Can Baseball Come Back?
Clubs have been rejuvenated, new leagues started, but baseball still needs more Canadian players
OPENING DAY of the 1937 baseball season in Toronto. Bands blare, flags flutter, players parade, political dignitaries strut their parts. But the something extra which makes this opening different from all others is the spirit of thanksgiving in the hearts of the fans.
For the last decade or more, professional baseball has been fighting for its life in Canada. And what may prove to have been the turning point in this epic struggle, waged on a nationwide front, came in the Ontario city at the end of the 1936 International League season. Had the Toronto crisis had any other outcome, there is no doubt but what the game might have received its deathblow in this country. As it is—but let’s set the film in reverse for a moment. A flashback of events will tell us much, and may help us to get a line on possible future developments.
It was one day late last fall when Toronto citizens first learned that the city was in imminent danger of losing its franchise in the International League. They had once been told, and up to then still believed, that their city was one of the best baseball towns on the North American continent outside the major leagues. But it seems they had been taking baseball too much for granted for too long a time. In the years that had elapsed since the club had had a winner, many old-time fans had acquired the habit of sitting at home and reading about the team’s doings, instead of visiting the park and giving it their support.
According to reports, the club needed $35,000 cash right away to retain the franchise, and its officers had no idea of where it was coming from. Dan Howley, who had once been the very popular manager of a winning Toronto team, was anxious to get back in the picture as manager and part owner, and he was doing his best to raise the necessary funds. But day by day, as the wheel spun, no numbers turned up for Howley. And then suddenly, though it was the middle of the off season, the fans began to display a livelier interest in the welfare of the club than they had shown in more than half a dozen years.
Baseball Saved for Toronto
THE NEW YORK Giants were the big menace of the moment. They wanted to establish a farm team in the International, top league among the minors, and they had secured a rental option on a beautiful stadium in Jersey City. Now they were in the market for a team to operate in their lovely new plant and they were bidding for the Toronto or Albany franchise, weak links in the International chain. When it was finally announced that they had purchased the Albany franchise, there was a sigh of relief from Toronto. But immediately a new threat arose to confront those who were interested in keeping the game alive in the Canadian city.
Joe Cambria, the voluble Latin who had just disposed of his Albany interests to the Giants, thought he’d like to stay in baseball. And why not? Mr. Cambria, whose real business is running a steam laundry, had only been in baseball a few years, but in that brief time he’d broken off the sugar in large chunks. It was said that he had bought the Albany franchise originally for a meagre $5,000 and then, the very first year he operated it, sold $15,000 worth of players. Now he had just sold his Albany holdings to the Giants for a sum reported to be in excess of $50,000 and thought he’d like to buy the Toronto franchise if he could get it for $35,000, which he’d been told was the price. You can’t lose money that way, and if you were Mr. Cambria you’d be reluctant to cjuit too. So there he was, all ready with the dough.
Meanwhile, in Toronto, a couple of young lawyers met in a business office and began to talk about this and that. They were both red-hot baseball fans and they’d both been reading the papers. They felt rather badly over what they were certain was bound to happen. “What’s the matter with this town anyway?” one of them asked. “Both amateur and professional baseball have had tough going for years. Now it looks as if they’re going to have to sell the club to a city about one third this size.”
“If things get too stale this summer,” the other answered ironically, “we can always go watch a few girls’ softball games. But it wasn’t always like this.”
They talked on. recalling summers they had spent together on Hanlan’s Point off Toronto’s waterfront, when the Maple Leafs played all their games there. They remembered how they had thrilled to the towering home runs big Tim Jordon used to belt into the bay. They remembered the flashy base running of Bullet Jack Thoney, the hairraising fielding of Bill Bradley around third base, the
marvellous pitching displays of little Dicky Rudolph. Then they recalled how they used to saunter past the Bay Tree Hotel at night, where the ball players lived when the team was at home, holding their breath and hoping to catch a glimpse of some of those glamorous figures off the diamond. Baseball was a great game and it had had a long and glorious tradition in Toronto. It had sunk to its present low level because the fans would not support a losing team, and its owners could not afford to gamble even one more season. But should the game be allowed to perish when a few thousand dollars might save it? Both these men thought not.
One of them was Don Ross, son of a former LieutenantGovernor of Ontario, and he was in a position to do something about it. He got in touch with Dan Howley right away, and together they went to call on some prominent investment bankers. In no time at all they had more than the amount of money needed, the ominous shadow of Joe Cambria and his sackful of foreign gold had been dissipated, and the new-deal-for-baseball movement in Toronto was on.
Night Games Help
THE HAPPIEST man in baseball this spring must surel> be Dan Howley. The last man to lead a Toronto team to a pennant, he left the club when it fell upon evil days. But since then he has not been particularly happy or conspicuously successful. He had sad managerial experiences with the St. Louis Browns and the Cincinnati Reds—clubs which have broken the hopes and shattered the spirits of some of baseball’s wisest men. But Howley has always believed in the ix>tentialities of Toronto as a big moneymaker if given a hustling team, and he has kept bobbing up there year after year, always enormously interested in what was going on. Now he is again manager of the club, and this time he has a financial stake in it.
