Gil McDougald: Out of Somewhere
It’s March, 1952, and on the cover of SPORT magazine – America’s premier sports publication at the time – is Gil McDougald of the New York Yankees. Sorry, who? Yes, there’s a long list of Yankees legends you’d recognize from the first half of the 20th century, but Gil McDougald probably isn’t one of them. McDougald was a defence-first player (.975 career fielding percentage), originally from San Francisco, that played all of his ten Major League seasons with the Yankees. He won five World Series during that time, was a six-time All-Star, and won Rookie of the Year in ‘51. A career to be proud of, no doubt, but it wasn’t enough to get McDougald into the Yankees’ Monument Park, nor Cooperstown. He’s best known for coming “from out of nowhere,” as SPORT put it, to win that RotY award, and for hitting pitcher Herb Score right in the eye with a line-drive (unintentionally, of course). Score would recover, thankfully, so the lasting memory we have of McDougald is rightfully that ‘51 season. The Yankees had won the World Series in three of the last four seasons prior to McDougald joining the team, and had five future Hall of Famers on the roster: Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Johnny Mize, and Mickey Mantle. The Mick was also a rookie that season. So for McDougald to make the impact he did – .306 batting average (the only Yankee to hit .300 or better), 63 RBIs, and 72 runs – was no small feat. McDougald had an unusual batting stance. He would start by standing with his front foot out pointing towards the pitcher, completely open, with the bat parallel to the ground and his head tilted to one side. It would come together a bit as he swung, but you can’t blame folks for assuming this ugly duckling wouldn’t be able to hit big-league pitching. But did he come "from out of nowhere?” Well, I for one will argue that just isn’t true. On his way to New York, Gil McDougald played ball in Victoria, BC! From 1946 to 1951, Victoria was home to the Western International League “Athletics.” The Athletics played at Royal Athletic Park (which today is still in operation and plays home to the Victoria HarbourCats, a summer-collegiate team), and were a Yankees minor league affiliate from 1947-49. McDougald spent the ‘49 season with the Athletics. While the stats from that season are incomplete, we know McDougald hit .344 with 13 homers. He actually had very consistent power numbers, hitting at least ten round-trippers a season for ten-straight seasons. Only in his last two years did he drop below that. Not bad for a shortstop of that time. As it happens, one of The SPORT Gallery’s own alumnus, Ian Brackman, has a connection to the Victoria Athletics: his grandfather was an ardent supporter and one-time batboy. In one of his old programs from the '49 season, there is mention of McDougald. It says the infielder was named “most outstanding rookie” for his first season of professional baseball, in 1948, with Twin Falls. He was also voted “the player most likely to reach the major leagues.” Aha! So, while we can forgive SPORT for their claim – anyone would have seemed “from out of nowhere” compared to Mickey Mantle, one of the more natural ballplayers that ever was – they should have done better research. Those who watched McDougald knew he was bound for greatness. And he did come from somewhere... Vancouver Island!
Who Were They? The Toronto Maple Leafs Baseball Club
We all know the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of hockey's Original Six franchises. They haven't won the Stanley Cup in a while, but they're still an iconic team with an incredibly dedicated fanbase. Even the average joe could point out their famous blue and white leaf logo from a crowd. What many don't know is that there was another team in the city called the Maple Leafs, and they date back way earlier, to the 19th century. This team played a different game; not hockey, but baseball. The Leafs baseball club were a minor league team, playing in the International League for their entire history (1896-1967). The Leafs aren't as well known as some other minor league teams, like the Montreal Royals for example. The Royals were the team that Jackie Robinson broke in with before being promoted to the Dodgers, so they have a bit more cultural cachet. The two teams actually played in the same league and went head-to-head in the finals of 1943, '52, and '58, with Montreal taking two out of three. Though the Royals had their rival's number both on and off the field, the Leafs do have a few stories to tell. Before moving into Maple Leaf Stadium, where they spent most of their history, the Leafs played at Hanlon's Point on Toronto's Centre Island. And in 1914, that would be where Babe Ruth hit is very first professional dinger. Because the Bambino, then with the Providence Grays, was focusing on pitching at that time, it would be his only minor league home run. He would go on to hit a few more in the majors, though. Hitting fast forward, the Leafs had coaching legend Sparky Anderson on their side as both player and manager in the 1960s. He would go on to lead the Reds to back-to-back World Series titles in 1975 and '76, and won with the Tigers in '84 as well. Other notable players for the Leafs were Elston Howard, who went on to have a good career catching for the Yankees, and Al Cicotte, the great-grandnephew of one of the infamous "Black Sox," Eddie Cicotte. The Leafs even got their own Jackie Robinson moment, though it was brief; number 42 donned their uniform for a media event at Maple Leaf Stadium in 1962. There is photo evidence of this, though Robinson doesn't look particularly pleased about the experience. Perhaps he felt like he was cheating on the Royals! Despite a high level of play and some notable names coming through, the Leafs struggled for attendance in the '60s, mostly due to the increasing age of Maple Leaf Stadium. With costly renovations needed, ownership instead decided to sell the team to an American businessman, who moved the team to Louisville after the 1967 season. Toronto would not be without baseball for long, however, getting the Major League Blue Jays ten years later.
