By Dan Rankin
Seated at tables situated around St. Marys Golf and Country Club’s event hall last Saturday morning were lifelong baseball fans from as far away as Oshawa, Niagara Falls and Ottawa. Through until Sunday afternoon, they were rubbing elbows and talking sports with professors from such institutions as Western University and the University of Toronto, respected sports journalists and, of course, representatives from the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
Organized by Andrew North of St. Marys and his friend and fellow Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) member Brian Marshall, what they hope will be St. Marys’ first annual Canadian Baseball History Conference attracted 65 registered attendees. Besides being gathered in St. Marys to celebrate Canadian baseball last weekend, what else did they have in common? Well, an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball history dating back over 100 years, for starters. More than a few were also bilingual, decked out in their Expos gear and hopeful that one day Youppi! the mascot would return to dancing on dugouts in Montreal. They were also well-travelled, and could be heard debating the merits of Arizona’s ‘cactus league’ versus the spring training experience in Florida.
Ben DePetris, 14, was the youngest conference attendee, coming to St. Marys with his father Rob from Niagara Falls. On the older end of the spectrum was Oshawa’s John Charette, who took advantage of one break in the schedule to reach out to other conference attendees who might have information about players in an old defunct Quebec baseball league. Charette’s grandfather, who died in 1956 when he was still a young boy, had played baseball in Quebec with the late Ray Fisher, a member of the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame and a World Series champion in 1919.
These are the types of baseball fans that take time off work to schedule a trip here to St. Marys especially to visit our Hall of Fame – and not just to take a tour of the museum. As demonstrated by the more than a dozen presentations given Saturday and Sunday, the field of historical baseball research is alive and well and has, perhaps, been under-served in St. Marys up until now.
Giving the opening presentation Saturday was U of T Kinesiology professor John Cairney, who has become an expert on a phenomenon that was largely unknown to many of the diehard baseball fans gathered for the conference: the immaculate inning. Such an event occurs when a pitcher strikes out three batters in an inning by throwing exactly nine pitches. Many of the usual suspects have pitched such an inning, said Cairney, including Sandy Koufax (three times), Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson (twice each). Two Blue Jays pitchers have achieved the feat Cairney called more rare than a no-hitter: Steve Delabar and Roger Clemens. Rich Harden of Victoria, B.C. became the only Canadian to pitch an immaculate inning on June 8, 2008.
Presenters Bill Young and John Lutz lectured on Vincent Churchill “Manny” McIntyre (1918-2011), a Canadian multi-sport athlete from New Brunswick. Though more known for his exploits on the ice as a member of the “Black Aces,” the first all-black line in professional hockey with brothers Ossie and Herb Carnegie, McIntyre is also considered the first black Canadian to play professional baseball. Throughout his career which saw him play across the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario, McIntyre was not only regularly the first black player to ever play on teams, but sometimes the first in whole leagues. Other presentations focused on notable Canadians active in the 1800s including the glove-using pioneer Arthur Irwin, of Toronto, and Woodstock’s James ‘Tip’ O’Neill, who became a batting champion in St. Louis in 1887.
One of the most popular events of the conference was a panel featuring authours and historians Bob Barney, Bill Humber and Brian ‘Chip’ Martin and moderated by London Free Press editor David Langford. Their discussion dealt with the facts and fiction associated with Beachville, Ontario’s claim to being the site of the first ever recorded game of baseball on June 4, 1838.
Beachville’s claim originates from a letter written by former St. Marys mayor Dr. Adam E. Ford to Sporting Life magazine in 1886, recalling a game he’d witnessed in Beachville 48 years earlier. The game they played on that day was very similar to baseball, but not quite the sport we know today. For instance, there were five bases including home plate, and runners were ruled out when they were struck by the ball after it had been recovered and thrown at them by the fielders. Evidence in favour of Ford’s game actually taking place includes the fact that names mentioned in his letter turn up in tax and government documents from the period. The panellists tended to agree that the Beachville game is the first recorded game of baseball – or, at least, the most thorough description of such an early game – but none argued in favour of the game having been in invented in Beachville, or even in Canada.
Many of the players taking part in the1838 game in Beachville were U.S. immigrants who had arrived in southwestern Ontario either as loyalists to the crown or who still intended to migrate further west, they said. So, it’s possible the game was already being played in the American northeast or even Atlantic Canada before it reached Ontario. However, outside of passing mentions in journals and poetry from the era, no real evidence exists. It’s even possible an early style of baseball was first played in England, particularly on anniversaries commemorating George III’s birthday, June 4, they said. The experts also unanimously agreed that the creation myth adhered to by many in the United States – that Civil War general Abner Doubleday invented the game in Elihu Phinney’s cow pasture in Cooperstown, New York in 1839 – was hooey.
They said it was unlikely that Beachville would ever receive much recognition from the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, however, according to Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame director of operations Scott Crawford, the relationship between St. Marys and Cooperstown has continued to grow over the years. “Cooperstown president Jeff Idelson came to this year’s induction ceremony in St. Marys for the first time,” he said. “It’s a great relationship. They help us when we need help and one day we’ll be able to help them a lot more as well.”
On Saturday afternoon, conference attendees took a bus ride to the Hall of Fame and were given a tour of the grounds by Crawford, who has been employed by the Hall for 17 years.
“In 1999 I started volunteering at the induction ceremony,” he said. “I got to watch the silent auction. Then I gave tours all summer, driving from Georgetown and giving tours on the weekends because I love baseball and I wanted to work here. I get a lot of kids who want to help and volunteer and I say, ‘hey, you’ve got to start volunteering if it’s what you love to do.’ That’s what I did and now I have the best job in the world.”
More than a few conference attendees seemed keen to attend next year’s induction ceremony, which is scheduled for June 24, 2017.
The following day, the conference resumed with a presentation by David Morneau, chair of the Hall’s outreach committee, on the future plans for the Hall of Fame. “What I’ve noticed in the last day is the energy and the passion in this room,” he said. “If we can harness this and put this altogether, this is going to be one hell of a place.”
He admitted that the time to upgrade the Hall’s museum was overdue. “It’s small. It’s dated. I love it, and I tell people it’s uniquely Canadian, but it’s time for something else,” he said. Morneau outlined the highlights of the Strategic Master Plan released by the Hall earlier this year, including a new, larger museum, complete with a lecture hall and more gallery space, located on the hill overlooking Water Street, and a new pavilion with bathrooms/changerooms and a food booth in the centre of the diamond complex.
Capital costs and transition costs for the plan amount to $6.36 million, he said. Based on recommendations to approach the local municipal government before turning to the provincial or federal government, Hall of Fame representatives presented their plan to St. Marys Town Council in February. The ask was for a one-time capital contribution of $550,000 and then annual core funding of $150,000, Morneau explained. Since that time, the Town prepared an independent report of its own examining the Hall’s strategic plan. “The independent report has been completed,” Morneau said. “We’re hoping it can be reviewed by Nov. 18 and then they will have a special public meeting to discuss it.”
Morneau encouraged everyone interested in growing the Hall of Fame to attend that meeting, and promised to spread the word when a meeting date is released. “The more support we have, the better,” he said. “We want the town to see that there is a body of public support. Baseball has a rich and proud tradition in Canada, but we hold the key to the future.”