First in a series……..
While the Blue Jays have been part of the Toronto sporting landscape for over forty years, the city has a history of minor league baseball dating backwell over a century.
The first championship team was the 1887 squad, labelled the “Canucks” by Baseball Reference, and the “Torontos” by local newspapers of the time. The 87 team was led by Ed (Cannonball) Crane, who at 5’10/200 had a physique worthy of his nickname.
In many ways, both base ball (as it was termed then, the one-word version not becoming commonplace until the turn of the century) and Toronto in the 1880s were undergoing similar transformations, from primitive versions of themselves to something vaguely recognizable to modern viewers. The game had undergone yearly rule changes throughout the decade, to the point where it changed from something resembling fast-pitch softball to a game somewhat similar to today’s. Meanwhile, the city of Toronto was rapidly developing from a former backwoods colonial capital to a growing, bustling modern city.
One of the biggest rule changes impacting base ball took place at the beginning of the decade: a batter could no longer be called out on a third strike if the Catcher caught the ball on a bounce. This meant that the Catcher now had to encroach more on the batter, and given the hazards that involved, the evolution of a glove to help cushion the force of the oncoming ball became commonplace for backstops. Shortly after that, players at other positions began to adopt gloves as well – not that they bore much resemblance to the gloves of today, but they offered players some protection, and the game’s defence on the whole improved dramatically. Errors were significantly reduced, and games no longer involved frequent double-digit scores.
Modifications to the Pitcher’s method of delivering the ball included allowing him to use any form of windup (rather than the former, stiff-wristed, underhand delivery), and eliminating the several running steps they were allowed to take prior to throwing the ball – the Pitcher now had to have one foot on the back end of the Pitcher’s box (the rubber was still several years away) prior to starting his windup. The number of balls for a walk gradually reduced from 9 at the beginning of the decade to 5 by 1887, a hit batter was now allowed a base, and players could no longer call for high or low pitches. There were other rule changes to come, but by the late 1880s, a modern-day visitor time transported to that era would probably easily recognize the game they were watching.
At the beginning of the decade, Toronto was a small city with a population of about 80 000, most of it nestled south of Bloor St, and in between the Don and Humber Rivers. With the railway boom fully underway in Ontario, Toronto was a major hub for several railway lines. Manufacturing flourished in Toronto during the decade, as the rail lines helped easily distribute goods to much of Western Canada and the USA. With a demand for factory workers, Toronto’s population more than doubled over the decade. In the 1880s, Toronto saw its first electric lights, telephone poles, and asphalt-paved streets. Streetcars, pulled on tracks by horses, arrived in the city in the early part of the decade, and were even allowed to take fares on Sundays by the end of it. Neighbouring villages such as Parkdale, Brockton, and Yorkdale were annexed as the young city’s population began to surge. With a growing economy, the city skyline began to take shape, and while the Great Fire of 1904 changed it drastically, you can still see glimpes of church spires in photos from the 80s that are still in existence today.
Baseball may be America’s past time, but its roots stretch back a long way in Canada, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering the close geographic and economic ties between the two nations. Historians generally accept that the first recorded game took place in Hoboken, NJ in 1845, but many Canadian fans know that documentation exists to show that a game took place in Beachville, about a two-hour drive southwest of Toronto, in June of 1838.
The growth in pockets around the country paralleled that of the game south of the border. As early as 1859, the Toronto Globe made mention of a team practising on the University of Toronto grounds. But in the hearts of the sporting populace at that time, base ball ranked behind lacrosse and cricket in terms of popularity. Lou Cauz, who wrote the definitive Toronto baseball history, “Baseball’s Back in Town,” to coincide with the birth of the Blue Jays, quoted one sportsman’s views of the time:
Cricket is for elders, lacrosse is for young socialites; but base ball is just a sandlot sport, usually played by undesirables.
As Toronto grew, that sentiment would shift, and while lacrosse retained its popularity among athletes and spectators alike well into the next century, the game played by undesirables continued to grow in the city. A team called the Toronto Clippers was well established, and in 1876 joined the Canadian Professional Baseball League, a loop completely contained within Southern Ontario. The league folded after only one season; the London and Guelph teams went on to join the newly formed International Association. Toronto decided to sit on the sidelines, but when the Clippers defeated the storied Guelph Maple Leafs in an exhibition game in 1883, the city was eager to rejoin the ranks of professional base ball. One other development helped fuel the demand: gamblers found baseball easy and enjoyable to bet on, and it was widely believed that there would be intense interest in a Toronto team from that perspective, which would likely translate to good box office numbers.
