Lester Pearson

First Base Among Equals: Prime Ministers and Canada’s National Game

This article was written by Stephen Dame

This article was published in the Spring 2020 Baseball Research Journal


Lester PearsonIt could be argued that the most famous sentence ever written by a Canadian author is W.P. Kinsella’s, “If you build it, he will come.” That ghostly utterance may only be matched by Christina McCall and Stephen Clarkson’s equally phantomic line about Pierre Trudeau: “he haunts us still.” Being interested in both political and baseball history, I find myself exploring the relationship between Canada’s first ministers and our first national game. That’s right, from our earliest days — until cheap and reliable indoor refrigeration changed how we ate and played sports — baseball was referred to as Canada’s national game.

Canada’s baseball historian Bill Humber has made this point repeatedly in print and various public presentations.1 The Globe called baseball our national game during the summer of 1891.2 University of Windsor Professor Craig Greenham wrote that during the period before the First World War, “baseball was the game of import in Canada — not the British game of cricket nor the Native Canadian game of Lacrosse.”3 A baseball-playing soldier in the First World War explained in a trench newsletter that he was thrilled to be “playing the national game behind the lines in France.” Baseball, our original national game, has been an everyday part of outdoor life in Canada since at least the 1830s and probably long before. So, it makes perfect sense that the people running for Canada’s highest office have tossed ceremonial pitches, crashed Little League championships, and been depicted both striking out and going deep in a century’s worth of editorial cartoons. The story of baseball and Canadian prime ministers is rich with adventure and anecdote.

We should start at the beginning. The origins of baseball are, of course, misty and indistinct. Starting at the beginning of Canadian prime ministers is a clearer course. Baseball, though ubiquitous in Confederation-era Canada, was not loved by all. Shortly after John Alexander Macdonald became Canada’s first prime minister in 1867, the Ottawa Journal looked down its nose at the game. “Baseball is not played in centres of civilisation and art,” the paper opined, “but in remote Ontario towns, it is still played. With the opening up of colonization roads, it is supposed the people of those parts will become more civilized and gradually be divorced from their rude pastimes.”4 It was probably best not to mention divorce around Canada’s fourth PM, John Thompson. As a converted Catholic, he was quite devout and madly in love with his progressive and vigorous wife, Annie. When the couple decided to vacation in Ontario’s Muskoka region during the summer of 1894, Thompson became the first Prime Minister to witness a baseball game while in office. Two teams of sportsmen representing Barrie and Orillia played games of lacrosse and baseball as part of the annual Bracebridge Picnic. 5 The Thompsons watched the lacrosse game in full, but left the baseball game early, one presumes, to beat the traffic.6

In October 1899, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier traveled via rail to the Windy City as US President McKinley’s guest of honor. Laurier was feted in the streets during a city-wide parade. The Chicago Tribune noted “the fact that Sir Wilfird’s carriage, like that of President McKinley’s, was drawn by four horses, while each of the others had but two, was notice to the crowds that he was someone of special prominence.”7 The parade concluded at the West Side Park grandstand. The Chicago Orphans played a doubleheader that day. “Sir Wilfrid Laurier, to quote from the baseball reporter, made an excellent impression upon the grandstand, and was compelled frequently to doff his hat.”8

Laurier later made history as the first prime minister to throw a ceremonial first pitch. Travelling to Red Deer, Alberta, as part of a pre-election tour of the west, Sir Wilfrid was invited to toss the ball before a game between Red Deer and Alix on August 12, 1910. “I thank God that I am in perfect health,” he said from the mound. “I don’t know that I have ever felt better in my life.”9 He may have felt better blowing a heater past an unsuspecting batter the following summer. While touring Nova Scotia during the 1911 election campaign, Laurier arrived at Stellerton. Baseball clubs there were engaged in “a life and death struggle for the baseball championship of Pictou County”10 when Laurier and his finance minister William Fielding arrived at the diamond. The ballplayers urged Laurier to throw a pitch. “With a hearty laugh, the PM consented, thereby rendering eighteen men supremely happy.” 11 Laurier asked Fielding to be his catcher, and had a batter dig into the box. “Sir Wilfrid knew where to stand too, having pitched a ball at one of the games in the west on his trip out there. Laurier didn’t wind up and his pitch looked curiously easy. Even still, the batter missed it by five feet.”12 Thus Wilfrid Laurier retired from organized baseball with his balls to strikes percentage sitting firmly at 100% strikes.