The new president is Don Ross, and the board of directors reads like the top sheet of eminents from Canada’s income-tax lists. It includes Messrs. J. H. Gundy, Hon. W. D. Ross, Norman Urquhart, Fred J. Crawford, W. B. Milner and Percy R. Gardiner. Thus the club now is even more heavily backed than the Boston Gold Sox, which has only Tom Yawkey’s ten-million-dollar lumber fortune behind it. Early this year, Howley started south for the big-league training camps, equipped wlfcr* a cheque book and a fountain pen. and he should come up with some new and better ball players. The players themselves are never averse to joining a club which is known to be loaded down with bullion, as Tie Yawkey experience in Boston has amply shown. For a while it got so bad that no big league manager could criticize one of his stars without being told, “All right then. If you think I'm so lousy, why don’t you trade me or sell me to the Gold Sox?” Ball players are funny that way; if they’re not actually in the money, they like at least to be in the vicinity.
It’s practically a sure thing now that baseball will come back with a bang in Toronto. Dan Howley has his own notions of how to attract and retain the loyalty of the fans. Last season, while the club was still battling for a play-off position, the St. Louis Cardinals recalled Si Johnson, the Leaf’s best pitcher, who was their property and only with the Leafs on call. But the move angered the fans and lost the Leafs considerable patronage, and Ilowley wants to be free of these big league tie-ups. The Toronto club will try to make a deal with another club of lower classification, which it can use as a farm. It will have its own scout and will dig up and develop its own talent, which can’t help but please the baseball-loving public. Already the fans have been writing in in droves, offering suggestions on how to lure crowds into the park. Some think a more demure price list might help. Others ask for nothing more than a winning team. So the interest is there and, with plenty of new money in the club’s coffers, everything will be done to convert it into action. And night baseball, which last year developed from a fad into a custom in the minors, is also going to help.
VWTJAT HAPPENED to professional * * baseball this past winter in Toronto has happened since the War in virtually every city and town in Canada boasting a professional team. But the crisis came sooner in most places, notably in Montreal, with the result that it is now fairly safe to predict that the game is on its way to regaining all its old popularity in this country. Let’s look at the Montreal situation for a moment and see what has happened there.
Montreal also had once been a good ball town, but the War years so washed it up that its International League franchise had to be sold. In 1928, with everything commercial booming, a financial syndicate brought it back and also built a new stadium. Unfortunately, the depression came on too soon to allow this new effort a fair chance, though the team kept operating under the worst kind of conditions until 1932, when there was another showdown. This time another local group stepped in and saved the situation by buying the franchise exclusive of the stadium, which it rented on a pav-as-you-play basis. The new group then installed Frank Shaughnessy as business manager, because they wanted someone affiliated with the club who was a practical baseball man, and whom they knew and trusted. The club staggered along like that until the end of the 1934 season, when Shaughnessy told the owners something they had been trying for years to find out.
“To make a minor-league ball club pay,” he advised them, “you’ve got to get a crowd in the park nearly every day, and you’ve got to sell players at a profit. The best way to do that is to spend some money and get a winning and colorful team together.”
'The owners took the elastic off what was left of the bankroll and let him go to market. He got the players he wanted, and the following summer he doubled in brass as field and business manager. By July the team was in first place and turnstiles leading into the park were clicking faster than in most major-league cities. By actual count, the Royals were outdrawing
the Chicago Cubs, who were leading the race in the National League.
At the end of the season Shaughnessy disposed of several of his stars to majorleague clubs. Jim Ripple, sensational outfielder, was sold to the New York Giants. Big Chad Kimsey, a pitcher, went to Detroit; and Pete Appleton, another pitcher, was bought by Washington. The club is reported to have finished the season with a credit balance of $80,000, a remarkable performance for an enterprise which had shown nothing but red figures for seven long, consecutive years.
A postscript on what went on in Montreal last summer shows how unexpected and rapid is the change in fortune of both clubs and individuals in the game of baseball. Though the team started the season well and was in first place at the end of May. Manager Shaughnessy was still trying frantically to plug the gaps left by the departure of his stars for the major leagues. But the other clubs ganged up on him and refused to enter into trades with him or even to sell him ball players outright. By midsummer the Royals had sunk into the second division where they belonged, and the fans, notoriously short of memory in any sport, were panning the man who only a few months before had given them their first pennant in more than a quarter of a century. Shaughnessy then quit in disgust. But his work of making Montreal baseball conscious had already been done and done thoroughly. For, while the team finished the season well down in the standing, it fared even better at the gate than it had the previous year.