Who Were They? The Montreal Royals
When you think of baseball in Canada it is safe to guess that the Toronto Blue Jays come to mind. The Jays were the first Major League team outside of the United States to win the World Series, which they did in 1992 and 1993. This cemented their place in the hearts of Canadians everywhere. They wear the maple leaf on their hats and shirts, and brand themselves as "Canada's team." This title rings true as the Jays are now the only team north of the border, and all 162 of their games are broadcasted nationally on TV and the radio. But the Jays aren't the beginning and end of baseball in Canada. You may also think of the Montreal Expos. Sadly, the Expos moved away to Washington D.C. in 2004 and became the Nationals. Montreal's MLB franchise was actually the first of it's kind in Canada, coming into the Majors in 1969 – they Jays weren't born until 1977. They never won a World Series title but had a number of great teams, and it's widely thought that had the 1994 season not been cut short by a labour strike, the Expos would have won it all. The Expos have a sort of cult following, partially due to their quirks: they belonged to a french-speaking city, played in the unconventional Olympic Stadium, and had a wacky logo and uniforms. No team had worn a "pinwheel" hat before in the Majors, and it took some convincing to get people to believe that their cap actually did have an "M" on it. The Expos also had great, easy-to-love players, such as Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Dennis Martinez, and Gary Carter. Guys that hustled and played with a smile on their faces. The thing is, though – you can't stop at the Jays and Expos... Baseball in Canada is much more than that. The country has a long history of minor league, semi-pro, and, of course, amateur ball. Every major hub from east to west has some dirt-covered baseball story to be told, but for the sake of time, we're going to stick with Montreal right now. Not with the Expos, but with the other big club that has called the city home: the Royals, a professional minor league franchise that played from 1897 to 1917, and from 1928 to 1960. The Royals were part of the International League during that second period, between 1928 and 1960, serving as an affiliate to three Major League clubs – the Philadelphia A's, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers – though the bulk being with one team, the Dodgers. This relationship lasted 21 years over two class designations, AA and AAA. The Royals, who played out of Delorimier Stadium, borrowed the Dodgers look, donning blue accents and a flowy, cursive script. And it was the Royals' relationship with the Dodgers that ensured the team would be widely remembered. In 1946, Branch Rickey, President and GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract. This made Robinson the first black man to be part of a MLB-affiliated roster, breaking the unofficial, but thoroughly enforced, colour barrier. He was a sensation in Montreal from the start, winning the fans' hearts with a hot bat and daring base stealing. In his one season with the Royals Robinson hit .349 with 113 runs and a whopping 40 stolen bases. That year Robinson would guide the Royals to 100 wins and a 1st-place IL finish, and to a Junior World Series victory against the Kansas City Blues of the American Association. Clearly ready for a shot at a Major League roster, off he went to the Dodgers pre-season camp in 1947. It's famously noted that Royals fans chased Robinson to the train station – described thusly by Sam Maltin, a freelancer writing for the Pittsburgh Courier: "It was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on its mind." The Royals would continue to have success after Robinson's departure, winning five more IL titles before 1960. They won an all-Canadian showdown against the Toronto Maple Leafs to grab their final trophy, in 1958. Despite this success the Royals struggled to keep attendance up in the later years. In 1960 the Dodgers, now two years into their LA adventure, decided to cut ties with Montreal. This was the death knell – the Royals packed up and moved to Syracuse for the 1961 season. While professional baseball has come and gone in Montreal, the legacy of the Royals and their 1946 season remains. They are part of baseball history, Canadian or otherwise. Jackie Robinson changed the game forever, and that journey started in Montreal.
Lefty O'Doul and the Mounties
In 1956 big-time baseball arrived in Vancouver. That's not to say the game wasn't being played here prior – there's a few great local stories to be told, like the rise of the Japanese-Canadian Asahi ball club, or Babe Ruth playing at old Athletic Park. But before 1956 baseball in Vancouver was all semi-pro. The Mounties, part of the Pacific Coast League, were a step above. The PCL brass were actually intent on becoming a "major league" and challenging Major League Baseball itself. That was until the Dodgers and Giants franchises moved west from New York to California, absorbing the market the PCL had previously controlled. Anyway, the left coast league didn't die, instead transforming into a feeder minor league affiliated with MLB. The PCL – and therefore the Mounties – became AAA ball in 1958. In the Mounties Vancouverites got a taste of what real ballplayers could do. The lovely Nat Bailey Stadium (then called Capilano Stadium) was the scene – as it still is for pro ball – one of the prettiest minor league parks around. The Mounties also had a former Major Leaguer at the helm, the well-loved Lefty O'Doul, a lifetime .349 hitter. Lefty was an affable, gregarious man that served as an unofficial ambassador for the game wherever he went. He was particularly popular in San Francisco, his home town, and in Japan, where he toured with the aforementioned Ruth. Unfortunately, Lefty wasn't able to produce any significant results as manager (the team finished in 8th place), but he did have a stand-out moment at the plate. Yes, that's right, Lefty O'Doul made an appearance as player-manager. He stood in for a single at-bat – at age 59 – and hit a triple! It would be his first and only on-field appearance for the Mounties, and also his last professional at-bat. It's a great trivia tidbit.