A group of prominent Toronto citizens met in the fall of 1885 to enlist financial support for a new ball team, one that would play in the newest version of the Canadian League (once again based in Southern Ontario). But this would be a different one from others which represented Toronto. The network of railways between Canada and the United States had facilitated the free flow of goods and passengers; now it was about to bring in a roster comprised almost exclusively of Americans, so intent on fielding a winning team were the new owners. A beautiful, brand new park overlooking the Don Valley was being constructed to replace the makeshift playing field at the Jarvis Street Lacrosse Grounds. Toronto was fast becoming Canada’s leading city, and second best just wouldn’t cut it.
But, unfortunately, for a couple of years it would have to. Toronto finished a respectable 3rd in the league, and then joined the new International Association for 1886, where they again finished 3rd. Next year would be a different story.
Management brought in Charlie Cushman, a former minor league umpire, to Manage the club. They also brought in a pair of young Catchers, one named Harry Decker (who patented several Catcher’s mitts, which still bear his name today), and George Stallings, who decided to forego medical school for professional baseball. Stallings’ career as a player didn’t amount to much, but he Managed for over 30 years (8 of them in MLB), and helmed the “Miracle” Boston Braves to a 1914 World Series title, and he has been credited as a pioneer of platooning. Speedy Outfielder Mike Slattery was brought in to improve the defence and be a catalyst at the top of the order. Much of the rest of the roster from the previous disappointing season had been replaced with young players on their way up, or ones that had a brief taste of life in the National League, and were thirsty for more.
The star attraction was Crane. Born in Tennessee, but raised in the base ball hotbed of Boston, it has been said that Amos Rusie was the only 19th Century player who threw harder than Crane. He made his debut with the then-Major League Union League’s Boston Reds in 1884. Starting that year, he was a frequent participant in many long distance throwing records, establishing what was called a world record 405 ft, 7 inches, a mark which stood for many years.
Crane’s career was marked by considerable wildness, but IA hitters were no match for him. After splitting time between Pitching, Catcher, and Right Field for the first years of his career, his signing with Toronto in January of 1887 (he was the highest-paid player in the League at the time) gave him a chance to take a regular turn in a rotation. Crane’s bat was so valued that on the days he didn’t pitch, Manager Cushman played him at Second Base.
Toronto was easily the class of the league, but couldn’t shake a pesky Buffalo team who stayed on their heels until the final weekend. Coming down to the next to last day of the season on September 30th (there were no playoffs), Toronto needed to sweep a doubleheader against Newark to win the pennant. Crane took to the mound and won the first game, and to the surprise of a full house of well over the park’s capacity of 2000 fans, he was given the ball to start the second. Crane pitched into the 11th inning, and hit a walk off Homer in the bottom of the inning to secure the title for Toronto, which finished with a 65-36 record. Crane led the league with a .428 average (although walks were counted as hits at the time), and the fleet Slattery set a record with 112 stolen bases – though it should be noted as well that runners taking an extra base on a hit were credited with a steal that year.
Toronto had their title, and a fancy new ball park. The future seemed bright, but players were very transient and prone to taking the offer of the highest bidder in those days, and an exodus of talent led by Slattery and Crane meant that even though they finished with a 75-35 record the following season, Toronto was 2nd to a vastly improved Syracuse team. After a 3rd place result in 1889, Toronto dropped out of the league after the 1890 season, when player salaries jumped due to the formation of the Players League. Baseball would not return to Toronto until 1895.
Crane signed with the New York Giants after that winning 87 season, but pitched sparingly behind Hall of Famers Tim Keefe and Mickey Welch, although he did throw a late season no-hitter. By this time, his appetite for food and good times was becoming legendary. A teammate noted Crane’s favourite meal was a half-dozen eggs followed by two dozen clams. Invited on a world barnstorming tour by Cap Anson and Albert Spalding after the 1888 season, he was exposed to liquor for the first time in his life, and things did not go well from there. Crane missed much of the tour due to drunkenness or hangovers, although he pitched reasonably well for the Giants in his return. Drinking and revelry continued to be the central focus of Crane’s life, and when he returned to Toronto in 1895, he had all but drank and eaten himself out of the game – the following year, he was found dead in his Rochester hotel room from what a local coroner called, “accidental death from taking a chloral prescription for nervousness.”
Crane led the Torontos to victory in that magical 1887 year, but it would be twenty years before the city had a team flying a championship banner.
For more reading……..
–an illustrated history of Toronto baseball from the Toronto Dreams Project;
-the Dreams project bio of Crane, as well as SABR’s version of his career;
–what Toronto looked like in the 1880s;
Not really for further reading, but kind of fun anyway….
-Left Field Brewery is a craft brewery located a couple of line drives away from Toronto’s first ball park. They have named one of their Lagers after Crane.
–The Cannonball is a coffee-house and bar in a heritage building just across the Don Valley from where Crane used to star.