Category Archives: Baseball History

Rock and a Hard Place…

Right up front, let me say that I hope Tim Raines makes it on Wednesday when this year’s election results for the Baseball Hall of Fame are announced. All the early indications are that in his tenth and final year on the ballot (players used to get 15 years, but that’s no longer the case), Raines will finally top the 75 percent of votes needed for induction.

It’s a strange thing. After waiting the required five years to qualify for the Hall of Fame ballot, what suddenly makes a player worthy after being forced to wait another 10 years? Many are saying it’s a triumph of the new voting rules that have phased out older sportswriters who are no longer actively covering the game. The younger writers are more open to modern statistical interpretations.

Expos
Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Steve Rogers, Tim Raines and Al Oliver at the 1982
All-Star Game in Montreal. Raines was only 5’8″ and 160 pounds, but his
solid physique earned him the nickname “Rock” at an Expos rookie camp.

For a player like Tim Raines, who didn’t reach the big milestones such as 3,000 hits, younger voters are more likely to be impressed by the fact that when Raines’ hit total of 2,605 is combined with his 1,330 walks, he actually reached base more often (3,935 to 3,931) than eight-time National League batting champion Tony Gwynn. (Gwynn’s lifetime batting average was .338 to Raines’ .294, but his on-base percentage is .388 to Raines’ .385) . And though Raines’ career total of 808 steals is well behind all-time leader Rickey Henderson’s 1,406, the fact that Raines was caught only 146 times to Henderson’s 335 means Raines’ success rate of 84.7 percent is better than Henderson’s (80.8). It’s also better than the only other players from the 20th Century who had more steals than Raines: Lou Brock (938 / 75.3%) and Ty Cobb (897 / incomplete data).

In the New York Post recently, baseball writer and Hall of Fame voter Ken Davidoff said, “Raines’ admittance, if it happens, would serve as a triumph of facts and statistics over emotions and memories.” But, as Richard Griffin in the Toronto Star has written (and I’m paraphrasing), “if all you did was feed the numbers into a computer, it would be easy to decide who makes it in.” Obviously, statistics play a huge part in this, but I, for one, would hate to see memory discounted entirely.

1981

For example, I know that Jack Morris didn’t put up the career numbers of recent Hall of Fame pitching inductees like Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. But I watched him pitch his whole career; hating him as a Tiger, impressed by his one year as a Twin, and then amazed by his 1992 season in Toronto. Yes, he had a 4.04 ERA that year, but he was every bit as good as his 21-6 record indicates. When he needed to shut you down, he did. His complete-game, four-hitter 4-0 win over Boston on June 11, 1992, when he outpitched Roger Clemens (and yes, I remember it well … but I had to look up the date!) was a masterpiece. Though he never received more than 67 percent of the vote in his 15 years on the ballot between 2000 and 2014, for me, Jack Morris is a Hall of Famer.

As for Tim Raines, my thoughts are this… In the first 13 years of his career (basically 11 full seasons) with the Expos, he was definitely a Hall of Fame-calibre player. He was the kind of guy, like Roberto Alomar, that when he was at the plate, you expected something good to happen. But I’m not sure fans of the teams he spent his final 10 years with (mainly the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees) felt the same way. Sure, he was a good teammate and a good role player, but as a Blue Jays fan in those years, I don’t recall having any fear of him coming to the plate like the excitement I’d felt when he was batting for the Expos … although he did put up some pretty good numbers against Toronto in the 1993 American League Championship Series.

1982

All in all, I’d say for Tim Raines the good years outweigh the mediocre ones, but this has to be a big reason why his candidacy has gone right down to the wire. Another reason, so I’ve read, is that some writers have refused to vote for him because of his cocaine suspension. To me, that’s ridiculous. How can you hold it against someone who served his time, kicked the habit, and never relapsed?

Which brings us to Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and others of the steroid era. If I had a vote, I’d vote for them.

Do I wish there was no such thing as drugs in sports? Yes. Still, I think the world has been pretty hypocritical about performance enhancing drugs. Athletes have been using whatever they could to get an advantage for a very long time. Caffeine to get up; nicotine to calm down; oxygen; cold medications; amphetamines. What is it that makes a guy a hero for taking a shot of cortisone and playing through the pain versus a guy taking a shot of something else?

