- Baseball and Softball
Baseball & Softball Timeline
The popularity of baseball on the prairies and in British Columbia followed the construction of the railway and the attraction of railway workers and settlers from Eastern Canada and the United States (the end of the Riel Rebellion in 1885 led to a surge of settlers to the region). The first teams began to appear in Victoria, B.C. (given its role as a transportation and supply centre for the Fraser Canyon gold rush) in the 1860s and in Winnipeg in the early 1870s. Initial reports of baseball in the North-West Territories (the area to become the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan) appeared a few years later. Cricket, lacrosse, football (soccer), and rugby had an initial hold on the early settlers but baseball, and later softball, became a prime sporting and recreational activity in the cities and towns of the west.
A rail link between Calgary and Strathcona in 1891(with a later extension over the North Saskatchewan River to Edmonton) set in motion a civic rivalry which continues today. Betting on games and an opportunity to express civic pride were main factors in the popularity of the sport.
Challenge games, community against community or teams formed from occupational groups, provided the early form of baseball activity. The success of a tournament in Medicine Hat in 1888 sparked interest in forming a league. In 1889, Medicine Hat won a tournament held in Moose Jaw, taking top prize of $150 – an amount considered sufficient to buy uniforms for a four-team league plus bats, balls, gloves, and masks.
The appeal of baseball was recognized as early as 1890 in Alberta as the Calgary Daily Herald noted in a July edition: “Baseball is undoubedly the most popular game in Canada and Calgary will not be behind other towns in supporting its local clubs”.
Canada’s first professional baseball league, the five-team Canadian League, was formed in Ontario in 1885. Teams in the west had paid individual players going back to the late 1870s, but the first prairie league with all-salaried players didn’t occur until 1907.
Women’s baseball emerged in the 1890s in the United States. Barnstorming “Bloomer Girl” teams were formed in numerous American cities. The Boston Bloomer Girls (normally with two or three male players) played on the prairies in the early 1900s. The Chicago Ladies Baseball Club was among others that followed. Some of the “Bloomers” ran into controversy when several shady operators tried to capitalize on the Bloomers’ popularity. One team, operating as a Bloomer club, had to flee the field after patrons discovered the players were males under the wigs and subsequently demanded refunds.
Condescending comments also came with the territory. For example, a report carried in the Red Deer News in 1909 concentrated on the appearance of the Chicago Ladies Baseball Club:
The visitors are a clean, good living, athletic lot of young ladies, who play the game for the love of it. The costumes are very pretty, being black and red stripe skirt with red stockings, cardinal sweaters and baseball caps (Chicago style).
Nonetheless, these teams did help spur the establishment of women’s baseball. The first Canadian women’s teams in Alberta were formed in the early 1900s, but never gained a strong foothold on the prairies and, for the most part, gave way to the emerging sport of softball by the mid 1920s.
1901 - 1920
This was a time of tremendous growth of baseball in Alberta -- from Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, and Pincher Creek in the south, to Calgary, Red Deer, and Edmonton in central Alberta, and to Lloydminster in the east. As settlements took shape, teams quickly followed. Outside of the larger settlements, there were teams in Taber, Innisfail, High River, New Norway, Battle River, Wetaskiwin, Little Beaver, Dried Meat Lake, Macleod, and dozens more communities.
The prairie’s first professional team – the Winnipeg Maroons, then in a league with seven American teams – helped promote Alberta’s first pro league with a barnstorming tour in 1906, playing games in Edmonton, Calgary, Medicine Hat and Wetaskiwin.
The initial season of a Canadian professional league on the prairies, the Western Canada Baseball League (WCBL), was an all-Alberta affair in 1907 with teams in Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, and Medicine Hat. The league did not operate the following season, but doubled in size for the 1909 campaign expanding to Winnipeg, Brandon, Regina and Moose Jaw. The circuit continued until 1921 (with a four-year hiatus during the war years). Edmonton and Calgary were represented in the league for all but one of the ten seasons.
By the early 1920s, baseball had become the country’s most popular game. As early as 1907, American sociologist Samuel E. Moffet, in The Americanization of Canada, noted that “baseball is becoming the national game of Canada instead of cricket.” Later, Alan Metcalfe, in CanadaLearns to Play: The Emergence of Organized Sport 1807-1914, concluded: “If ‘Canadian’ is to be measured by number of teams and presence throughout Canada, then baseball must truly be called the Canadian game.” The shift was particularly noticeable in the two new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
For example, in Edmonton in 1913, there were 22 amateur baseball teams in three divisions: senior, intermediate and junior, along with the city’s entry in the WCBL. Calgary had 22 amateur teams, in addition to its WCBL entry, with clubs in the intermediate, junior, mercantile, and church circuits. And, there were 30 more baseball squads in Calgary school leagues.
