Baseball has much deeper roots in Canada than most people realize. Baseball was once so popular in Canada that there was even talk of making it our national sport. The story goes back far enough. The first game was played in Beachville, Ontario, about 40 km east of London, on 4 June 1838, with a ball of twisted yarn covered in calfskin and a club carved from cedar. In the audience was a battalion of Scottish volunteers on their way to mop up the remnants of the Upper Canada Rebellion. This baseball game took place seven years before the founding of the first American baseball team, New York’s Knickerbocker Base Ball Club.
The sport spread quickly across Canada. They played “bat” in the Red River Colony in the 1830s. In a game in Huntington, Quebec, in the 1830s, one Hazelton Moore threw a beanball and ignited a fight with the batter. The people of Saint John, New Brunswick, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, used the cities’ commons to play baseball in the 1830s and 1840s. Saint John’s first baseball club was formed in 1853, while the first club in Halifax was founded in 1868.
But the game flourished most of all in southwestern Ontario. The Guelph Maple Leafs were the first to import American professionals, including Bud Fowler, the first Black person to play professional baseball. Proving that winning baseball has always been “about the pitching,” Canadian star pitcher William Smith led Guelph to the world semi-professional baseball championship in 1874 in Watertown, New York. The following year, one of baseball's first curveball pitchers, Fred Goldsmith, helped the London Tecumsehs dethrone Guelph as Canadian champions.
In 1877, in competition with the National League, which tried to monopolize the best baseball talent, various smaller American centres organized the International Association. London and Guelph joined and the Tecumsehs won the first championship with a season-ending 5–2 victory over the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. It was not exactly a “world series,” but it was still 115 years before the Toronto Blue Jays won their first.
The game continued to thrive locally. By 1904, baseball was so popular in the Yukon that a two-game international championship was played and won by Whitehorse over the Alaskan town of Skagway. Coal-mining towns in Cape Breton supported a minor league in the late 1930s. The Provincial League in Quebec survived beyond the control of Major League Baseball from 1935 through 1969. It was in this league that the first crack in baseball apartheid occurred, laying the groundwork for the famous debut of Jackie Robinson with the Montreal Royals in 1946.
Notable Players and Teams
Along with Canada's forgotten baseball history, there are several forgotten individuals. The first Canadian-born major league player, William Phillips of Saint John, New Brunswick, played for Cleveland in 1879. Most of us know Ferguson Jenkins, of Chatham, Ontario, who was the first Canadian to be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and Larry Walker of Maple Ridge, British Columbia, who was named the National League's most valuable player in 1997 and was inducted into Cooperstown in 2020.
But the exploits of several other Canadians are largely unknown. Tip O'Neill of Springfield, Ontario, set major league records in 1887 for hits, doubles, slugging percentage and total bases, as well as an all-time batting record of.492 (though this included walks, as was the rule at the time; by today’s standard he hit.435 that year, which would be second highest in MLB history behind Hugh Duffy’s.440 in 1894).
The pitching career of Bob Emslie of Guelph, Ontario, was highlighted by his 32–17 season for the Baltimore Orioles in 1884, when he also recorded a.275 earned run average (ERA) in an incredible 455.1 innings pitched. Jimmy Claxton of Wellington, BC, was not only the first Black person to play Organized Baseball in the 20th century; he was also the first Black player to be featured on an American baseball card and the only Negro Leagues player from Canada to have his statistics upgraded to major league numbers. George “Mooney” Gibson of London, Ontario, was a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates' 1909 World Series-winning team. Phil Marchildon of Penetanguishene, Ontario, was the ace of the Philadelphia Athletics pitching staff during the 1940s. Claude Raymond of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, pitched almost exclusively as a reliever in the majors for 12 years (1959, 1961–71), finishing with a career ERA of.366 in 721 innings pitched. Ron Taylor of Toronto pitched 11 shutout innings for Cleveland in his major-league debut in 1962, the start of an 11-year MLB career.
And of course, we should not overlook the historic achievements of more marginalized individuals. The Chatham Colored All-Stars (1932–39) were the first all- Black organized baseball team in Ontario and the first all-Black team to win a Provincial Ontario Baseball Amateur Association championship. The members of the Vancouver Asahi won multiple league titles in Vancouver and along the Northwest Coast before they and other Japanese Canadians were tragically interned during the Second World War. And there were 68 Canadian women from six provinces who were contracted to play in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) between 1943 and 1954. They were inducted as a group into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 1998. This includes Mary “Bonnie” Baker, the basis for the Geena Davis character in the Hollywood movie A League of Their Own (1992), and Helen (Callaghan) Candaele St. Aubin, who was such a good hitter reporters dubbed her the “feminine Ted Williams.” Her son, former Montreal Expos player Casey Candaele, is the only major-leaguer whose mother also played professional baseball.
As baseball historian William Humber once wrote, “the story of baseball in Canada is that of the lost tribe... of American baseball history.” The story of baseball in Canada is not only a reminder of a golden age in sport, before it was “all about the money,” but also of the roads not taken in our North American journey.