1983

Yes, I know it’s illegal to use one without a prescription. So, that’s where we draw the line? But what makes something a medical miracle and something else an abomination? Why isn’t it cheating to take a tendon from a cadaver, or another part of your own body, and sew it into a pitcher’s elbow? What if doctors could figure out a way to do the same thing with muscles? Would THAT be cheating? We certainly don’t say pitchers can’t have Tommy John surgery because is wasn’t available in the old days. We don’t say today’s hockey players can’t have their knees scoped because they didn’t have that medical advancement in Bobby Orr’s day.

We’re pretty quick to jump on professional athletes who we perceive as not trying hard enough. But we seem to be even harder on the athletes who felt they had to take drugs to be the best they could be. What if Bobby Orr could have taken a shot of something and it saved his career? Would we look back on it as cheating … or would we see it as one of the greatest athletes of all time doing whatever it took to stay at the top of his game?

I Love A Parade

Well, after 108 years of waiting, Cubs fans couldn’t have asked for a much nicer day for a parade last Friday. They say there was a total of 5 million people who lined the streets or were on hand for the “Cub-stock” rally at Grant Park.

Parade

According to Major League Baseball’s web site, it was the seventh-largest gathering of human beings in world history… and the largest ever in the Western Hemisphere.

  1. Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, India, 2013 (30 million)
  2. Arba’een festival, Iraq, 2014 (17 million)
  3. Funeral of C.N. Annadurai, India, 1969 (15 million)
  4. Funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran, 1989 (10 million)
  5. Pope Francis in the Philippines, 2015 (6 million)
  6. World Youth Day, 1995 (5 million)
  7. Cubs World Series parade (5 million)
  8. Funeral of Gamal Abdel Nasser, 1970 (5 million)
  9. Rod Stewart concert, Brazil, 1994 (3.5 million)
  10. Hajj pilgrimage, Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 2012 (3 million)

Since the parade, Cubs players have been to Disney World, appeared on Saturday Night Live, and taken the World Series Trophy to a Blackhawks game. None of them, however, have attempted to duplicate the old Blackhawks’ celebratory feat of rolling a star player through the downtown business area in a wheelbarrow.

Hawks Clips

Not only did Roger Jenkins do this with goalie Chuck Gardiner in 1934,

Hawks Pic

He did it again with Mike Karakas in 1938.

But it seems that this odd wheelbarrow tradition dates back nearly as far as the Cubs’ last World Series win in 1908, as it may well have begun with hockey’s Quebec Bulldogs in 1912 – a story that appears in a couple of my children’s books and which I often tell when I’m visiting classrooms.

Quebec

Tuning In Over Time

Game Seven of the World Series. As classic phrases go, it doesn’t get much better than that! I don’t really have a favorite in this one, but it’s hard not to be rooting for the Cubs. Still, if they do win it, it’ll certainly be tough not to feel bad for fans in Cleveland.

 Cleveland
These fans in Cleveland are reacting to the game played in Chicago.

The Indians drew more than 67,000 fans to Progressive Field for games three, four and five of the series … which were played at Wrigley Field in Chicago! These fans paid $5 for a ticket (proceeds going to local charities) to watch the game on the giant video board. This has become something of a thing in recent years, but fans have been gathering to follow their teams on the road like this for more than a century!

When the Winnipeg Victorias hockey team traveled to Montreal to play their Victorias for the Stanley Cup in February of 1896, telegraph wires were run to local hotels so that Winnipeg fans could receive play-by-play updates during the game. Soon, fans all across Canada were showing up at train stations or outside of newspaper offices to “listen in” on these telegraphed reports. As early as 1907, fans gathered inside the rink in Kenora, Ontario, to receive updates from Montreal as the Thistles battled the Wanderers for the Stanley Cup.

Crowds
Fans gather in the street to follow the World Series.

Baseball has similar traditions, with a history of elaborate electronic scoreboard devices set up in American cities to follow the action of the World Series. Often, these devices drew big crowds in the streets outside of newspaper offices, but there were also set ups in theaters, armories, and other reception halls.

