A Century of Canadian Contributions

This article was written by Richard Carletti - Jean-Guy Laberge

This article was published in 1978 Baseball Research Journal

Major league baseball is now in its 10th year in Canada, dating from the establishment of the Montreal franchise in 1969. But Canadian association with Big League baseball goes back much further. In fact, this is the 100th year that Canadians have participated at the top level, dating back to the debut of first-baseman William Phillips with the Cleveland Spiders in the National League in 1879.

From Phillips in 1879 to Terry Puhl, the current Houston outfielder, there have been more than 135 Canadians playing in the majors.  Ontario, the large southernmost province, has contributed by far the most with nearly 80, but almost all the provinces from Nova Scotia on the East Coast to British Columbia on the West, have had native sons in the major leagues. Puhl, incidentally, is from Saskatchewan.

Phillips, the pioneer player, was from New Brunswick. He played more than 1000 games in his 11 years, divided between Cleveland in the NL and Brooklyn and Kansas City in the old American Association. He compiled a .266 batting average and hit nearly 100 triples. He was a good fielder and must be considered the best-ever first-sacker of the half dozen Canadians who played that position.

Going around the infield, we find two contemporary “good field, no-hit” players at second and short. Charles “Pop” Smith of Nova Scotia came up with Cincinnati in 1880 and spent a dozen years in the Big Time. He played the majority of his nearly 1100 games at second base. Arthur “Doc” Irwin (1880-91) appeared in almost 1000 games at shortstop and had no challengers at that spot. He was one-half of Canada’s first brother-combination, the other half being John Irwin who played with seven teams in four different leagues between 1882 and 1891.

Of the nine Canadian nationals who manned the hot corner, Frank O’Rourke (1912-31) and Pete Ward (1962-70) stood out.  O’Rourke started in the National League, but the bulk of his 14 years was spent with the Senators, Red Sox, Tigers, and Browns of the Junior Circuit. Ward, born in Quebec, was the Sporting News Rookie of the Year in the AL in 1963 when he was with the White Sox. Both O’Rourke and Ward had a lifetime .254 batting average, but Ward hit with more power.

Before you get the idea that all Canadian players have low batting averages, let us move on to the outfield. James “Tip” O’Neill played 10 years in the NL, the AA, and the Players League of 1890. His biggest years were with St. Louis in the AA, which he led in batting in 1887 and 1888. His 1887 season was “one for the books.” He batted .435, a major league mark edged only by Hugh Duffy’s .438 in 1894.  He scored 167 runs and had 225 hits in only 124 games. More importantly, he was the only major league player to lead his league in doubles (52), triples (tied at 19), and home runs (14) in the same season. His lifetime batting average was .326, easily the best among Canadians.

Another good batter among the outfielders was Jeff Heath, the only American League player ever to hit 20 or more doubles, triples, and homers in the same season. It was 1941 with Cleveland, when he also batted .340 and knocked in 123 runs. He hit .343 in 1938, when he also led in triples with 18. Heath tops all Canadians in career doubles with 279, triples 102, and homers 194. He also was the only player to have a lifetime slugging average over .500. His career was curtailed by a broken leg which he suffered with the Boston Braves shortly before their World Series clash with his former mates at Cleveland in 1948. He wasn’t able to play much the next season, his final year.

George “Twinkletoes” Selkirk was the player who took over Babe Ruth’s outfield position on the Yankees in 1935. He spent nine years with the Bombers, and they were World Champs five of those years. He finished with a .290 batting average and twice batted in more than 100 runs. Goody Rosen had a shorter career with the Giants and Dodgers but did have one outstanding season, in 1945, when he batted .325 and scored 126 runs.

Outfielder Jack Graney was the Canadian who played the most games in the majors, 1402. He came up with Cleveland first as a pitcher in 1908, and then from 1910 to 1922 he played the garden. He tied teammate Tris Speaker for the AL lead in doubles in 1916 and topped the circuit in walks in 1917 and 1919. Graney had a long post-playing career as a broadcaster of Indian games and died early in 1978 at the age of 91. Of the more than 135 Canadian-born players, only Gene Ford, older brother of Russ Ford, got to be older. He was 92 when he died in 1973.

  George “Moon” Gibson is the best of the Canadian-born catchers.  He was behind the plate in 1196 games in the first two decades of this century, mostly for the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the three years from 1908-10 George was truly a workhorse. He caught 436 games of the 459 that the Pirates played in that span.