There was general regret among baseball men over Shaughnessy’s withdrawal. Johnny Ogden, manager of the Baltimore Orioles, even went so far as to make an indignant speech about it to the press.
“In Baltimore the fans booed Shag,” said Ogden, “but that only meant they weren’t indifferent to him. I wish they would boo all the managers. It would help the attendance. But there aren’t many of them with enough color to make the fans feel one way or another about them.”
Then, if ever, Shaughnessy’s cup o bitterness seemed about to overflow. Bu,. while his friends were still in the act of reaching for the crying towels, the office of president of the International League, one of the best executive jobs in organized baseball, fell open, and he fell into it without even the smallest lurch, so squarely did he land on his feet.
A New Professional League
D UT SO MUCH for baseball in the East
for a moment. Let’s have a quick look at what’s been happening to the game west of the Great Lakes. The old Western Canada League, which flourished for a good many years, produced many fine ball players. Some of them have made names for themselves in the big show: men like Oscar Melillo, who once played with Winnipeg; Mark Koenig, who was with Moose Jaw; and Babe Herman and Heine Manush, who are still remembered fondly by the fans in Edmonton. This league, which took in most of the large cities on the prairies, folded up back in the ’20’s. But the game is beginning to get a toehold again. Winnipeg now operates a franchise in the Northern League, along with Fargo, Moorehead and other cities south of the border, while there is talk of reviving the Western Canada League, though this project is still in the talking stage. Farther west, Vancouver enjoys baseball and is represented in the Western International League, which includes Seattle, Portland and several other large cities south of the international boundary.
Back East again for a look at the Maritime Provinces. Down there they have always been enthusiastic about baseball, though the only professional league in operation at the moment is the Cape Breton Colliery League. Glace Bay, New Waterford, Sydney and Sydney Mines all operate franchises in this league. There is much talk there also about a new league, which would include such cities as Saint John, Moncton and Bathurst, but this, too, has not advanced as yet beyond the talking stage.
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The very newest professional league with Canadian representation is the Canadian-American in Eastern Ontario. Ottawa, Perth-Comwall, Smiths Falls and Brockville all operate teams in it. They do not play a full schedule; it calls for only two and sometimes three games a week. But the league is in a very healthy condition and may conceivably grow into something much bigger than it is today.
Oddly enough, when and where professional baseball flourishes, there is an immediate pick-up in the amateur brand. Amateur baseball has had a new lease of life in and around Montreal ever since the International League franchise was returned to that city. When the Toronto Leafs have a winning team, the amateur leagues in Central and Western Ontario, as well as in the city of Toronto itself, take on new vitality. A larger section of
the public becomes baseball-minded and more lads seem to want to play the game.
Canadian Players Needed
T"'HE THING that would help the professional game immeasurably in Canada would be the introduction of more Canadian players, just as it would help hockey considerably in the United States if more native sons were to emerge as N. H. L. stars. The Toronto Leafs are well aware of this and, when the team left for its training camp in Florida this spring, three Canadian lads went with them. They are Bobby Porter, an outfielder, and Art Upper, a pitcher, both from Toronto’s sand lots; and Dick Mitchell, a young catcher from Cobourg. They were joined in camp by Johnny Goodfellow, of Kingston, a brother of Ebbie, the Detroit Red Wings’ great hockey player. Goodfellow had been in Florida for some weeks, attending Joe Stripp’s baseball school. It is this kind of ambition that is going to produce some stand-out ball players, sooner or later, from the ranks of Canadian youth.
At the time of writing there is only one Canadian-born ball player in either major league. He is George Selkirk, of the New York Yankees, who was bom in Huntsville, Ontario. John Heath, a twenty-oneyear-old lad from Fort William, is attracting a lot of attention in the camp of the Cleveland Indians, and he may make the grade.
Speaking out of his thirty years experience in professional baseball, both here and in the United States, Frank Shaughnessy says the reason there are so few Canadian-bom professional players'is that there are no organized leagues in the schools and colleges. He thinks the short summers have something to do with this, but firmly believes that if baseball leagues are ever organized in our schools, as in hockey and football, Canada will straightaway begin to develop great ball players.
It requires no great leap of the imagination to see how the whole Dominion of Canada stands to benefit by a return of
baseball to popularity in cities like Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. For Canada is by way of being the second greatest tourist attraction among the countries of the world today. Her annual income from the tourist industry is well over $200,000,000, which earns it a place in upper brackets as Canadian industries go. She is in the business of selling her mountain and lake and river scenery, and her summer and winter sports, to visitors from other lands. But to reach our playgrounds, visitors customarily arrive at and depart from our large urban centres, and usually have to spend some time in them. Instead of being content to rock along and look out the window at the large transient population in our big cities during the tourist season, we might be more gainfully employed in trying to anticipate and cater to their tastes. The vast majority of our guests are visitors from the United States, and baseball is their dish. We can’t lose anything by having it ready for them.