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.
Throwing it Back to 1982
Tonight Washington D.C. hosts the Midsummer Classic. It's the first time the capitol city has entertained baseball's All-Stars since 1969, back when the old Senators were around. The Nationals are actually a separate franchise from the Sens, who now exist as the Twins; the last time the Nationals hosted they were known as the Expos, and Montréal was the host city. It's all a bit confusing, but the point of the matter is this: Nationals Park being the site of the 2018 All-Star Game allows us to celebrate Canada's first turn at hosting, the 1982 "Partie D'Étoiles." 59,057 people crammed into the Olympic Stadium on July 13, 1982 to witness the best of the National League and American League do battle. The bench bosses were Billy Martin of the A's and Tommy Lasorda of the Dodgers. In terms of entertainment value, that's one of the better manager match ups; Martin and Lasorda are both known for being animated and outlandish. The player selections were full of characters, as well. The American League had names like George Brett and Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage. For the National League, there was the likes of Pete Rose, Andre Dawson, Phil Niekro, and Fernando Valenzuela. That's just to name a few. The game is not known for any particular plays or an exciting finish. The home team won 4-1 – Dave Conepcion hit a two-run homer and Jackson and Rose tacked on a sacrifice fly each. This is kind of the issue with baseball: it's not so easy to deliver a bloated scoreline on demand like you can with basketball or hockey. Other sports can just ignore defence, but in baseball the defence holds the ball. It's unique that way. And it's why, for a number of years, the winning league of the MLB All-Star game earned home field advantage in the World Series; this created drama, the thought went. It was only last year that Commissioner Rob Manfred did away with Bud Selig's 2003 ruling to make Major League Baseball akin with other major North American leagues. The real action of All-Star weekend has become the Home Run Derby. The Derby gives you that gratuitous offence fans want in a best-of-the-best showcase. It's a relatively new feature, debuting in 1985, so unfortunately those in Montréal did not get to witness guys like Jackson and Dawson slugging them out to the bleachers. This year the Derby did not disappoint as hometown hero Bryce Harper hit 9-straight dingers in the final few seconds to win it. The fans were going nuts, celebrating as if it were a key match-up in October. We'll see what the game has in store for us this evening, but if it's close to last night we're in for a Partie. Shop the 1982 Authentic Replica Gary Carter jersey here!
True to the Blue: Jays Fans Invade Seattle
It's become tradition for West Coast-based fans of the Blue Jays to head down from B.C. and Alberta to Safeco Field for the team's yearly series in Seattle. Watch the broadcast and you'll find it hard to pin down the game's locale. Jays fans take over. Though the Mariners' slogan has been "True to the Blue" as of late, it's not their navy but the Jays' royal blue that permeates the ground on these three days of summer. The scene is set... “Hey, Steve, who’s ballpark is this anyway?” “You know what, Tom, at this point I couldn’t even tell ya. Attendance today has got to be 50/50. At least. I’d say more of ’em.” “And the team shop? — ridiculous.” “Huh?” “You haven’t seen?! Man, they’ve got Toronto stuff in there!” “Jeeeez” “It’s embarrassing, really.” “I guess you can’t blame the club, they’re making money. Tickets, merch. That’s what they’re in it for. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em sorta thing.” “I guess… I dunno, I just think you’ve got to do a better job getting fans out — make it a thing: ‘protect our home park’.” “Sure, sure.” Crowd chanting: “Let’s go Mariners!” “LET’S GO BLUE JAYS!” “Let’s go Mariners!” “LET’S GO BLUE JAYS!” “See, these damn Canadians are way louder. We’re getting drowned out here.” “We oughta write the club a letter, give ‘em a piece of our minds. How long have we been coming to games now? 25-30 Years?” “Kingdome, Steve.” “Those were the days… Sweet Lou, The Kid, Edgar, Tino. Beatin’ the Yanks in the Division Series. The park stunk…” “–Brutal.” “…but it was ours. Then 2001, 116 wins. Good times, my friend, good times. I tell ya, if I had one wish...” “–Hey gents, sorry to interrupt, but we couldn’t help but overhear ya.” “Uh oh, here we go.” “No, no, we actually want to thank you M’s fans, for your hospitality. Living so far from the Jays, we really appreciate gettin’ to come down here once a year.” “Where you guys from, Vancouver?” “Yep” “So what gives, we’re a heck of a lot closer than Toronto. Why don’t we get any love from you folks.” “Canada’s team, man!” “Yeah, yeah. Cough, bandwagon, cough” “Really, though, the whole country gets behind the Jays. Anyway, thanks for havin’ us… we appreciate that it's a friendly rivalry.” “Don’t even get me started. Listen, you’re welcome and all, but it’s frustrating on our end, giving up the home field so easily. This is our park.” “I feel that. Just the way it is at this point, I guess.” “Well, Tom, at least we can agree on one thing with these guys: beer. Am I right? “Cheers to that, eh!” “Cheers. Tom…?” “Fine, cheers, boys.”