Sit down Russ Ford. You too, Kirk McCaskill. George Selkirk, you and your twinkle-toes can grab some bench as well. With no disrespect to these fine Canadian-born former major leaguers, they received their baseball training south of the border, their families having moved to the U.S. when they were young.
As a youngster, I was thrilled to learn that Selkirk, the supposed pride of Huntsville, Ontario, replaced Babe Ruth in right field for the Yankees. Growing up about an hour and a half from the central Ontario cottage county hub, I was more than familiar with Huntsville from countless trips to play hockey – but never baseball, oddly enough – there. As we reached the town from its southern entrance off of Highway 11, I strained to catch a glimpse of the Huntsville ball park, imagining a young Selkirk gliding across the outfield.
That vision was never a reality, of course. Selkirk and his family moved to America in 1912 when he was four, much like Brandon, MB native Ford, whose family crossed three years after his birth. Twinkletoes did his dancing on U.S. outfields. The border between the two nations was much looser then – my own grandfather, who lived for almost 90 years in the farming community of Mountain Grove, ON, in the hardscrabble land north of Kingston, was born across Lake Ontario in Syracuse, NY, in 1908. His father farmed in the Grove in the summers, then moved the family stateside in the winters when he worked in the lumber camps there. Movement across the border tended to be one way in those days. Players like Ford, McCaskill (whose dad was a nomadic minor league hockey player), and Selkirk were indeed born in the Great White North, but they received all of their baseball training south of it.
The accomplishments of all Canadian players who grew up playing the game in Canada are noteworthy, and it makes the feats of guys like Jack Graney (whose family bucked the trend, moving from Buffalo to St Thomas, ON in the 1880s), Phil Marchildon, and Tip O’Neill, who plied their trades at a time when there were no travel teams, no indoor facilities, no trips to southern climes for tours, even more impressive. These long-ago players faced a short season, makeshift facilities, and uneven competition. Having grown up next door to Marchildon’s hometown of Penetanguishene, as the lone kid on my hockey team who played the game for something to do between baseball seasons (and not the other way around), I was enthralled by the big old black and white photo of Phil in his Athletics uniform that hung in the arena lobby. That someone from little (population: 5000) Penetang could be a star in the big leagues was almost beyond belief.
It’s a short season in this nation, and while hockey is being challenged for supremacy by other sports in this country, Canuck baseball players have always faced the steepest of odds when it comes to reaching the pinnacle of their sport.
Happy Canada Day, everyone. Grill some burgers, have a beaver tail, and enjoy your favourite local craft brew. Think about the people who were here first in this country, too, and how we can make amends and honour them as we move forward.
One more thought to add……baseball is one big circle, my friends. The connections between players and teams across the ages are boundless. Selkirk replaced Babe Ruth; Two decades earlier, Graney was the first MLB hitter Ruth faced when his made his debut as a Pitcher.