This era also produced some memorable baseball figures. In 1909, Lester “Slim” Haynes arrived in Stavely, a farming community in southern Alberta, from Washington State, and carved out an incredible 36-year pitching career which attracted the attention of even Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Ripley’s cited his 31 years of pitching with the same ball club. Lincoln “Dodger” Lewis, a Calgary area product, began playing senior ball at age 15 or 16 and was among the most renown pitchers in the province’s history.
William “Deacon” White, originally from Chicago, arrived in Edmonton in 1906 as the playing manager of a touring baseball team from Washington. He quickly established himself as the area’s first promoter of big-league sport by helping to build baseball, football and hockey organizations in the thriving capital city.
The early 1920s were a heady time for sports in Alberta. In 1921, the Edmonton (football) Eskimos were the first team from the west to challenge for the Grey Cup. A year later, the soon-to-be-famous Edmonton Grads women’s basketball team won the Canadian title en route to a remarkable 25-year run. The Grads were world champions for 17 consecutive years. In the winter of 1923, the Edmonton (hockey) Eskimos made it to the final of the Stanley Cup, losing to Ottawa. That summer also marked the debut of chuck wagon races at the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede.
But there were signs of weakness in professional baseball in Canada’s west. The WCBL folded after the 1921 season and an aborted Western International League (with teams from Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Tacoma) was shut down after just a few weeks of play in 1922. The cost of long distance travel between league cities created financial difficulties, forcing clubs to fold. Other communities, which had hired professionals, reverted to amateur ball and softball, initially a game played indoors in the winter.
The WCBL did have a good record of advancing players to the major leagues, including a pair of former Edmonton stars. One was Henry “Heinie” Manush, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1964. Another was Floyd “Babe” Herman, an outstanding hitter over a 13-year career in the majors, mainly with Brooklyn. Outspoken John “Beans” Reardon, a Western Canada League umpire, spent 24 years as an umpire in the major leagues and officiated in five World Series.
Men’s amateur baseball remained strong throughout the province until late in the decade. In Edmonton, there were three teams in a senior baseball league and another 12 in a secondary loop which reflected the appeal of the game across class, religious and ethnic lines. The league members included the Druggists, Wesley (also known as the Methodists), Hebrews, Y.M.C.A., Foresters (sponsored by the fraternal organization), C.N.R., McGavins (bakery) and Shilohs, identified as a “colored” team.
There were women’s teams through the province, even in smaller locales, such as Bowden, Red Deer, Redcliffe, Spy Hill, Empress, Gleichen, Taber, Wetaskiwin, Irma, Didsbury, Mirror, Buffalo Lake, Chinook, Youngstown, and Strathmore. However, the lack of organized leagues and regularly scheduled play resulted in at best limited press coverage except in the local weeklies.
Baseball, mainly men’s but some women’s, was played through the province, in leagues, high schools, tournaments, sports days, fairs, holiday events, and exhibitions. There were so many men’s leagues it was at times difficult to differentiate (there was, for example, a Southern Alberta League and an Alberta Southern League).
One of the graduates of Edmonton amateur ball was Leroy Goldsworthy who became more widely known for his play in the National Hockey League. For a few seasons, from 1933 to 1935, the talented right-handed pitcher combined both pro sports, pitching for the Winnipeg Maroons in summer and lacing up his skates for winter duties with the Chicago Black Hawks and Montreal Canadiens.
It was in the 1920s when Edmonton began to take note of John Ducey -- batboy, player, umpire, and promoter. He would become known as the “Rajah of Renfrew,” a tireless participant and promoter of baseball (especially for Renfrew Park, Edmonton’s home grounds). Twice Ducey was selected as Edmonton’s Sportsman of the Year (1954 and 1957). He was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 1980 and into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983.
The 1920s also marked the beginning of regular barnstorming teams in the province with the House of David, from a religious sect in Michigan, and a variety of “colored” clubs – Winnipeg Colored Giants, Gilkerson’s Giants, Calgary Black Sox, Cuban House of David, and Texas Colored Giants – making their mark in the west. They followed several women’s barnstorming teams, such as the All-American Ladies Baseball Club, which toured Alberta in 1914 and 1915.
Late in the 1920s, there was a discernible shift from baseball to softball, especially as a recreational activity and particularly for women. Softball was viewed as easier, faster, less dangerous, and a more participatory game.
