They call baseball “America’s Pastime”, but the truth is a little more complicated than that. The sport’s history and resilience in southern Ontario is as vital a part of the history of the game as it’s more-ballyhooed history in New England, Ohio, and Michigan. Despite this, Ontario’s history as a baseball hotbed has been largely left out of American accounts of the game. Regardless of this glaring oversight, the game of baseball, played on an amateur or professional basis, has remained a highly popular pastime in Ontario. This is especially true of London, Ontario. Equidistant between Detroit and Toronto, London has always been a hotbed of Detroit Tigers fans, and the expansion of Major League Baseball to Toronto in 1977 brought even more fans into the game. While London has been perennially passed by in terms of major league play, there has almost always been a home town team for fans to cheer for. Since 1925, that team has by and large been the London Majors, playing in the Intercounty Baseball League. That team, their home stadium, and the history of the game in the London region itself are all items worthy of further examination.
The History Of Baseball In London
For years, the commonly accepted origin story of the game was that, before winning fame and glory for basically saving the Union at Gettysburg, General Abner Doubleday had invented baseball in Cooperstown, New York in 1839. There were more than a few problems with this story, however. The roots of this origin lie in a letter that an Ohio mining engineer named Abner Graves wrote to the Akron Beacon Journal in 1905. Graves claims to have been in and around Cooperstown at that time and had witnessed Doubleday drawing out a baseball diamond and setting out a game based on the English game of townball that involved eleven players per team and four bases. Conveniently, however, the diagram that Graves claimed to have that Doubleday had lost had since been lost, and the players at that mythical first game were all determined to have since passed on. Some quick math also showed that Graves would have been five years old when the supposed first game was played. He was also, as it turned out, virulently anti-English and would go on to spend some time in an asylum for the insane. There was also the inconvenient fact that, in 1839, Doubleday himself was a first-year cadet at West Point and not likely to be in Cooperstown either. No one who knew Doubleday could say that he’d ever breathed a word about inventing baseball, which was during the last decade of the man’s life a rather popular game in his native New England. Doubleday himself couldn’t refute anything either, since he’d been, by 1905, dead for fifteen years. Crucially, however, a homegrown account puts the supposed origins of baseball a year earlier. Dr. Adam E Ford wrote a letter to Sporting Life in 1886 that was an account of a game of “base ball” played on June 4th, 1838 in Beachville, Ontario, a small town about 40 minutes east of London. This has become an essential bit of national myth-making in it’s own right, much as the Doubleday myth was originally used to stoke sentiment of baseball as a purely American-made, American-played game. The welcome sign for the town of Beachville is designed around the idea that baseball was invented there, and the staff at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Mary’s, Ontario fervently support this idea. It wasn’t exactly baseball, of course; the game Ford described had eleven players rather than nine, five bases rather than four, and bats that more closely resembled the flat bats we think of as cricket bats but were likely adapted from the centuries-old English picnic game of rounders. This was the “Ontario Game”; the origins and rules of early baseball are messy enough that every region has it’s own particular take on the game. Shortly before the American Civil War the game began to be standardized under the more modern, nine-player four-base version of the game (the “New York Game”); Ontario largely adopted this version around 1860. Whatever the origins of the game, the growth of baseball in Ontario kept pace with the growth in America. A pair of local London baseball clubs – the Forest City Base Ball Club and the London Base Ball Club – merged in 1868 to form the London Tecumsehs, sponsored by the Tecumseh House Hotel that then stood on the corner of York and Richmond. The team would spend a decade playing other regional teams in exhibition games and tournaments before becoming an inaugural member of the International Association of Professional Baseball Players in 1877. The International Association, a collection of Canadian and American baseball clubs in a league designed to act as a rival to the first recognized major league, the National League (the same one that would go on to make billions and still exist today). The London Tecumsehs would end that season at the top of the heap, winning the pennant in a 5-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Allegheny. That season would also briefly pit London’s star pitcher, Fred Goldsmith, against his rival (and future Hall of Famer) Candy Cummings of the Lynn Live Oaks, before the Live Oaks folded part way into a dismal season of play. Both Goldsmith and Cummings would claim credit for the invention of the curveball and would display it during that season. Unfortunately, after winning the pennant (and being offered a spot in the National League), the London Tecumsehs found themselves in deep debt and were forced to fold before the 1878 season; the International Association would follow suit in 1880. The Tecumsehs would return in 1888 when the International Association was resurrected; their star outfielder Patsy Donovan led the league in hitting and would go on to play in the National League. Despite the International Association again folding after the 1890 season, the London Tecumsehs would again be brought back in 1920 for the Michigan-Ontario Baseball League. The Tecumsehs dominated the first season of the league, easily clinching the pennant and breaking attendance records for minor league teams. That 1920 team is ranked as one of the hundred best minor league teams to have ever existed.
