Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Old Ball Game: Ontario crossroads site of historic backwoods matchup

Players recreate the 1838 game between Beachville and Zorra as described by Adam Ford. Photo from the Beachville (Ont.) District Museum. 

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 4, 1988

NO ONE REMEMBERS how old Old Ned Dolson was when they started calling him Old. All that is known is that Old Ned hailed from Zorra Township and was about as fine a baseball player as had ever been seen in those parts.
So when the hard-working farmers of the area, near London, Ont., took a break from their chores on the King's birthday 150 years ago today, Old Ned was asked to bring his team, The Zorras, down to nearby Beachville for a game against the locals.
Among the spectators was a 7-year-old boy named Adam Ford, who was so impressed by this new sport that he never forgot it. Years later, Ford, a medical doctor and dipsomaniac, penned his reminiscences of the game.
The account he wrote stands today as the first recorded evidence of baseball being played.
That historic game will be replayed tomorrow, when Beachville residents challenge their neighbors from Zorra to a rematch under the primitive rules of 1838.
As if to make up for decades of neglect, this lost chapter in Canada's sporting history is being celebrated with a full lineup of commemorative events this weekend, including the induction of five players into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame at a banquet in Ingersoll tonight. Old Ned and all the other players from those two pioneer teams also will be inducted.
All this fuss is the result of a letter written by Ford to Sporting Life, a Philadelphia publication, in 1886. The correspondence describes in detail the players and rules of that early Beachville game.
Ford also included a drawing of the playing field with its knocker's stone (home plate) and five byes (bases).
But because he wrote the account almost 50 years after having seen the game as a child, some doubted the accuracy of his recollection.
A pair of academic detectives from the University of Western Ontario, however, have traced the names cited by Ford through land records and tombstones.
"This is beyond hearsay," says professor Bob Barney. "It's the oldest recorded validation. It fits another picture in the puzzle of baseball's opaque history."
Barney, who worked with graduate student Nancy Bouchier, says Canada's claim to the American game leaves some of his fellow academics in a dither.
"The reaction is one sometimes of disbelief, sometimes of scoffing," he said.
The New York village of Cooperstown was identified earlier in this century as the site of the first recorded game of baseball. Abner Doubleday, who would go on to become a Civil War hero, supposedly organized the first baseball game there in 1839.
Latter-day research has debunked that notion. It is now generally agreed that the Doubleday myth was fostered by baseball entrepreneur A.G. Spalding, a founder of the National League and of the sporting goods business that still bears his name. Spalding was keen on creating a suitably patriotic beginning for America's national pastime.
Ford descries the Beachville game being played on a smooth pasture behind Enoch Burdick's carpentry shops. No one knows the score, or even who won, and it probably didn't matter much at the time. The game was simply a pleasant diversion from long hours of labor.
It was Militia Muster Day, and a company of Scottish volunteers, raised to fight the rebellion of the previous year, stopped to watch. They saw George Burdick, Adam Karn, and William Hutchinson from Beachville take on Old Ned Dolson, Nathaniel McNames, and Harry and Daniel Karn from Zorra.