1930 - 1945
The decade of the Great Depression was a time of hardship and heartbreak for many Canadian workers and farmers especially on the prairies. The stock market crash in the fall of 1929 and a prolonged prairie drought resulted in a plummeting economy and soaring unemployment.
Somehow sporting activities survived. Newspaper sports pages abounded with news of all kinds of activities, especially ball games: baseball, softball, men’s, women’s, school kids, senior, intermediate, junior, juvenile, league, tournament, exhibition, sports day, and picnics. There were league games, followed by local, regional and provincial playoffs. The Youngstown Plain Dealer probably did well with its offer of baseball and softball score cards at 15 cents for a dozen.
The state of women’s baseball was captured in a headline on a newspaper advertisement for a women’s game in Wetaskiwin. “This is not Softball”, the ad began, and ended with “Do not confuse this with Softball”. The women’s game was viewed as a novelty and not an integral part of sporting activity in Alberta.
By 1934 in Calgary, there was one semi-pro men’s baseball squad as well as a junior league. Playing softball were a six-team senior men’s league, an 18-team men’s “Citywide” league, a junior branch, in addition to both senior and intermediate leagues for women. In the late 1930s, a school sports day in the Red Deer and Lacombe area featured 77 softball teams but just five baseball nines.
Softball’s impact was evident in the Edmonton Journal’s sporting coverage in the second week of April, 1941. The headline, from side to side, on the first of two pages of sports coverage trumpeted, “Champion Buffaloes Win Opening Game in Girls’ Softball League”. On the facing page, in the same large type, “Eastwood School Wins Intermediate Boys’ Softball Championship”. There was a third story noting the start of the senior men’s and junior men’s leagues the following day.
Barnstorming teams provided much of the baseball entertainment, and they often played against each because of the declining number of quality semi-pro or senior teams in the province given that so many former players were now sporting military uniforms. For example, in the fall of 1932, the Earl Mack Major League All-Stars and a pair of professional clubs from Eastern Canada --the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Royals -- made stops in Alberta. The Kansas City Monarchs and House of David were also regular tourists.
Novelty events also gained favour. Donkey Ball (in which players rode donkeys to run the bases and play defence) came to Lethbridge in 1936.
The war years saw the introduction of professional women’s baseball with the formation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in the United States. The league, which ran from 1943 to 1954, drew upon a core of Canadian players, mainly from Saskatchewan, but there were also several players from Alberta.
One of the most successful was Helen Nichol Fox, who also played under the name Nickie Fox, from the Red Deer area hamlet of Ardley. “Reputed to be the best woman pitcher in western Canada” according to the Edmonton Journal, Nichol was the leading hurler in the AAGBL with the Kenosha Comets both in 1943 (when she fashioned a 1.81 Earned Run Average in winning 31 games against just 8 losses) and in 1944 (with a 17-11 record and a 0.93 ERA). She was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.
Another outstanding softball/baseball athlete from the 1930s and 40s was Winnie Gallen Reid, who starred on the diamond both in Alberta and in the National Girls Baseball League (NGBL) with the Chicago-area Parichy Bloomers. The NGBL was a competitor of the All-American Girls Baseball League. Reid had also been a member of the famous Edmonton Grads basketball team. She was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame in 1989.
While the war years (1939-1945) brought a surge of economic activity in Alberta, especially through the construction of the Alaska Highway and the Canol Pipeline, communities suffered the loss of young men marching off to war. American servicemen, posted in Alberta, helped to keep baseball alive during the turmoil.
1946 - 1960
When the war ended there was resurgence of sporting activities both at the spectator and recreational levels. Baseball and softball, particularly with the introduction of the slow-pitch game, flourished. Participation in baseball grew rapidly with the introduction in the early 1950s of Little League baseball for pre-teen boys, and subsequent Pony League and Babe Ruth League baseball for older children. It wasn’t until 1974 (as a result of a court case in the United States) that girls were included in the Little League program.
Organized baseball underwent a seismic shift in 1946-47 as Jackie Robinson suited up with the Montreal Royals and subsequently advanced to the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson was the first black player in modern times. The integration of the major leagues led to the demise of the Negro Leagues and, thus, fewer opportunities for many black players, especially older athletes who were not viewed as potential major league material and much younger athletes who did not yet have the experience to challenge for the remaining jobs. Many found their way to Canadian ball diamonds. Hubert Glenn, for example, had a background of Negro League ball in New York, Philadelphia and Brooklyn but was in his 30s by the time Robinson opened the door for players of colour to organized baseball. In 1951, a year after Glenn had visited the area with the barnstorming San Francisco Cubs, he was in Claresholm, northwest of Lethbridge, for a four-year hitch with the local Meteors. Elijah “Pumpsie” Green was just 17 when he came north in 1951 to suit up with the Medicine Hat Mohawks. In 1959 he became the first black player on the Boston Red Sox, the last major league team to integrate.