Labatt Memorial Park
For their storied 1877 season, the London Tecumsehs moved from practicing and playing at the Western Fair Grounds to their own home field, which was then dubbed Tecumseh Park. It was state-of-the-art when it was built, featuring a 600-seat grandstand for spectators, piped-in water, and official spaces for scorekeepers, reporters, and telegraph operators. It’s placement at the forks of the Thames River was likely no accident; the area had been used as a common area for as long as a settlement at London had existed. This placement has also proved to be problematic at times; a flood of the forks in 1883 led to the destruction of the original grandstands, and a second flood in 1937 destroyed the grandstands again. The first flood in 1883 led to a change in the position of home plate; originally in what is now left field, home plate was moved in order to orient the diamond so that it faced downtown London. This led to some controversy many years later. Since there are comparatively few sports structures remaining that were originally built in the 19th Century, it is a commonly cited fact that Labatt Memorial Park, having been used by ball clubs every year since 1877, was the oldest continuously operating baseball grounds in the world. This is true in so far as it is recorded in the Guinness Book Of World Records as of the 2009 edition. However, Fuller Field, in Clinton, Massachusetts, claimed the title since it had operated since 1878; since Labatt Park moved it’s home plate in 1883 following the flood of the Thames it was alleged that it wasn’t the same park. This argument led the record keepers to give Fuller Field the title for many years, before people finally realized what a convoluted bit of logic that was and rightfully gave the nod to Labatt Park. The fact that it is “continuously occupied” of course means that baseball has been played there year after year, and quite naturally then a number of teams have held court at Labatt Park. The most high-profile of these was London’s short-lived AA farm team affiliated with the Detroit Tigers, the London Tigers. While only staying in London from 1989 to 1993, the team racked up an impressive record at first, winning the Eastern League championship in 1990 and featuring such players as future Detroit Tigers third baseman Travis Fryman and hitting coach Phil Clark. The team was also managed by Yankees legend Chris Chambliss, lending the team some serious star power. Despite this, waning fortunes and declining attendance led the Tigers organization to move the team to Trenton, where it eventually switched affiliation to become a part of the Boston Red Sox organization. This experience was London’s sole encounter with professional Major League baseball since the end of the Second World War. Since then, efforts to put independent professional minor league teams have mostly fizzled, such as the London Werewolves (of the Frontier League) who moved to Canton, Ohio after the 2001 season and the London Monarchs of the Canadian Baseball League, which folded halfway through it’s inaugural season.
That’s not to say that there isn’t great baseball being played right here in London, Ontario. The longest-running club to play at Labatt Park is the London Majors, who have occupied the forks of the Thames regularly since 1925. The Majors, currently a perennial contender in the Intercounty Baseball League, maintain a semi-professional ranking, attracting retired or otherwise unemployed professional players as well as up-and-coming NCAA college baseball players and local Ontario talent. The Majors have been a mainstay at Labatt Park for decades, although not always under the same name. They were originally known as the London Cockneys on their formation in 1925, and since then have played under names such as the London Winery, the London Silverwoods, the London Army Team (during the Second World War), the London Majors from 1944 to 1959, the London Chester Pegg Diamonds, the London Majors again from 1962 to 1963, the London Pontiacs, the London Avcos, and the London El-Morocco Majors. As you might imagine, the name of the team changed often depending on who was sponsoring them during that period. Since 1975, however, the team has been consistently known as the London Majors, and at any rate they have torn up the Intercounty Baseball League under any and every name. The Majors have won twelve pennants in the Intercounty Baseball League, and have taken a number of historic championships in other tournaments, including the Senior A Ontario Baseball Association championship four times and the Canadian Baseball Congress championship four times. The London Majors have been a popular destination for players at all levels of their career; some of the bigger names to have come through the club include colourful former Tigers pitcher Denny McLain (the last man to win 30 games in a major league season, in 1968), former Cubs pitcher, Cy Young winner, and two-time Harlem Globetrotter Fergie Jenkins, and former Tigers pitcher Dave Rozema. The most effective of these big names remains former Tigers reliever Mike Kilkenny, who capped off his nine-year Major League career by going 9-0 for the London Majors in the 1975 season and being the driving force behind the team’s championship win that year. The grand old baseball grounds at the forks of the Thames is a time-honoured place to spend a Friday night watching the home team strive for victory; if you’re more of the type to crawl the Richmond Row at that time, it’s also a time-honoured place to spend a Sunday afternoon. There’s always baseball going on down there, and that fits squarely into Ontario’s traditional love of the game. A sunny day, a hot dog or two, and a game of baseball at a local landmark like Labatt Park – if there’s a better way to spend a few hours, I don’t know it.