Dolson was so good it was said he could "catch the ball right away from the front of the club if you didn't keep him back so far that he couldn't reach it."
They played with a calfskin ball made of double and twisted woolen yarn fashioned by a shoemaker. Bats were rough-hewn blocks of cedar, although some used a wagon spoke.
The field was square, with the first bye only 18 feet from the knocker's stone. The idea was to allow runners on the bases, because it was considered fun to put them out. A runner was out if he was soaked — hit by a ball thrown by the fielding team.
Players dressed in their work clothes and wore no gloves. A striker (batter) was out even if his hit was caught on the first bounce. A game could last from six to nine innings, and teams fielded from seven to 12 players at a time. Sometimes, games ended when one side scored 18 (or 21) tallies (runs), which were recorded by cutting a notch into a stick.
It was while verifying Ford's account that Barney and Bouchier learned that Canada's first baseball chronicler led a life so rich in baseball and scandal it might have come from the pen of William Kennedy.
Ford seemed a paragon of Victorian virtue. He had a successful practice and was involved in both civic and sporting affairs. He was even elected mayor of St. Marys, Ont., in the 1870s. But the mayor had a weakness for alcohol, and it was his undoing.
St. Marys had an active temperance movement at the time, and the doctor was known to use a drug to lessen the effects of his drinking. (Which drug he took remains unknown.) At a party in his office, the doctor administered the drug to his drinking partner. The man suffered a violent reaction and died. As luck would have it, the man was secretary of the local temperance union.
Charges were eventually dropped, although an inquest revealed that a young woman was also involved in the now notorious drinking party.
"The entire town was scandalized," Barney says, "even though it never went to trial."
Ford abandoned his wife and a son in St. Marys to flee to Denver with his other son. He organized the first curling bonspiel west of the Missouri River there, and wrote his letter to Sporting Life.
Unfortunately, he descended into alcoholism and died penniless. He had spent his days caring for his son, who had become addicted to morphine.
The site of the game he described is now home to homes and a church. The re-enactment is being played on a nearby school ground.
As well, Tom Heitz, librarian with the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., is bringing his Leatherstocking Base Ball Club to Beachville for an 1838-style game this afternoon.
The Leatherstockings, who count an innkeeper and several students on their roster, are in their fourth season of playing baseball under old rules. They wear plain red workshirts and Amish-style twill pants to better resemble their predecessors. They play about seven road games a year, and today's match marks their longest journey yet.
"You really feel at times that you've stepped back into another century," Heitz said. "The form of baseball we will play (today) is a more primitive form than even we're used to."
A practice game played last month surprised organizer Bill Riddick of Ingersoll, who stepped up to the knocker's stone wielding a big stick.
"It was like a Hydro pole," he said of a hand-made bat that was more than four feet long. "It would have taken a mighty big man to swing that. And the ball was so soft, it was like a Nerf ball."
Still, Heitz says his Leatherstockings are ready.
"You don't need a great deal of skill," he says. "You just have to think a little differently. All this game really requires is unbridled enthusiasm and joy. Enthusiasm and joy, that's baseball."