Ads
Ads in the New York Times in 1915.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it amazing how much the Gameday display on the web site for Major League Baseball…

MLB

looks like one of those old-fashion scoreboard machines…

1912

My favorite of these old-time devices is something call the Jackson Manikin Baseball Indicator. It was like a giant arcade game which used mechanical men to re-enact each play in a game as it was received via telegraph. For more on this one, you can see a story I wrote a few years ago for the Society for American Baseball Research.

Manikin Field
The Jackson Manikin Baseball Indicator, circa 1913.

Manikins
Details of the Manikins from Thomas Jackson’s patent application.

And during the 1926 Junior World Series when the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Louisville Colonels, fans in Louisville had a unique way of following the action when their team was in Toronto.

1926
From The Globe in Toronto, October 5, 1926.

So, as it so often seems to be, the more things change, they more they stay the same!

It Only Feels Like Forever!

Well, I’d still like to have seen the Blue Jays in it, but fans in Chicago and Cleveland have been waiting for a World Series championship a lot longer than Toronto baseball fans, who haven’t seen a title since 1993. Their droughts make even the Toronto Maple Leafs’ last Stanley Cup win in 1967 seem pretty recent!

Cleveland just got to celebrate the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, and the city’s first of any kind since 1964, but they haven’t seen their baseball team win the World Series since 1948. And even that, of course, pales in comparison to the mother of all championship droughts. The Chicago Cubs haven’t even been to the World Series since 1945, and they haven’t won it since their back-to-back titles in 1907 and 1908! Both wins came over the Detroit Tigers.

Not surprisingly, some of the coverage of those Cubs wins looks a little bit different than what we’re used to today…

Cubs 1
From the Chicago Tribune on October 6, 1907. Prices go up, but the dilemma remains.

Cubs 2
Cubs fans roared when their team scored two in the bottom of the ninth
to tie Game 1 at 3-3 on October 8, 1907 as depicted in the Tribune the
next day. The game was called after 12 innings, still tied 3-3.

Cubs 3
Because of the tie game, it took five for the Cubs to sweep the Detroit Tigers in 1907.
This cartoon appeared in the Tribune on October 13, 1907.

Cubs 4
A year and a day later, October 14, 1908, the Tribune commemorated
the previous day’s 3-0 victory of Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown that
gave Chicago a 3-1 lead over Detroit in the 1908 Series.

Cubs 5
The Cubs then made it two in a row, as noted in the Tribune on October 15, 1908.

Cubs 6
And in the Detroit Free Press the same day.

It Could Have Been Worse

Winning last night certainly takes a lot of the sting out of it! I still can’t explain the hitting woes (except that I think we’ll find out that Josh Donaldson has been hurt worse than they’ve let on), but before you go saying what a horrible collapse the Blue Jays had this September, consider this. At no point during the 2016 season did Toronto ever have more than a 2-game lead in the American League East  – and they only led by that much for four days. Four! They only led the division at all for 32 days during the entire season. That’s basically one month out of six.

Now, admittedly, the Jays did hold that 2-game lead from August 28 through August 31, and 29 of their 32 games in first came after July 30. Obviously, that makes their September slide feel all the more painful. But even if they hadn’t won last night, I really think it seems a lot worse than it actually was.

Edwin
Edwin Encarnacion reacts to his game-winning three-run blast in the 11th inning.

Not convinced? Well, consider this. The Jays spent 111 days in either second or third place this year. That’s three times more time than they spent in first. And, really, they were never more than about 5 games from falling completely out of the playoff picture. So, hanging on for that home wild card berth was probably where they should have ended up anyway.

Since the two-team wild card format was introduced in 2012, I’ve always wondered how much qualifying for that wild card game would really feel like making the playoffs. Well, having gone through it now,  I think it really does … and I’m not saying this just because we won! Still, it does seems strange to have the fate of an entire season come down to a single game. The baseball season has always been a marathon, not a sprint. But then again, it’s not like this never happened before the advent of the wild card.

Back in 1908 – the last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series! – the fate of the National League season came down to just one postseason game. It wasn’t actually a playoff. It was a makeup game made necessary by the fact that the Cubs and the New York Giants had finished the season tied in first place and now had to replay a tie game from a few days earlier, on September 23, 1908.