Prime Minister Robert Borden, elected in 1911, watched Canadian soldiers play baseball in France during the First World War. When he witnessed the Canadian Corps championship in a specially constructed stadium packed with 70,000 army enthusiasts, he told the Toronto Globe that it was “the greatest day of his life.”13 Back home, he and Laurier put aside their political differences when they sat together on Parliament Hill and watched the annual Parliamentary Press Gallery vs. Members of Parliament softball game. Author Allan Levine explained that, “after only three innings the journalists were losing 33 to 7 and the game was called for cocktails.”14

William Lyon Mackenzie King, prime minister for more than two decades, often used baseball as a drawing card for his political rallies and picnics.15 In 1925, nearing the end of his first term, he spoke at a “mammoth picnic” between games of baseball being played at Richmond Hill, Ontario. He even used the opportunity to announce the date of the next federal election.16 In 1926, amid rumors of a Canadian entry into the senior circuit (just 43 years premature), Prime Minister King was invited to address the National League Golden Jubilee Dinner.

One year after he took office, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker took part in the 1958 Parliamentary Security Service vs. Members of Parliament game on The Hill. The Chief played catcher while Governor General Roland Michener pitched. The executive battery prepared for the debut of a fearsome batter from Toronto, the Leader of the Opposition, Lester Pearson. Pearson was a ringer, having played semi-pro baseball in Guelph before moving on to more mundane pursuits such as winning the Nobel Peace Prize. His Excellency tossed a ball so far outside the strike zone that Diefenbaker could not corral it. But Pearson swung like a screen door and missed by a country kilometre. Dief howled with laughter, while Lester B demanded the Vice Regal throw him another, more hittable, pitch. Michener obliged and Pearson smacked the ball well out into the Parliamentary lawn. The game itself, won 13-5 by the M.P.’s, was more of a farcical than hard-fought affair. The Ottawa Citizen described the scene thus: “the security staffers, most viewers agreed, had six men on the bases when M.P. Warner Jorgenson caught an infield fly while resting flat on his back. The six or so runners scampered in all directions, the M.P.’s peppered the ball from base to base to base and umpire M.P. Murdo Martin shut his eyes in horror. There were cries of ‘Order, Mr. Speaker!’ and several requests for a new federal election.”17

New elections would be called of course, and in 1963, victory belonged to a ballplayer. No politician ever made baseball a more successful part of their political brand than did former second baseman Lester Pearson, whose escapades are detailed in the article that begins on page ___. He made scheduled and unscheduled campaign stops at Little League games during all of his election tours. When asked about what he felt was his greatest contribution to Canada while serving in the First World War, he answered, “my home run at Bramshott (base) which helped defeat a team of Americans.”18 He stopped his campaign caravan in Kingston, Ontario, when he spotted a group of boys playing a game in the yard at St. Patrick’s Catholic School. As reported by the Toronto Daily Star, “The Liberal leader showed some of the old diamond ability as he got ahold of a pitch. It proved to be one of the most heart-warming receptions of his election tour. When he turned to leave he was given a burst of applause by the children.”19 In Winnipeg, a reporter noted how Pearson’s speeches were peppered with references to his baseball past. “All through his tour so far, Mr. Pearson has been dogged by snide references to his party’s record during its 23 years as the government. Mr. Pearson’s experience in handling difficult questions at international councils and his youthful experience as a baseball player (to which he frequently refers) stands him well in these instances.”20

Pierre Trudeau took over from Pearson, becoming prime minister in the spring of 1968. Trudeau’s father Charles had been an owner of the Montreal Royals three decades earlier. Pierre’s son Justin once explained his father’s attachment to the game. “Baseball was his sport and it was really important for him to bring us to games,” he told author Jonah Keri. “As a kid, it was one of those things that he had bonded with his dad over. Baseball was all part of family lore for us. So for my father, baseball was really important.” 21 Pierre Trudeau took his sons to Exhibition Stadium in Toronto in April of 1978. After the prime minister threw out the first pitch, the Trudeau clan watched the Blue Jays beat the White Sox and then ventured into the Jays clubhouse. Blue Jays manager Roy Hartsfield hid a bottle of beer under his desk. The rest of the team were not so concerned about exposing the children to vice. One of the Jays gifted 6-year-old Justin his very own pack of chewing tobacco.22 A year later, outside the same stadium, the Toronto Star asked departing fans if they had heard of Trudeau’s political rival Joe Clark. “No,” answered one fan, “does he play for the Blue Jays?”23 Before his retirement, Pierre Trudeau addressed baseball executives at the Commissioner’s luncheon that proceeded the All-Star Game at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. The PM confessed, “it’s tough to be a prime minister in a country when you know Gary Carter could be elected tomorrow. There are 24 million people in Canada. Most of them are Expo fans, the rest go around lighting candles for the Blue Jays.24