Slow-pitch (in which the pitcher lobs the ball on an arc to the batter) achieved formal recognition in the early 1950s and ten years later proved to be more popular, in particular with mixed gender teams and those with older players. This form of the game is also known as slo-pitch.
For kids growing up on the prairies, the summer was not complete without a visit by Eddie Feigner’s King and His Court, a four-man softball team competing against local nine-men clubs. Feigner delighted audiences for more than 50 years, often striking out opposing batters while pitching blindfolded, or pitching from second base.
Semi-professional ball returned to Alberta in 1947 with the Big Four League sporting two teams from Edmonton and two from Calgary. Tournaments became a summer staple. The success of the 1948 tournament in Indian Head, Saskatchewan prompted Lloydminster to hold its own tournament the following summer. In 1950 they upped the first prize money to $2,000. Lacombe sportsmen soon followed with an even bigger event, one that lasted for more than 30 years.
In 1949 and 1950 a barnstorming team of California collegians were in the forefront of an influx of American college players coming to the prairies for summer ball. That team, the California Mohawks, settled in Medicine Hat for the 1951 season of a revived WCBL. In the mid 1950s, Vulcan, southeast of Calgary, had a half-dozen players from Fresno State University in California. Picture Butte imported most of its roster from another California school, Coalinga Junior College, and the Edmonton Eskimos relied on players from the University of Southern California.
Alberta made women’s senior softball history in 1951 when the Edmonton Mortons won the first Canadian championship defeating a Toronto team during play at the Canadian National Exhibition in the Ontario capital city. The softball powerhouse won the Alberta title five times and twice captured the Western Canadian championship.
There were fewer black baseball teams touring the province as the integration of organized ball led to the collapse of the Negro leagues and many of the barnstorming squads.
Professional ball returned in 1953 and 1954 as Edmonton and Calgary competed in the Western International League with Vancouver, Victoria and six American teams. In 1955, Edmonton was back in the WCBL with Lloydminster and four Saskatchewan teams. In later years, Calgary and Lethbridge would place teams in the league. The Edmonton Eskimos represented Canada at the Global World Series in Detroit in 1957. The Eskimos upset the favoured United States and lost an extra-inning game to the Japanese in the tournament final.
In Southern Alberta, a strong semi-pro league survived with the backing of prominent local rancher George Wesley. Wesley’s Granum teams were joined over the years by clubs representing Vulcan, Picture Butte, Lethbridge, Calgary, Medicine Hat, and Vauxhall. One of the league’s college recruits was Pat Gillick, later to be General Manager of the World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays and a 2011 Hall of Fame inductee.
By the early 1950s, men’s fastball teams were sufficiently organized across the prairies to compete for the Western Canada championship and Calgary teams dominated the event over the first decade.
1961 - 1980
Although the quality of baseball was better and better, progress had also brought television, better roads, and more entertainment choices. Why go to the local game when you could sit in the comfort of your living room and watch a major league game on TV? Better roads opened up speedy travel to local resort areas and left fewer fans for the games, especially on weekends. Drawing paying spectators became more difficult with increasing competition for people’s time and money.
The WCBL folded after the 1961 season. A revival in 1963 (with Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Saskatoon) as a league for college players lasted just two seasons. From 1967 to 1974, teams in Calgary and Edmonton were the backbone of the Alberta Major League, a strong semi-pro circuit.
Baseball in Canada received several boosts in the latter part of the 1960s. The county’s first national team, for the Pan American Games in Winnipeg in 1967, gained a following. The entry of the Montreal Expos into major league baseball in 1969 kicked off new interest in baseball across Canada and led to the establishment of major league farm teams in Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Calgary.
A series of national and regional competitions, beginning in 1969 and usually staged every four years, provided an arena for baseball (men) and softball (men and women) for the provinces and territories. Alberta captured the gold medal in baseball at the Western Canada Games in Kamloops in 2011, and was runner-up at the Canada Games in Charlottetown in 2009. The province was seventh in softball in the 2009 games (women only) and the women won a bronze medal at the 2011 competition while the men captured silver.
Red Deer’s Fred Cardwell was a key part of Canada’s national teams in the 1960s and 1970s. The right-handed pitcher represented the country in eight international competitions including the Pan American Games, World Junior Championship, World Senior Championship, and Intercontinental Cup.