Dunnell
Milt Dunnell of the Toronto Star didn’t get much out of Fred Merkle even 40 years later.

Even now, 108 years later, that tie game is one of the most famous in baseball history. If you don’t already know the story, in a nutshell, the Giants should have won that day with a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth, but the baserunner on first base, 19-year-old rookie Fred Merkle, never touched second. When the Cubs made a play to force him out, the ruling was made that the Giants apparent winning run didn’t count. For plenty more, you can Google Fred Merkle, or watch this clip of Keith Olbermann from 2013.

Merkle was dubbed “Bonehead” for his baserunning blunder and after the Giants lost the makeup game on October 8, 1908, his so-called “boner” would literally haunt him until his dying day. And beyond, really, because anyone who knows his name today is likely to know it because of that play.

Headlines
A sample of some of the headlines that appeared above his obituary in
newspapers across North America the day after Fred Merkle died on March 2, 1956.

You may have heard Sandy Koufax recently, lauding Vin Scully and telling about how when Scully was covering the Dodgers in the World Series, he would say a prayer before it got started. Scully didn’t pray for the Dodgers to win, but for no one to make the type of mistake that would live on in infamy. No doubt Vin Scully had Fred Merkle in mind.

Reggie and Me…

I’m sure I’ll get into the World Cup of Hockey when it starts up for real in a few days. But September is for baseball and pennant races! Of course I wish that the Blue Jays were doing better than 3-and-8 this month, but I’m trying to remember that for years (decades!) before last season, all I wanted was meaningful games in September. And, well, we’ve certainly got that now.

I was at the Blue Jays-Red Sox game on Saturday (the good one, that we won 3-2) with my two brothers and my nephew. Jorey is 13 now, and pretty much exactly like his father and uncles were at that age. At one point during the game, he wondered if any of us knew who was likely to be the next player to reach 3,000 career hits early next season. We didn’t.

Us

Once upon a time, I’m sure I would have known that immediately. These days, of course, I could look it up with a few taps and swipes on my phone (which I’ve since done – though on my laptop). It’s funny how, now that it’s so easy to know this stuff if you want to, I don’t know it anymore. Back in the old days, when I had to study the all-time lists in the annual preseason Street & Smith’s Baseball Magazine and then, basically, keep it in my head all season, I pretty much did. Now I don’t.

So, any idea who, as of last night’s game, got his 2,926th hit (and 443 home run, by the way)? I’ll put the answer in at the bottom of this story … and I’ll be curious to hear from anybody who can tell me they honestly knew it without looking it up!

Jorey also asked us who, in 40 seasons as Blue Jays fans, is the greatest player we’ve ever seen. We threw out a lot of names, and then finally decided it was probably Ken Griffey Jr. But good as he was, Griffey never really won anything. So I was wondering if, maybe, given all he did on the largest stage, the greatest player was Reggie Jackson. All those “Mr. October” moments definitely made an impression on me when I was Jorey’s age.

That being said, I never liked Reggie Jackson. (I know I’m not alone there.) He was just too pompous and arrogant. But I do have one good Reggie Jackson story from my days on the Blue Jays ground crew.

During the early summer of 1983, when the Jays were first becoming contenders, the California Angels were in town. On this Saturday (June 18), Jim Clancy had pitched seven strong innings but surrendered our tight, 3-2 lead when he gave up back-to-back doubles leading off the top of the eighth. Joey McLaughlin came in, put a couple more guys on, but got out of trouble. The Jays then took back the lead with three runs in the bottom of the eighth, highlighted by a two-run home run from Lloyd Moseby.

Me

But the Angels weren’t done. Bobby Grich led off the ninth with a homer and then, with two out, Rod Carew and Juan Beniquez singled, bringing Reggie Jackson to the plate. Bobby Cox went to the bullpen for a lefty – rookie Stan Clarke, who’d made his Major League debut just 11 days before. Clarke quickly jumped ahead 0-2.

“I wanted that situation bad,” Clarke told reporters after the game. “I wanted to strike him out. That’s all I wanted to do.”

In my memory, you could literally see Clarke shaking with the excitement of it. Almost laughing that he’d actually gotten Reggie Jackson to foul off a couple of pitches and was going to strike him out and save the game.

