jays.” Scott Moore, president of Sportnet, said, “when you get a [U.S.] network guy who is not as biased towards the Jays, people think they’re biased against them… Costas didn’t hate Toronto. He wasn’t a home-team broadcaster that our viewers are used to.”

Personally, I remember on the field during the afternoon before the 1985 Championship Series with the Royals got under way, Costas proudly speaking of how he planned to stick up for Canada. How? By mentioning that despite the cool weather in Toronto that night, there was already snow in Denver – which people at the time were touting as an obvious expansion site. Um, thanks … I guess.

I also remember how, the next day, at least one Blue Jay (it’s been 30 years, but I think it was Buck Martinez, who missed the end of the season and the playoffs that year with a broken leg,) was disappointed that Tony Kubek – who had been the analyst on Blue Jays broadcasts since nearly the very beginning – had not been supportive enough of the team in game one in his main job on the NBC broadcast. So it’s not just the fans.

Generally speaking, the U.S. media has gotten behind this year’s Blue Jays. It’s hard not to rally around a team that’s on such a roll. Still, there was that whole “Beer League” business back in August. Anyway, here’s the American view of past Blue Jays division championships in newspaper stories the following day. And here’s hoping there’s another one to add as soon as tomorrow!

Clinching Date: October 5, 1985. Blue Jays 5, Yankees 1

Clinching Date: Septmber 30, 1989. Blue Jays 4, Orioles 3

Clinching Date: October 2, 1991. Blue Jays 6, Angels 5

Clinching Date: October 3, 1992. Blue Jays 3, Tigers 1

Clinching Date: September 27, 1993. Blue Jays 2, Brewers 0

Turk Broda, Yogi Berra and the Blue Jays

Last week, when the Toronto Maple Leafs opened training camp in Nova Scotia, both new coach Mike Babcock and new GM Lou Lamoriello talked about a “clean slate,” meaning they would have no preconceived notions on players based on last year’s woeful Leafs season. It’s probably just a coincidence, but that certainly seemed apropos for the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Among the many question marks for the Leafs heading into the season is (once again) who’s going to be the number-one goalie. “I like one guy to know he’s the guy,” said Babcock. “Someone’s gotta grab it.” He’s apparently prepared to let James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier fight it out. Bernier and Reimer both have their supporters among Toronto fans … but it’s not exactly like the Leafs are battling with the embarrassment of riches they faced at training camp back in the fall of 1936.


“Brilliant playing of some and more or less disappointing efforts by others have left several question marks hovering over the personnel of the Maple Leaf hockey team,” wrote Don Cowie of The Globe and Mail on November 4, 1936, as Toronto readied for the NHL season opener against Detroit the following night. “The big problem is in goal, and the question being asked on all sides; Will it be Hainsworth or Broda?”

George Hainsworth was a 41-year-old veteran who’d had his best years with the Montreal Canadiens in the late 1920s, but had certainly been solid during his three seasons in Toronto. He helped the Maple Leafs win three straight Canadian Division titles from 1933-34 to 1935-36 and make two appearances in the Stanley Cup Final. Turk Broda was a 22-year-old whom the Leafs had purchased from the Red Wings for $8,000 the previous spring – an unheard of sum for a raw rookie with no NHL experience during The Great Depression.

Conn Smythe, who had operated similarly with Lorne Chabot and Benny Grant in previous seasons despite the fact that teams of this era generally went with just one goalie, stated that the Leafs would carry both George Hainsworth and Turk Broda to begin the season and that they “would alternate until the better man was determined.”


It didn’t take long for the Leafs to make a decision. On November 25, Smythe announced that Hainsworth had been released outright. Turned out to be the right move. Hainsworth was all but done, whereas Broda would become the winningest goalie in franchise history with 302 regular-season victories, and five Stanley Cup championships.

But hey, it’s still baseball season and the Blue Jays are in a pennant race! The Yankees kept things interesting this week … just as they did back in 1985. Yogi Berra – who passed away on Tuesday at the age of 90 – briefly served as Yankees manager that season. (And all season in 1984.) Though I did see him around Exhibition Stadium during my ground crew days, I have no personal memories to share. However, please enjoy these Yogi Berra-isms from my 2006 quote book for Firefly Books, Home Plate Don’t Move. And remember a 3-1/2 game lead is great, but it isn’t over til it’s over!


Mixed Memories…

With the launch of my new book Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built the Bruins this Saturday, and with the Blue Jays in the heat of a pennant race for the first time since 1993, I’m a little bit torn over what to write about this week. Hockey history? Blue Jays nostalgia? Fortunately, I have one memory that combines both nicely.

I don’t recall the exact date, but it was mid September in 1986. (Looking it up, it was either September 9, 1986 or the doubleheader on September 11 after a rainout the night before. It was definitely a wet night.) The Jays were playing the Yankees at Exhibition Stadium, and I was there with my Dad. Soon, an elderly gentleman sat down next to us. To any sports fan from Toronto at the time, he was instantly recognizable. It was King Clancy.

Clancy Auto

He couldn’t have been any nicer. He signed the autograph above for me that night, and really seemed to enjoy talking baseball with the people around us. Turned out, Clancy was a big fan of the Yankees’ Dave Winfield, but we were all trying to convince him that Jesse Barfield had the better arm.

On Facebook last week, after the Blue Jays swept the Yankees in New York, I posted a story about the August 2, 1983 Blue Jays doubleheader sweep of the Yankees at Exhibition Stadium. There was a record-setting crowd that night, and the joint was jumpin’! It’s one of my best memories from my Ground Crew days. As I pointed out on Facebook, the game the next night was a great one too, featuring Jesse Barfield nailing Ken Griffey at the plate on what I remember as the greatest throw I’ve ever seen.


