The Baseball Tradition in Western Canada

This article was written by William Humber - Eves Raja

This article was published in 1982 Baseball Research Journal

The mythical baseball championship of the Northwest was the focal point of sporting interests in the Yukon summer of 1904. Over 400 Alaskan supporters joined the Skagway nine in traveling to Whitehorse on the Queen’s Birthday. The Americans were favored by the gamblers. No doubt one factor was Skagway’s reputation as a lawless point of arrival for gold seekers in the late 19th century.

Their Whitehorse rivals were relative newcomers to the sport. Like other Yukon teams they drew their support and players from the police, the government, and main street merchants. In Dawson, Charlie Lamb, a well known sportsman and miner, was forever “throwing down the gauntlet” to Sheriff Eilbeck’s constabulatory confident that his outside talent would win the day.

Yukon spectators backed their favorites with large bets so the players had to take these games seriously. A 1903 match between the Idyle Hour and Civil Service teams had to be broken up by the riding corps and constables after Captain Bennett and his rival Eldorado Smith became embroiled in a rowdy dispute.

Such fierce local feelings were put aside in Whitehorse for their 1904 “international” series with Skagway. And led by the legendary slugger, Jack Keating, known from Seattle to Dawson, they surprised the visitors, 10 to 9. The cocky Whitehorse fans mocked Skagway as being too windy and Juneau and Douglas as too wet to offer serious competition. To prove their contention they again defeated the Alaskans 8 to 5 in Skagway’s home park on the July 4 holiday.

Baseball was the rage of frontier settlements from Manitoba to the Yukon. Hardly had the first homes and stores been built than informal games of bat and ball began to appear. Such games are among the oldest known to man, are easy to learn, and can be played by virtually all ages.

While the Yukon game was the one we now know, a crude antecedent form of baseball had been around as early as the 1840’s in Manitoba’s Red River Settlement. The game was called “bat” and Red River historian Wilson Greene suspects it was similar to one he played in his youth.

“All but one player dug a shallow depression in which he kept his `bat’, until getting a swipe at the dead or rolling ball in any direction,” writes Greene. “While one was doing this another could slip his stick into the vacated base. In this way the odd player could occupy any vacant `hole’ he found. The game invariably ended in one or more fights. It was based on skull duggery, not sportsmanship, and required no equipment.”

Informal types of ballplaying such as this provided fertile grounds for a more organized style of play which began to develop in the mid-1840’s in New York City. After the Civil War there existed a uniformity of rules and skills in the northeastern United States and Canada which slowly spread to more isolated areas.

Reports of baseball games appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press in 1874. Like all facets of western Canadian life these early contests revolved around the railroads. Completion of the Northern Pacific Line made intercity competition possible and promoters exploited the possibilities.

By 1886 a Manitoba League with connections to the railroad had been formed but it was obviously premature. Both the Portage La Prairie and Canadian Pacific Railway teams folded in mid-season leaving the eventual winners, the Hotel Club, with little opposition. This did not stop other promoters from developing the natural connection between the rails and baseball. In 1902, for instance, R. J. Smith leased River Park in Winnipeg for two years and charged 50¢ for reserved seats and 25¢ for standing room for games in the North Dakota League. Smith represented the Great Northern Railway which benefited from the movement of baseball teams and their supporters. Likewise Joe Page, a former Indianapolis profes sional, was hired as sports representative of the CP Railway and he was instrumental in sponsoring games along that line.

Like Page, many baseball stars were imported American players. Wes Paulin, an early promoter in Winnipeg, may be the mysterious player named Paul who played three games with the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1876 National League. He used that very name in 1890 when brought into a game for Regina.

Cloak and dagger escapades often surrounded these individuals as various teams sought to improve their chances by hiring outside “ringers”. One such player was Sid Adams of Minneapolis who took the mound for Winnipeg dressed in that team’s familiar all-black uniform. His identity was kept from both the opposition and the fans and only late in the game did people recognize him as the former Grand Forks star. By then his deceptive curve ball had deserted him and Winnipeg lost in the 10th inning.

Baseball, of course, was also popular in eastern Canada at this time and so it was hardly surprising to find players from Ontario playing a prominent role in baseball’s western growth. The 1886 Manitoba League, for example, had at least two graduates of the Ontario-based Canadian League of 1885, Young and Barnfather. James Ross, a member of London’s champion amateur team of 1877, took the game west with him where he became a rancher and later a member of the Canadian Senate. And the 1900 Virden team was led by two western Ontario stars, Jersey Crew and Bill Orr.

Aside from the professionals, this was a game favored by all social classes. Winnipeg was the scene of matches between gangs of rail workers representing the yard and freight sheds. But perhaps the most distinguished graduate of 19th century western sandlots was playing in Manitoba’s neighboring territory.

Saskatchewan’s early baseball story is similar to that of Manitoba. The railroad moved the Regina club during the 1887 summer and led by their ace pitcher and crack batter, Walter Scott, a future editor and Premier of Saskatchewan, they slaughtered Wolseley 41 to 8 in a warm-up to their eventual capture of the Silver Cup in 1888 following a convincing 47 to 24 victory over Moose Jaw.

The highlight of those days were the tussles between farm and town teams. The Country Boys, a team of local farmers, narrowly beat their city slicker rival Regina 45 to 43 in one of the most eagerly awaited matches of 1887.

The flavor of these early sandlot matches is neatly revealed in Barry Broadfoot’s interview with a pioneer settler of Canada’s west.