“I stepped back off the mound, and I told myself: ‘Relax and throw your best pitch.’ But it didn’t work out that way.”

Reggie slugged the next pitch for a three-run homer, and glared at Clarke as he rounded the bases. He’d seen the young lefty shaking too.

“I just wondered what he was doing when he was pounding his glove and jumping up and down after the first two strikes,” said Reggie after the game.

Globe

There was still the bottom of the ninth to come, but you just knew it was over. “The Blue Jays had no chance to recover,” wrote Allison Gordon in The Toronto Star. “It wasn’t meant to be.”

Now it was me who was practically shaking, but with anger. Anybody who knows me (and especially those who knew me then) will have no trouble envisioning me stomping around flailing my arms, muttering, “Stupid Reggie! Stupid Blue Jays! Stupid Game! How Could They Blow It!” Which is what I was doing when I fell down the steep flight of stairs that was practically a ladder after taking down the flags from atop the press box a short time later. (I threw down the flags as I was slipping and managed to grab onto the railing and break my fall.)

Getting back to what is sort of the point of this story, because I knew all the stats in those days, I knew that Reggie’s 476th career homer moved him past Stan Musial and Willie Stargell on the all-time list. So, the next day, when I happened to find myself standing beside the cage before the game while Reggie was awaiting his turn for batting practice, I said to him, “Congratulations on passing Stan and Willie, but I’m sure you understand why I’m mad at you.”

CNE Stadium
I was up there near the lower part of the red square when I fell …
but I would only have fallen as far as the bottom red line.

He didn’t say anything. Just nodded and smiled a self-satisfied smile. Stupid Reggie!

Oh, and the answer to Jorey’s question: It’s Adrian Beltre.

Upon Further Review … Fastball (2016)

Barbara and I recently watched the documentary Fastball. Loved it! As a review this past spring in the Los Angeles Times noted, “You don’t have to be a baseball fanatic or for that matter a historian or a physicist to appreciate [this] fittingly zippy tribute to the art of the pitch.”

Fastball PosterjpgNarrated by Kevin Costner, filmmaker Jonathan Hock (who directed the ESPN 30 for 30 episode about The Miracle on Ice, among his many credits) uses an impressive cast of baseball Hall of Famers to discuss the fastest pitchers of all time. The film also explains the science of how someone can throw the ball at the very upper limits of human mechanics, and how someone else can still manage to hit a pitch whose speed is at the very edge of how quickly a human being can physically see and react. Fascinating!

Plenty of today’s fastest pitchers are featured, and there’s also the sad story of 1960s minor league phenom Steve Dalkowski, who could never master his control. But the movie goes all the way back to Walter Johnson, who pitched 20 years in the Majors from 1907 to 1927 with the Washington Senators.

Virtually everyone of his era agreed that Walter Johnson was the fastest pitcher they had ever seen. As early as 1912, his speed was measures scientifically by the U.S. Army … who tracked him at 122 feet per second. That was considered astonishing at the time, but it works out to only 83.2 miles per hour – which struck me as pretty disappointing for such a legendary fastballer. But more on that in a bit.

When Bob Feller burst on the scene 80 years ago this summer as a 17-year-old phenom, he quickly became the new fastball king. Could he throw harder than Walter Johnson? Perhaps you’ve seen the old film clips of Feller firing his fastball alongside a speeding motorcycle doing 86 miles per hour, but Feller was also given a more scientific rating by the U.S. Military. In 1946, his speed was determined to be 98.6 miles per hour. Now that’s more like it!

Fastball Feller

Feller had begun his career at about the same time that Jesse Owens won the 100 meters at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in a time of 10.3 seconds. The current world record of 9.58 seconds was set by Usain Bolt in 2009. The film points out that if fastballs had improved at a similar rate, there would be dozens of guys throwing 120 miles per hour these days. But, of course, there aren’t.

In 1974, Nolan Ryan became the first pitcher to be clocked while he was pitching in an actual game. Radar tracked him at 100.8 miles per hour in 1974 — making him the fastest pitcher ever. Aroldis Chapman currently has that distinction, hitting 105.1 mph in 2010 and again just recently on July 18. But here’s where the measurements get interesting.