By the time those Blue Jays’ prayers were answered, Brian Mulroney was prime minister, having won the job in 1984. He and US President George H.W. Bush had jointly thrown the ceremonial first pitch to open the Blue Jays 1990 season.25 They again appeared together at the 1991 All-Star Game in Toronto. The two events were known as the Hot Dog and All-Star Summits, respectively.26 Mulroney invited the 1992 Blue Jays to Ottawa after their World Series triumph that year. Grant Fuhr, the celebrated Edmonton Oilers goaltender, told the Globe and Mail that he and his championship teammates felt slighted. They had never been invited anywhere, he declared. In fact, his only interaction with Mulroney’s government came when Revenue Canada sent him an assessment on one of his taxable benefits: a Stanley Cup ring.27

Kim Campbell, Canada’s first female prime minister, scheduled a brief stop at Heather Park Field in Prince George, British Columbia, during her 1993 election campaign. It was to be a twenty minute photo opportunity. Instead she spent more than two hours amongst the 14- and 15-year-old ballplayers and their families. Campbell played catch, watched the finals of the Babe Ruth Provincial championships, and basked in the positive energy and media coverage during what was one of her best days of an otherwise ill-fated campaign.28 When Campbell lost the election to Jean Chrétien just two days after Joe Carter walked-off the 1993 World Series, editorial cartoonist Bruce Mackinnon of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald could not resist conflating the current events. He sketched an image of Campbell, a beleaguered pitcher on the mound, wearing Mitch Williams’ “wild thing” jersey, watching the electoral ball go over the fence.

Jean Chrétien played baseball in his youth and even credited the game with advancing his political career. Chrétien told TVO in 2013: “In those days we had an annual softball game between the M.P.s and the press gallery. I pitched for the M.P.s team. Pearson was the manager. We won the game, and that was the day I earned my seat in the cabinet.”29 Chrétien also recounted a fantastic baseball story in his most recent memoir. While visiting a remote fishing village on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island, attention turned from politics to baseball:

While we were eating, a television station was broadcasting a World Series baseball game (Orioles/Reds), and everyone had an eye on it. Suddenly a torrential rain poured down on the village, and the power went out. The game was being hotly contested, and the sports fans were very disappointed. Someone came up with a battery-operated radio and tuned in a station to catch the rest of the game. But the only station he found was describing the game in French from Iles de la Madeleine. And so I instantly became a sports commentator, as I was the only francophone in the room who could understand and describe in English what was going on in the World Series.30

Chrétien later discussed double plays and player salaries with US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Later in his term, when policy differences such as softwood lumber trading or the war in Iraq arose, Chrétien considered his “personal relations with George W. Bush to be very cordial.”31 Chrétien wrote, “I was the only person of all the G8 leaders who could talk baseball with him.”32

Chrétien retired in December 2003 and was succeeded by Paul Martin, a shipping magnate and son of a cabinet minister, who grew up playing ball in Windsor, Ontario. Martin played baseball internationally before he played politics on the world stage. As is still the case with teams today, his Windsor-based squad of young ballplayers would routinely cross the border to play teams in Detroit, Michigan. Long after he’d left office, when President Donald Trump stated that the undefended Canadian border was dangerous, Martin joked on the CBC that he didn’t realize he and his border-crossing teammates had been such security threats.33 While he was prime minister, Martin made a habit of inviting the Canadian-based teams competing in the Little League World Series to a Parliamentary reception on The Hill each year. The East Nepean Eagles were fêted in 2004 with a grand reception in the large Commonwealth Room in the Centre Block of Parliament.34