If another catcher were to be recognized, it would have to be Nig Clarke who went up to stay in 1905 and played in the American League, mostly with Cleveland, through 1911. He returned for a few games in the National League in 19 19-20. Nig is the subject of one of the more interesting vignettes of baseball. On June 15, 1902, playing for Corsicana of the Texas League, he hit EIGHT home runs in as many times at bat. The final score was a 51-3 win over Texarkana. The wind was obviously blowing out that day but, apparently, only when Corsicana was at bat. Clarke’s teammates added eight more homers while Texarkana came up empty. To add to the improbability of Clarke’s record feat, Nig could count no more than six homers among his 390 major league career hits.

Now, all that is needed to complete that team is a pitching staff.  Canada is top-heavy with hurlers with no fewer than 66 on the list.  However, a number appeared in only a few games and some others are much better remembered for their play at other positions.

The greatest pitcher that Canada ever produced has to be Ferguson Jenkins from Chatham, Ontario. Not only is he the top pitcher but, without real challenge, he’s the best ball player from what we might call the northern half of North America. His statistics through 1977 are very impressive: a 213-160 won-lost record; seven seasons of 20 or more wins; the ability to go the distance, a rare commodity these days, (through 1977 Fergie showed 212 complete games for his 402 ML starts); and an imposing ratio of strikeouts to walks (2449-669). And, in the early going in 1978 he’s still going great guns for the Texas Rangers. So much for the ace of that imaginary pitching staff.

Another starter would have to be Russ Ford of Manitoba, who spent five years with the New York Highlanders (Yankees) and two more in the Federal League. Ford won 98 and lost 71 during a period when the Yankees were generally found in the second division of the American League. He was 26-6 with New York in 1910, with 8 shutouts and an ERA of 1.65. He had 32 complete games in 1912, and in 1914 was the top percentage pitcher in the Federal League with a 20-6 record at Buffalo.

Phil Marchildon and Dick Fowler were pitching teammates with the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1 940s when that club was one of the most futile in the American League. Both lost several years to military service in World War II and their won-lost records are not outwardly impressive. Marchildon, who won 19 games for the fifth-place A’s in 1947, ended at 68-75. Fowler, who pitched a no-hit, no-run game September 9, 1945, the only Canadian to do so, ended at 66-79.

The fifth starter must be Reggie Cleveland of Swift Current, Saskatchewan, who had won 86 games and dropped 81 through 1977. He is now with the Texas Rangers.

Relief pitching would be this team’s forte. John Hiller, now in his 13th season with Detroit, is still going strong and is recognized as one of the best in the business. Working in 65 games in 1973 he had an ERA of 1.44 and set the major league record with 38 saves. The next season he set the American League mark with 17 relief wins.

Ron Taylor has pitched in the most games, 491, although this total was being approached by both Jenkins and Hiller in 1978. Taylor had pitched most of his games in relief for the Cardinals and Mets. He pitched in four World Series games in 1964 and 1969 and in 7 innings of relief never gave up a hit or a run. Claude Raymond of Quebec was a good steady rescue hurler in his 12 years in both leagues.  He concluded his career, appropriately, with Montreal in 1969-71.

To highlight the emphasis on Canadian-born pitchers, it would be appropriate to mention a recent happening with the country’s entry in the American League, the Toronto Blue Jays. In three successive games from June 17 to 20, 1978, the Blue Jays were defeated by Ferguson Jenkins of Texas, Reggie Cleveland of Texas (in relief), and John Hiller of Detroit (in relief), all native sons pitching for the opposition.

If a manager is needed for this mythical team of the last 100 years, three experienced skippers are available. Arthur Irwin led teams for eight seasons in the closing decade of the 19th century. He won 510 games and lost 594. Bill Watkins, a contemporary, had a 564-595 record with five teams. However, George Gibson, the catcher on this team, would probably be the logical choice to lead the all-Canadian squadron. He was the Pittsburgh head man 1922-24 and 1932-34 and bossed the Cubs for the last part of the 1925 season. He had a winning record of 413-344.

And if an umpire is needed, it would have to be Robert Emslie of Guelph, Ontario, who officiated in the National League from 1891 to 1924. He had been a pitcher in the AA for three years and did have one outstanding season. Hurling for Baltimore in 1884 he won 32 games and lost 17. Starting 50 games, he completed every one of them.  No need for a Hiller, a Ron Taylor, or a Claude Raymond in those days.

So there you have it-Canada’s contribution to major league baseball. The all-star team probably could not defeat a similar aggregation from Latin America, where baseball is a year-round activity. But in spite of its northern climate and its logical emphasis on winter sports, Canada is still proud of what it has contributed to the national pastime in the last 100 years.