Back in 1912, Walter Johnson’s 83.2 pitch was clocked about 7.5 feet beyond the 60-foot-6-inch distance from the mound to home plate. Feller’s pitch was timed just in front of home plate, and Ryan’s at about 10 feet in front. Today’s modern radar guns record the speed of a pitch at about 10 feet from the pitcher’s hand … some 40 to 58 feet prior to where Johnson, Feller and Ryan were measured. It might not sound like a lot, but any extra distance allows gravity to slow down the speed of the ball as it moves through the air.

Making adjustments for the different distances (1 mile per hour for every 5.5 feet, says the science guy), Walter Johnson’s fastball jumps from 83.2 to 93.8 miles per hour. That’s a little more like it! Feller’s 98.6 improves to an incredible 107.6 mph. And Nolan Ryan? He clocks in at 108.5.

So take that, modern flamethrowers!

DiMaggio & Williams

Seventy-five years ago this summer, Major League Baseball witnessed two extraordinary feats. Ted Williams (who was in only his third season, and didn’t turn 23 until August 30) became the last player to hit .400, while Joe DiMaggio (in his sixth season and 26 years old) set a record that is unlikely to be broken with his 56-game hitting streak.

On this day, July 13, 1941, (a Sunday) DiMaggio got hits in both halves of a double header, collecting three hits in the opener and one in the night cap, as the New York Yankees swept the White Sox in Chicago. A crowd of 50,387  – the largest at Comisky Park in six years – saw The Yankee Clipper run his streak to 53 games. He was batting .369 for the season.

DiMag 53

The Red Sox also played a double header that day, but Ted Williams wasn’t in the lineup. He’d injured his ankle in Detroit the day before, and missed the twinbill in Cleveland. Williams was actually slumping at the time.

Having gone above .400 on May 25, and reaching a high of .436 on June 6, The Splendid Splinter needed four hits in eight a bats in a doubleheader on July 6 to reach the All-Star break still above .400 at .405. Two days later, he hit a dramatic three-run home run with two out in the bottom of the ninth to give the American League a 7-5 victory over the National League in the All-Star Game at Detroit.

All-Star

Coming off of that high, Williams went 0-for-4 in a 10-2 Red Sox victory over the Tigers when the season resumed on July 11. That dropped his average to .398. He fell to .397 after going 0-for-1 on July 12 … although he did draw three walks in that one.

The ankle injury he suffered that day kept Williams sidelined until July 16, when he went 0-for-1 as a pinch hitter. Then he sat again until July 19, when he pinch hit in both halves of a doubleheader, going 0-for-1 with a walk and watching his average fall to .393. That was as low as he would go. After singling as a pinch hitter on July 20, Williams returned to the Red Sox outfield on July 22. He had seven hits in 15 at-bats over the next four games to get back to .400 on July 25.

400

Williams never fell below .400 again, famously entering the final day of the season on September 28, 1941, with a .39955 average but refusing to sit out to protect a mark that would have rounded up to .400. He had six hits in eight at-bats in a doubleheader against the Philadelphia A’s that day and ended the season at .406.

Ted Williams also led the AL with 37 home runs in 1941, while his 120 RBIs ranked him fourth. DiMaggio finished the season third in batting at .357, fourth in homers with 30, and first in RBIs with 125. The Yankees finished the season in first place with a record of 101-53, which had them 17 games ahead of the Red Sox, who were second at 84-70. DiMaggio edged out Williams in MVP voting (the second of three times he’d win the award in his career), and the Yankees went on to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the World Series.

90 Years Ago This Week…

For a building I never set foot in (the team played its last game there shortly before I turned four) and can’t even remember seeing (it was torn down just a few months later), Maple Leaf Stadium has had a big impact on my life. It’s the place that helped create the love of sports in my mother and father (and my aunts, uncles, and older cousins) that’s been passed down to me and my brothers and on to a new generation.

Certainly my parents saw a lot more baseball games at Maple Leaf Stadium than they ever saw hockey games at Maple Leaf Gardens. I know my father’s childhood heroes were Teeder Kennedy and Max Bentley, but he was a big baseball fan too. And my mother LOVED the baseball Maple Leafs (in particular Ed Stevens during the mid 1950s). She still loves baseball and she’s the reason we still have the season’s tickets to the Blue Jays we’ve had since the moment they went on sale before the first season in 1977.