Thursday, April 26, 2018

A beauty of a ballplayer

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The National Post
December 22, 2003

Mary Baker was a model and store clerk who left Regina in 1943 to become a professional baseball catcher.
She was featured in Life magazine, appeared on television's What's My Line?, and was likely the inspiration for the character portrayed by Geena Davis in the 1992 Hollywood movie, A League of Their Own.
Baker, who died on Wednesday in Regina, aged 84, was one of the stars of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Her dark good looks made her a favourite choice when a player was needed to pose for publicity photos. She became the face of the league. Male reporters dubbed her Pretty Bonnie Baker, giving the league what its owner most desired, a touch of glamour.
Many women have charm; not so many can also whack the ball.
She played more games in the storied circuit than any other player, with 930 regular-season and 18 playoff appearances. She was also the only player to become a manager, coaching the Kalamazoo Lassies for a season even as she fulfilled her daily catching duties.
A beauty in front of the lens, she was a pugnacious presence behind the plate. The catcher was a fan favourite for her spirited arguments with umpires. Those debates were often conducted in small sandstorms generated by the stomping of her feet, which soiled the polished shoes of the unwitting arbiter.
"She was a tough competitor," said Arleene Noga, 79, a farmgirl from Ogema, Sask., who played the infield for the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Daisies. "Like catchers do, she kept her team's spirits up."
The 5-foot-5, 133-pound fireplug hit only one home run in her nine-year career and finished with an unimpressive .235 average, but she had a discerning eye -- striking out just six times in 256 at- bats in her rookie season -- and was a threat to score once on base. Baker stole 506 bases in her career, including 94 in 94 games in 1946, when she was named the league's all-star catcher.
Baker spent the first seven years of her career in South Bend, Ind., with the Blue Sox. Her first visit to Bendix Field reminded her of her hometown.
"The dust was blowing and it was always very windy, but that didn't hinder me," she told the South Bend Tribune last year. "I felt like I was playing in Yankee Stadium."
Mary Geraldine George was born in Regina on July 10, 1919. (Some baseball sources list her birth a year earlier.) She had four brothers and four sisters, all athletes and every one a catcher. She was blessed with a powerful right throwing arm and once hurled a baseball 343 feet.
In 1943, she was working as a $17-a-week clerk at the Army and Navy store by day while playing softball for the A&N Bombers at night and on weekends.
She was discovered by Hub Bishop, a hockey scout who was recruiting players for a fledgling women's league being launched in Chicago. With her husband serving overseas in the air force, Baker was convinced by her mother-in-law to accept the invitation to a tryout at Chicago's Wrigley Field, without seeking her husband's approval.
The adventure was welcome. There was nothing to do on the Prairies during the war, Baker once said, "except play ball and chase grasshoppers."
The league was the brainstorm of Philip K. Wrigley, the chewing- gum magnate who owned the Chicago Cubs. He wanted to create a profitable wartime entertainment that would also furnish a tenant for his ballpark on those days when his men's professional team was on the road.
As it turned out, the league thrived not in Chicago but in the smaller cities of the American Midwest. South Bend was one of the league's inaugural teams, along with the Kenosha (Wis.) Comets, the Racine (Wis.) Belles, and the Rockford (Ill.) Peaches.
The Belles of the Ball Game, as they were called, were given instruction in etiquette and were accompanied at all times by a chaperone. The women wore uniforms of a short-sleeved, belted tunic dress with a flap that buttoned on the left side, leaving room for a circular crest on the chest. While wartime heroine Rosie the Riveter may have been depicted in jean overalls, the women baseball players had to wear skirts, often raising ugly welts and strawberries on their exposed legs.
As a base stealer, Baker suffered more injuries than most.
Before every game, the two teams would stand along the foul lines from home plate in a "V for Victory" formation in support of the war effort. Once, Dorothy Maguire, a catcher for Racine, took her place in the V only moments after learning her husband had been killed in action.
Life published a two-page spread on the league in June, 1945. Baker was featured in a photograph showing her in a catcher's mask.
The league's popularity peaked in 1948, as teams drew more than one million paying customers that season.
"The fans treated us as though we were stars," Baker told the Tribune. "They took us into their homes and treated us as family."
Once, she was even presented with an automatic washing machine made at a factory in South Bend.
Baker was traded to the struggling Lassies in 1950. As manager, she improved the club's performance, but the Lassies still finished last of eight teams with a terrible 36-73 record. After her stint, the league barred women from becoming managers.
Baker sat out the 1951 season to have a baby, and returned the next year for what would be her final professional campaign. She hit just .208, and for the only time in her career had more strikeouts (22) than stolen bases (20).
The All-American league closed its doors two years later.
Back in Regina, Baker took up softball again and led her team to the world softball championship tournament in 1953. She became a sportscaster for Regina radio station for CKRM in 1964. And she managed the Wheat City Curling Club in Regina for 25 years until retiring in 1986.
She has been inducted into the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame and the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont., inducted the league's Canadian-born players as honorary members in 1999.
In 1988, an exhibit honouring the All-American league was placed on permanent display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
A League of Their Own also encouraged recognition for the pioneering athletes, an honour long seen as overdue by many. The movie starred Madonna, Tom Hanks, Rosie O'Donnell and Ms. Davis, whose portrayal of a character named Dottie Hinson was widely believed by the former players to be mostly based on Mrs. Baker. The family of another catcher, the late Dottie Green, also claim to have been the inspiration for the character.
Baker died of respiratory failure at the Santa Maria Senior Citizens Home in Regina on Dec. 17.
She leaves a daughter, Maureen (Chick) Baker, two grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and brothers Andrew and Patrick.
She was predeceased by her husband Maurice, who died in 1962, three children who died in infancy, two brothers and four sisters, including Gene McFaul, a pitcher who had been her teammate at South Bend in 1947.
A memorial service was held at the Wascana Country Club on Saturday. The eulogies were followed by a seventh-inning stretch, during which mourners sang Take Me Out to the Ball Game.