The Canadian–American League

This article was written by David Pietrusza

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in the 1991 SABR convention journal (New York City).

 

Upstate New York has certainly enjoyed its share of splendid baseball memories, but one of the warmest, enduring and most small-townish has been that of a vanished Class C circuit known as the Canadian-American League.

Formed in 1936 just as the National Association was struggling to get back on its feet, the Can-Am League started as a six-team circuit in the far northern St. Lawrence River valley featuring Ogdensburg, Oswego, and Watertown in New York and Ottawa, Brockville and Perth in Ontario.

Eventually the focus shifted east. After 1940 the only Canadian teams were in Quebec City and Three Rivers. Longtime league members included Amsterdam, Rome, Oneonta, Pittsfield, Schenectady and Johnstown-Gloversville. More transient franchises were found in Auburn, Utica, Smiths Falls and Kingston.

Its president from 1937 to 1944 was certainly a unique figure: the Rev. Harold J. Martin. Martin held more than one claim to fame; he was not only the sole Roman Catholic prelate heading a circuit, but he was also the only league president serving without salary. Beyond that he was a former Eastern League hurler (ambidextrous, by the way) and a fine semipro pitcher after that, hurling in Ogdensburg under the pseudonym Doc O’Reily. When quizzed by the bishop about his unusual activity, Martin confessed that he was getting $100 a game for his chores and was using the money to aid his parish. His superior retorted: “See if they need a $50 first baseman.”

MANY WELL-KNOWN PLAYERS

Players. Oh, yes. The league developed many fine ballplayers: Bob Lemon (an infielder at Oswego), Al Rosen, Vic Raschi, Lew Burdette, Gus Triandos, Tommy Lasorda (who one day struck out 25 Amsterdam batters while pitching for Schenectady, and on another day he missed the team bus to Canada, hailed a cab and presented the fuming owner with the bill), Frank Malzone, Dale Long, Bob Grim, Jim Lemon, Dick Littlefield, Johnny Blanchard, Spec Shea and Carl Sawatski.

There also was a fellow named Pete Gray. The Three Rivers Foxes was his first shot at organized ball and despite a rash of injuries he came through with flying colors, hitting .381 in 42 games in 1942.

Not everyone could make the big leagues. Outfielder Arnie Cohen appeared in more than 700 Can-Am contests. Duke Farrington won 13 games in a row for Amsterdam in 1938 before throwing his arm out on a bet. Ogdensburg fly-hawk Tony Gridaitis “called his shot” in the Rome ballpark to win a shiny gold watch. The peripatetic Bill Sisler (who played for more than 40 minor league teams) got shots with three Can-Am franchises—Ogdensburg, Oneonta and Quebec.

The managerial ranks weren’t to be sneered at either. Eddie Sawyer and Mayo Smith guided the Amsterdam Rugmakers; George Scherger and Frenchy Bordaragay did stints at Three Rivers; Wally Schang, at age 49 a playing manager at Ottawa; and Frank McCormick and George McQuinn at Quebec.

And, of course, there were the veteran minor leaguers, those pilots for whom the majors were a distant dream. Ogdensburg Colts owner and manager George “Knotty” Lee was one such individual. A co-founder of the circuit, he had chased his horsehide dream since the 1890s. Always a colorful umpire-baiter, he kept the Colts afloat by player sales and bluff. His low points included bankruptcy after transferring the squad to Auburn and his leaving of the team payroll in a Cornwall, Ont., hotel lobby one day.

Steve Yerkes at Perth-Cornwall had seen the glory decades ago. A one-time American League second baseman, he had scored the winning run for the Boston Red Sox in the fifth game of the 1912 World Series against the Giants. Now he was mired deep in the bushes, but he imparted warmth and baseball wisdom to his charges.

MAJOR LEAGUE EXHIBITIONS

Some of the league’s headier moments came against big league competition. The Pittsburgh Pirates twice fell to Can-Am squads, as the 1936 Gloversville Glovers and the 1939 Rome Colonels both knocked off the Bucs in midseason exhibitions. Each local squad was managed by a grizzled bush leaguer with the unlikely name of Admiral J. “Pepper” Martin. The Rome victory was particularly bizarre. In the ninth inning Pittsburgh flyhawk Gus Suhr chased after a foul fly hit by Colonels shortstop Red Ermisch and then to ridicule Ermisch stayed at that very spot. Ermisch retaliated by banging the ball to Suhr’s normal location, sparking the winning rally.

The Amsterdam Rugmakers held the World Champion Yankees at bay until extra innings in June 1942, but that was not the big story. Eight days earlier, the Mohawk Mills Park grandstand had been torched and burned to the ground. The whole town pitched in and miraculously a ball park—with increased seating capacity—rose from the ashes. The town declared a holiday and thousands of fans packed the still unpainted bleachers. Even hardboiled Gothamites were moved. Joe McCarthy for one even cheerfully signed autographs. Wrote Jack Smith of the New York Daily News, “For sheer love of baseball, enthusiasm and support [Amersterdam] outstrips major league owners, officials and fans. It reflects the pure, wholesome attachment of American people for the game and contrasts with the blasé ‘give us a winner’ attitude of the big cities.”

The Can-Am League struggled through the late 1930s (it was one of the last unlit circuits) and was just reaching stability as war broke out. It pitched into the war effort, employed one-armed outfielders, held benefit games, faced immigration problems and (in Quebec and Three Rivers) the deadest balls this side of the 19th century. The league, however, had to call it quits following the 1942 season.

Like all of baseball, boom times came after V-E Day and the league was resurrected after the conclusion of World War II. Attendance records were set, and set again. The sky seemed the limit. Integration came to the Can-Am League in 1946 as pitchers John Wright and Roy Partlow were sent down from Montreal to Three Rivers. Partlow set the circuit on its ear going 13-1 and hitting up a storm besides.

Television reared its ugly head in 1950, decimating minor league attendance all along the eastern seaboard including the Canadian-American League. The Quebec franchise transferred to the nearby Provincial League while Schenectady advanced to the Eastern League.

The loop struggled on, but the results were pathetic. “They didn’t have enough baseballs to finish the game,” recalls one Rugmakers fan. “They had to throw the balls back from the stands.” And so in January 1952 the Can-Am League called it quits, leaving behind a lot of cherished memories for upstate New York baseball fans.

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