Family
My father, grandfather, and aunt in the mid 1940s. I’ve been told this
is Maple Leaf Stadium (but I think it might be Varsity Stadium)
.

The Blue Jays are celebrating their 40th season this year, but it was 90 years ago this week that Maple Leaf Stadium opened. Previously (since 1897), the baseball Maple Leafs had played at Hanlan’s Point on the Toronto Islands. Babe Ruth hit his first pro home run there, but it wasn’t the easiest place to get to.

“After years of hope deferred,” wrote Toronto Globe Sports Editor Frederick Wilson on September 5, 1925, “the baseball fans of Toronto are to see their dreams come true, and next season the Leafs will play their games in a magnificent $300,000 stadium on the mainland at the foot of Bathurst Street.” The geographic center of the city at the time, explained Wilson, was “at a point on Harbord Street, about one hundred feet west of Bathurst,” so – forgive me if you don’t know Toronto geography! – the new site was certainly more accessible than the Island.

Globe
This was the front page of an 18-page supplement The Globe ran on April 28, 1926.

Work on the grounds at Bathurst and Fleet Street (very close to what is now the Tip Top Tailor lofts near the Canadian National Exhibition grounds) began in October of 1925, and construction on the stadium began in earnest on December 2. Though it wouldn’t be completely finished at the time, Opening Day was scheduled for April 28, 1926, after the team had spent the first two weeks of the season on the road.

Sadly, it seems, the weather has not been very cooperative for the opening of Toronto baseball stadiums. The Blue Jays played at Exhibition Stadium on April 7, 1977, despite snow and freezing temperatures, and while the elements weren’t a factor in the first game at SkyDome on June 5, 1989, it was pouring rain during the official opening gala two nights earlier when organizers insisted on opening the roof anyway!

Postcard
Wikipedia claims this photo is in the public domain!
Credit is to the Bibliotheque et Archives nationals du Quebec, P547,S1,SS1,SSS8,D1.

Many dignitaries were in Toronto for the 1926 opener, including baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was given a pregame tour of the facility. “Absolutely nothing forgotten over overlooked,” Frederick Wilson quoted him as saying. “[It’s] as near perfection as it is possible to have a baseball park.” But unlike the SkyDome/Rogers Centre, it didn’t have a roof! Cold temperatures and heavy rains postponed the opener.

Torontonians of a certain age will recall Joe Crysdale on the radio, broadcasting the home games from Maple Leaf Stadium and re-creating them with telegraphed reports and sound effects when the team was on the road. For the opener in 1926, Foster Hewitt was set to call the game on Toronto Star radio station CFCA. It’s unclear whether he was there or not a day later, on April 29, 1926, when they got the game in despite a constant drizzle. Only 12,781 fans were on hand as the Maple Leafs fell behind Reading 5-0 heading into the bottom of the ninth. Those who stuck around where rewarded when Toronto rallied for five runs to tie the score, and then won the game 6-5 on a squeeze play in the bottom of the tenth. (The game, by the way, was complete in 2 hours and 15 minutes!)

Cartoon
From The Globe , Toronto, April 30, 1926.

The come-from-behind victory was a good omen. Baltimore had won the International League pennant every year from 1919 to 1925, but in 1926, Toronto had a record of 109-57 to take the league title. They then swept five straight games from Louisville of the American Association to win the best-of-nine Junior World Series. (Oh, and the weather was much nicer for the opener in 1927, and a large crowd was on hand to honor the champions, as this newsreel film shows.)

When it was built in 1925-26, state-of-the-art Maple Leaf Stadium was constructed with an eye towards housing a future Major League team. By the 1960s, Jack Kent Cooke – who then owned the baseball Maple Leafs – felt a brand new park was needed to attract the Majors, but he couldn’t convince City Council to cover the costs. The end was near. Attendance was awful despite championship seasons in 1965 and 1966, and the team was sold and transferred to Louisville after the 1967 season. The Stadium was torn down in the spring of 1968. Only the memories remain – even for those of us who inherited them.

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.