A hockey man occupied the prime minister’s office in 2006. Stephen Harper spoke often of Canada’s other game, and even wrote a book on the subject. During the spring 2011 election, Toronto Life magazine decided to rank the candidates for Canada’s top job based on their fondest baseball memories. “During election campaigns, it is time honoured tradition for the media to analyze every scrap of data that it gets from party leaders,” the magazine wrote. “In honour of the Jays home opener we asked both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff about their favourite baseball games ever.”35 Harper answered, “when Joe Carter hit his game winning home run off Mitch Williams to win the 1993 World Series for the Blue Jays.”36 A home run of an answer for a politician. Ignatieff grounded softly to the pitcher when he answered the same question with, “I actually watched, on a crackly, black and white TV, Don Larsen pitch his perfect [1956 World Series] game, and Yogi Berra running right up to the mound like that.”37 For baseball nerds, his response was a clarion call, a true fan seeking the top job. Yet, for average Canadians, who already wondered if Ignatieff had spent too much time in, and still too often thought about, the United States, it was a blunder. “Hey, points for originality and for sounding like a flesh-and-blood person,” the magazine commented. “The problem is the reference is obscure enough to anyone who isn’t a baseball fan that it still sounds like Ignatieff can’t help but tell us he’s the smartest guy in the room. We get it already.”38 When the Blue Jays were again competitive, Harper was fighting for his political life in the 2015 federal election. The 42nd Canadian federal campaign was the longest in history. It began just days after the non-waiver trade deadline and did not end until the Blue Jays were ready to play in the ALCS. On August 31, prime minister Harper made an unofficial campaign stop at Rogers Centre. “Conservative leader Stephen Harper seems like the latest to jump on the Blue Jays bandwagon,”39 reported the CBC. Harper attended batting practice and was toured around the infield and introduced to players and coaches by Jays legend Roberto Alomar. Harper and his children stayed to watch the Blue Jays vs. Cleveland game.

The Jays, in the midst of a hotly contested playoff race, lost with Harper in attendance. They had done the same when New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair attended a game two weeks earlier. When Liberal leader Justin Trudeau appeared at a game in September and the Jays also lost, scribes began to wonder:

Since prime minister Stephen Harper dissolved Parliament on August 2 to kick off the longest federal election in modern Canadian history, the Blue Jays have lost just six times in 29 games. If you showed up to a game in the last five or so weeks, you had a nearly 80-per-cent chance of seeing them win. And yet the Jays are 0-3 in games attended by a federal party leader. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair was the first to visit on August 14, watching as the Jays’ 11-game win streak was snapped by the New York Yankees. Then on Monday, Harper stopped by to see the Jays fall to Cleveland. On Friday night it was Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s turn to mess with the team’s karma.40

When Jose Bautista hit his legendary “bat flip” home run in game five of the American League Division Series, he was sending the Blue Jays to the next level only six days before Canadians decided to elevate Justin Trudeau. The proximity of historical events inspired two separate cartoonists to independently design the same cartoon. Both Michael de Adder and Terry Mosher depicted Trudeau as the triumphant batter, and Harper as the discarded bat.

While being welcomed at a White House State Dinner held in his honor, Prime Minister Trudeau heard US President Barack Obama remark, “our work as nations remains rooted in the friendship between our peoples, and we see that reflected all along our shared border.” The President continued, “at the baseball diamond in Coutts, Alberta, if you hit a home run, there’s a good chance the ball will land in Sweetgrass, Montana.”41 In 2017, as part of an official address on the occasion of July 30 being declared Canada Baseball Day, Prime Minister Trudeau reflected on the game that meant so much to his family. “I remember as a kid, my dad taking us to the Big O to watch our beloved Expos. Gary Carter, Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, these were heroes for me. It was an opportunity for me to connect with my dad as well, as he loved baseball. For us it was a big family outing. It was an opportunity to sit back, watch my dad eat hot dogs and mostly enjoy a great summer pastime.”42

Wilfrid Laurier threw strikes, Mackenzie King promoted games, and Lester Pearson hit home runs. All three, as well as many of their contemporaries, went to baseball games in order to find crowds of voters during election seasons. Contemporary campaigns are no different. A seemingly endless stream of political ads aired during the Canadian broadcasts of the 2019 Major League Baseball playoffs. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer claimed to have “socked a dinger” during the French-language leaders’ debate.43 The game of baseball, as it has from Macdonald to Trudeau, will continue be an enduring facet of Canadian life. In fact, if we could look across the historical span of this paper, we would not see many aspects of life in Canada remaining constant from 1867 to 2020. Yet, as long as there has been a Dominion, strong and free, stretching from sea to sea to sea, and as long as that place has been governed by prime ministers, there has been baseball. May it forever be so.

STEPHEN DAME is a teacher of Humanities in Toronto. He is a member of the Hanlan’s Point chapter of SABR and has presented research papers at three of the four Canadian Baseball History Conferences which take place each November in London, Ontario, Canada.