In 1975, the Expos brought their rookie league franchise to Lethbridge for the city’s first professional team since 1910. Fans had an opportunity to watch 18-year-old outfielder Andre Dawson who, after a 21-year career in the majors, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Operating in the Pioneer League, Lethbridge was represented from 1975 to 1983 and 1992 to 1998. The debut of the Toronto Blue Jays in the major leagues in 1977 provided another breakthrough for baseball. Calgary and Medicine Hat were specific beneficiaries winning franchises in the Pioneer League in 1977.
Men’s softball/fastball took a large step forward in 1973 with the establishment of the Western Major Fastball League, a five-team semi-professional operation with teams in Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg. The loop had an eight-year run and over the years included Alberta teams from Camrose, Wetaskiwin, and Red Deer. The league featured such stars as the three Petes – Pete Landers, Peter Brown and Peter Savinkoff – who became fastball legends and Hall of Famers.
In 1979, Edmonton had a team in the short-lived International Women’s Professional Softball Association. Edmonton Snowbirds finished last in the far-flung circuit with teams from Connecticut, Buffalo, New York, St. Louis, and San Jose.
1981 - 2000
Edmonton (Trappers) and Calgary (Cannons) reached the highest level of the minor leagues in the early 1980s by winning franchises in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League (PCL) to join the only other Canadian team, the Vancouver Canadians.
Edmonton had a 24-year run in the PCL as the top farm team for a half-dozen major league clubs, from the California Angels to the Montreal Expos, winning the league title in 1984. Calgary was in the league for 22 years, mainly as the top affiliate for the Seattle Mariners. Travel costs and scheduling problems, given the isolation of the two Alberta teams, became too much of a burden for the PCL and both teams were out of the league by 2004. One of the Calgary stars in 1985 was an outfielder from Cuba, Danny Tartabull, who led the league with 43 home runs. Danny’s father, Jose, had begun his career with Regina in 1957 in the Western Canada League.
Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, and Calgary continued to host short-season rookie league affiliates. Medicine Hat was affiliated with the Blue Jays for 25 consecutive seasons, ending in 2002. Before gaining a franchise in the Pacific Coast League, Calgary was the rookie league affiliate of the Expos.
In the 1990s, Alberta produced one of the most dominating pitchers in women’s softball. Debbie Sonnenberg of Leduc competed for Canada in the Olympics, Pan-American Games and World Championships. In a college career in the United States she was a four-time All-American. She was inducted into the Alberta Softball Hall of Fame in 2011.
2001 - Present
With the exit of Alberta’s two major centres from the Pacific Coast League and the highest level of minor league baseball, Calgary and Edmonton turned to independent ball (professional, but not formally affiliated with the major league structure). It was a huge step down the minor league ladder. In 2003, Calgary placed a team in an ill-fated Canadian Baseball League. As of 2011, Edmonton and Calgary continued with teams in the independent North American League.
Men’s baseball and women’s softball gained prominence with inclusion as Olympic summer sports during the late 1990s and early part of the new century, but were dropped from the program after the 2008 games. Baseball, both men’s and women’s, has survived on the international level.
In 2011, the men’s national team captured its first gold medal defeating the USA in the final at the Pan American Games in Mexico. There were five Albertans on the 24-man squad: first baseman Emerson Frostad and pitcher Jimmy Henderson of Calgary, pitcher Mike Johnson and outfielder Brock Kjeldgaard of Edmonton, and shortstop Skyler Stromsmoe of Bow Island. Edmonton is to host the 2012 World Cup of Women’s Baseball. In the five previous events, Canada’s national team has won a silver and two bronze medals. Four Albertans won roster spots on the 2011 national team: Nicol Luchanski of Edmonton at second base, outfielder Megean Cornellsen of Grande Prairie, pitcher Heidi Northcott of Rocky Mountain House, and pitcher Tara Sliwkanich of Fort Saskatchewan.
Alberta has four of the eleven teams in the Western Major Baseball League, formed in 2000 as a circuit primarily for college-level players. Over the years, the province has been represented by teams from Calgary, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Edmonton, and Okotoks. In 2011, the league announced expansion into British Columbia.
An area where baseball has shown growth in Alberta is in the developmental sector. The province has become home to several baseball academies for boys, which provide instruction and facilities to help players capture college scholarships (mainly in the United States) and professional contracts. One of the academies, the Badlands Academy in Oyen, has plans for a softball program for girls.
The slo-pitch boom has been particularly noticeable among older adults given the categories available -- male, female, coed, competitive, recreational, intermediate, and by age. For example, the “Huff ‘n Puff” leagues, mainly for players over 65 years of age, have flourished.
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