The other day, I found a YouTube clip that shows the throw. Looking at the grainy footage (the play begins at the 17-second mark), it’s a little hard to appreciate just how great that throw really was. But coming as it did in the summer of the Blue Jays’ very first pennant race, just after the Jays had gone out in front 5-1, but with the Yankees immediately threatening to get right back in the game (have a look at the Baseball-Reference summary), I’ll stick with my memory!

Oh, and by the way, it was the very next night that Dave Winfield killed that seagull. I don’t remember what King Clancy had to say about that…

Stieb and Henke

A week from today will mark the 25th anniversary of the first (and so far only) no-hitter in Blue Jays history. Dave Stieb blanked the Indians for a 3-0 victory in Cleveland on September 2, 1990. Sportsnet marks the anniversary this Sunday with Dave Stieb: Almost Perfect. I’m sure it will be good, as all their special features have been.

As anyone who knows Blue Jays history is aware, Stieb had a reputation for being prickly. In the early days, when he was so much better than most of the players around him, he often glared at teammates who made errors when he was on the mound. You still hear stories that the rest of the Jays never liked him much. I must say, though, for whatever it’s worth, he was always perfectly nice to me when I was on the ground crew.

For example, my brother Jonathan had a girlfriend he wanted to impress by getting Stieb’s autograph. When I asked him if he’d sign a piece of paper for her, and he said, “don’t you think she’d like a baseball better?” He signed a ball for her, and also gave me an autographed picture. I gave the ball to Jonathan to give to the girl. I kept the picture (which I still have!) for myself.

Stieb autograph

As anyone who knows Blue Jays history is also aware, Stieb had several heart-breaking near-misses en route to finally throwing his no-hitter. The first of those came 30 years ago this week, on August 24, 1985. Facing 300-game winner Tom Seaver of the White Sox in Chicago, Stieb had a no-hitter through eight innings. He’d walked three, and only two runners had gotten as far as second base, but on the first pitch in the bottom of the ninth, Rudy Law took Stieb deep. No-hitter gone. Shutout too. Three pitches later, Bryan Little hit another home run.

Pitch counts were never reported in those days, so it’s unclear how many pitches Stieb had thrown. He told reporters his arm had begun to tighten up and that manager Bobby Cox might not have sent him out for the ninth if not for the no-hitter. Now, Cox turned to Gary Lavelle … who promptly gave up a home run to Harold Baines. After finally recording the first out, Lavelle surrendered a single to Carlton Fisk. The near-blowout was in danger of getting away, bringing Cox back to the mound.

Since the Blue Jays had started to contend in 1983 the bullpen had aways been a weakness. Now, finally, Toronto had someone to turn to when the game got tight. Only it wasn’t the person we’d all expected when the 1985 season began.

I remember exactly where I was when I heard that the Blue Jays had acquired Bill Caudill from Oakland at the Winter Meetings in December of 1984. (The deal cost Toronto Dave Collins – a player I liked a lot – and Alfredo Griffin – whom everybody liked, but, paraphrasing Sports Illustrated, “who was Alfredo Griffin to keep Tony Fernandez in the minors?” … and, by the way, when the Blue Jays first called up Fernandez in September of 1983, I was sent to the airport to pick him up! He gave me a bat as a souvenir.)

Caudill signs

Caudill’s contract was expiring when the Blue Jays acquired him, and I also remember exactly where I was in February of 1985 when I heard they’d avoided going to arbitration with him. I was thrilled. Locking up Caudill was the move that was going to put us over the top, but it went bad right from the start.

Caudill struggled in spring training, and then pitched poorly (despite picking up a pair of wins) when Toronto opened the season in Kansas City. A few days later in Baltimore, the Blue Jays were leading the Orioles 7-3 in the bottom of the eighth when Caudill entered the game with two on and nobody out. (Remember when teams used their relief aces that way?) He promptly issued a walk to load the bases, gave up a run-scoring ground out, a single to make it 7-5 … and then a monster three-run homer to Eddie Murray. Jim Acker got out of the inning, but the Blue Jays lost 8-7.

“I’m no superman,” Caudill would say as his struggles continued … but fortunately, the Blue Jays had Clark Kent waiting in reserve!


I most decidedly do not remember where I was when the Blue Jays claimed Tom Henke from the Texas Rangers in January of 1985 as compensation for losing Cliff Johnson to free agency. But as Caudill struggled, I do remember the reports on Henke in the press notes I would read in the photographers dugout where we on the ground crew watched the games. The late-blooming 27-year-old bricklayer from Taos, Missouri was putting up stunning numbers in Syracuse. By the time he got to Toronto on July 28, Henke’s Triple-A numbers read: 51.1 innings, 13 hits, 18 walks and 60 strikeouts. He had a 2-1 record with 18 saves and had surrendered only five runs (all of them earned) for an ERA of 0.88.

Henke got a nerve-wracking win in a 4-3, 10-inning victory in Baltimore in his Blue Jays debut on July 29, 1985. He picked up a more efficient win two days later. His first save came at home versus Texas on August 2. Bill Caudill earned a sloppy save the following night, but it was the last one he got in 1985. Tom Henke ruled the back of the bullpen now, and it turned the franchise around. Henke got the final two outs to save Stieb’s near no-hitter 30 years ago this week, and kept on racking up saves until the Blue Jays were World Series champions in 1992.