 

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Notes

1 William Humber, “What Was Early Canadian Hockey and What Does it Owe to Others.” Seneca College. (2017): 1

2 “Sport,” The Globe, August 29, 1891.

3 Craig Greenham, “On The Battlefront: Canadian Soldiers, an Imperial War, and America’s National Pastime.”American Review of Canadian Studies, vol. 42 (2012): 3

4 “The Baseball Season,” London Advertiser, May 3, 1887.

5 “Picnic at Bracebridge,” The Globe, August 10, 1894.

6 “Premier in Muskoka,” Montreal Gazette, August 1, 1894.

7 “Procession,” The Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1899.

8 “Sir Wilfrid in Chicago,” The Globe, October 11, 1899.

9 “Keep Up Standard of Canadian Life,” The Globe, August 11, 1910.

10 “Tremendous Crowd at New Glasgow Gave Liberal Leader a Fine Reception,” The Toronto Daily Star, September 1, 1911.

11 “Tremendous Crowd.”

12 “Tremendous Crowd.”

13 “Dominion Day At The Front,” The Globe, July 6, 1918.

14 Allan Levine, Scrum Wars: The Prime Ministers and the Media. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1996.

15 “Liberal Chiefs Draw Big Crowd at The Stadium,” The Globe, August 16, 1920.

16 “Liberals To Meet At Richmond Hill,” The Globe, August 22, 1925.

17 “Crazy Man, Crazy! What A Game!” The Ottawa Citizen, July 24, 1958.

18 “Crazy Man, Crazy! What A Game!”

19 “Pearson Demonstrates Baseball Skill, Thrills Children,” Toronto Daily Star, March 29, 1958.

20 “Transition,” The Globe and Mail, March 6, 1958.

21 Jonah Keri, “Jonah Keri sitdown with Justin Trudeau,” CBS Sports, last modified April 24, 2017, https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/jonah-keri-sitdown-with-justin-trudeau-canadas-prime-minister-talks-sports-immigration-montreal-and-more/

22 “Triple Play and Two Homers Help Jays,” The Globe and Mail, April 24, 1978.

23 “Clark Roasts Trudeau at Tory Barbecue,” The Toronto Star, June 29, 1978.

24 “Glib PM Regales All-Stars With Humorous Barbs,” The Globe and Mail, July 14, 1982.

25 “Security at SkyDome Tight For Bush’s Baseball Visit,” The Globe and Mail, April 9, 1990.

26 “Cheerful Leaders Have All Star Fun,” The Toronto Star, July 10, 1991.

27 “Having A Ball At The Public Trough,” The Globe And Mail, December 18, 1992.

28 “Sign Of The Times,” Prince George Citizen, July 23, 2014.

29 Steve Paikin, “Fifty Years Ago This Week, Lester Pearson Became Prime Minister.Television Ontario, last modified April 10, 2013, https://www.tvo.org/article/fifty-years-ago-this-week-lester-pearson-became-prime-minister-part-i

30 Jean Chrétien, My Stories, My Times. Toronto: Random House, 2018: 181

31 Chrétien, 193.

32 “Gifts Tell Story of Chrétien’s Reign,” The Toronto Star, April 14, 2012.

33 Power and Politics. “Interview With Paul Martin.” 2018. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

34 Government of Canada. “Prime minister to meet little league baseball champions” Media Advisory. Last modified, November 2, 2004. https://www.canada.ca/en/news/archive/2004/11/prime-minister-meet-canadian-little-league-baseball-champions.html

35 McGrath, John Michael. “What do Harper, Ignatieff and Layton’s favourite baseball moments say about their characters?” Politics. Last modified April 4, 2011. https://torontolife.com/city/toronto-politics/what-do-harper-ignatieff-and-laytons-favourite-baseball-moments-say-about-their-characters/

36 McGrath.

37 McGrath.

38 McGrath.

39 McGrath.

40 “Blue Jays Drop Ball in Defeat to Orioles,” The Toronto Star, September 5, 2015.

41 https://ca.usembassy.gov/remarks-by-president-obama-and-prime-minister-trudeau-of-canada-at-arrival-ceremony/

42 https://www.sportsnet.ca/baseball/mlb/message-prime-minister-canada-baseball-day/

43 “The storied links between prime ministers and baseball,” The Kingston Whig Standard, October 22, 2019.

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