We used to take a week’s holiday, the bunch of us, me, Gilbert Sedgeman, the three Warner boys, John Jackson, and a few others and we’d go baseballing. Usually we’d send letters ahead of time to the towns around, but if we didn’t, it didn’t matter none because it was about the first week of July. We’d go and there wasn’t much doing around the district, so you could always get a team against you. For money, pass the hat. We used to get pretty good crowds. Everybody played or everybody watched. Baseball was the thing.

In Alberta, baseball developed around formal settings such as the Square in Lethbridge. Sir Alexander Galt, a principle in the coal mining industry in Lethbridge, donated land to the town for recreational purposes. Concern for sport and aesthetics in the park often collided. Locals complained that the catcher’s fence was unsightly and that a net would serve the same purpose. Informal games were played as early as 1886 and by 1889 the Lethbridge club was considered to be the finest of the northwest. All over the province in places like Wiste, Medicine Hat, Sturgeon, and Edmonton, baseball contests became a focus for civic pride.

In 1907 the Western Canada League began in Alberta. Managing the Edmonton team was William “Deacon” White, a graduate of Northwestern University. He had originally visited Fort Edmonton as a barnstorming ballplayer. He liked the place and stayed to become a leading baseball promoter in the west. He also coached two Edmonton Grey Cup football finalists in 1921 and 1922.

The Medicine Hat Hatters were pennant winners in the Western League’s inaugural season. It was a turbulent year in which one player, Egan, the Lethbridge shortstop, was fined $25 for assaulting an umpire.

The league grew to eight members by 1909 and included teams from Saskatchewan and Manitoba. This was a period of fierce inter-provincial rivalry. In keeping with the past, the Regina Bonepilers played in a stadium aptly called Railway Park which was expanded from 300 to 2,000 seats. Imported American pros joined Canadians such as the four who signed on with Edmonton. But the only real winners were the teams’ creditors as all clubs lost money.

Each season attracted new investors willing to lose money for the cause of keeping their city’s name before the western public. How else can one explain the willingness of these people to put up with the aggravations of baseball involvement. In 1913, for instance, a nasty rhubarb between two Saskatoon players and an umpire resulted in the Saskatoon team being ordered to replay a game. They refused and befuddled league executives declared Moose Jaw and Saskatoon co-champions.

The opportunity to associate with future major league stars was also an inducement for investors and fans. Hal Chase, a legendary scoundrel and gambler, who later played with the New York Highlanders and Cincinnati Reds, thrilled crowds in Victoria, British Columbia, shortly after the turn of the century with his acrobatic defensive play around first base.

In 1921 a future Brooklyn Dodgers’ star, Babe Herman, arrived in Edmonton to play with that city’s Western Canada League team. Now a respected citizen of Glendale, California, Herman recalls his Edmonton days.

Edmonton in 1921 was a nice frontier town. They had a great amateur team with the hockey player Duke Keats on it. I remember Heinie Manush hitting the first home run ever over the right-field fence on opening day. They had movies of it and showed them that night at the theatre.

The bat boy for visiting teams that season was an Edmonton youngster named John Ducey. He remembers the era and some of the players and teams.

In those early days as a young fan I remember haunting old Diamond Park. We kids would shag balls for the team during batting practice. Many good players made it to the big leagues from the Western Canada League in those years, including Tony Kaufmann, a pitcher, and Oscar Melillo, a second baseman with the Winnipeg Maroons, and I remember Walter “Cuckoo” Christensen of the Calgary Bronks and first baseman Nelson “Chicken” Hawkes.

Baseball in the 1920s was at a glorious watershed between its boisterous past and a more structured future. Between the two World Wars barnstorming black baseball teams like Chappie Johnson’s Colored Allstars brought their own lights and deft showmanship to villages and towns across the prairies. Southern Saskatchewan was visited annually by an outlaw squad from Minot, North Dakota, whose flamboyant owner, Lee Dillage, drove a Duesenberg touring car. His roster included two former Chicago White Sox stars, Happy Felsch and Swede Risberg, who had been blacklisted from organized baseball for their role in throwing the 1919 World Series.

Baseball was becoming a highly structured sport with a multitude of minor leagues directly subservient to the 16 major league teams in the American northeast. In western Canada these minor leagues usually had short lifespans. Winnipeg lasted two seasons in the Northern Copper Country League. Teams from Brandon, Fort William, and Winnipeg had teams at one time or another in the Northern League. Victoria was a member of the Class B Northwestern League prior to the first war. After the war that city and Vancouver joined the Pacific Coast International League. The Western Canada League referred to above folded and re-formed many times. In the late l940s, Edmonton and Calgary each had two teams in the Big Four League, which was riot in O.B. In the l950s these cities and Victoria and Vancouver were members of the Western International League. Today the Edmonton Trappers and Vancouver Canadians of the Pacific Coast League continue a tradition of good minor league ball in the west.

The minor leagues have survived, but all around them irrevocable changes occurred. For one thing youngsters began to spend less time shagging balls at the local stadium and more time participating in the increasing number of organized parks and recreation, and little league programs. Today almost one-half of the registered baseball players in Canada come from the four western provinces. One well known graduate of organized baseball in Melville, Saskatchewan, is the Houston Astros’ star outfielder, Terry Puhl.

For everything gained, however, something is lost. A pioneer interviewed by Broadfoot lamented. “I watch it on television today. That’s the only place I watch it because there doesn’t seem to be any baseball played around here now.”

And the days when an engineer would leave his train idling in a depot to play a few hours of baseball are like many of those same trains a part of western Canada’s past.