REWIND: The 1874 World Baseball Champion Guelph Maple Leafs

- October 1st, 2012

UPDATE: A few weeks ago I was doing some research on the Ku Klux Klan’s activities in Ontario in the 1920s and ’30s and came across an interesting-looking photo of a newspaper clipping. I went to the original source and, lo and behold, it was from a Nosey Parker blog post I had done on Nov. 5, 2009 — and then pretty much forgot about. It was an interesting read (to me, anyway) so I’m running it again now. We’re at the beginning of the baseball playoffs, not the end as in 2009 (when the Yankees beat the Phillies in the World Series), but now seemed as good a time to run it again as a month from now.

 

In honour of the end of the 2009 World Series, I want to take a look back at Canada’s first world-champion baseball team.

No, no, of course I’m not talking about the 1992-93 Toronto Blue Jays. Look waaaaaaaaaaay back.

BandWmapleleafs
The 1874 World Champion Guelph Maple Leafs

I’m talking about the 1874 Guelph Maple Leafs, who had been the most dominant team in Canadian baseball for half a decade and that summer came home to Guelph from an “international” baseball tournament in Watertown, N.Y., as winners of the “non-professional championship of the world.”

Since the first fully “professional” baseball team — the Cincinnati Red Stockings — had only been formed in 1869 and the creation of the “senior circuit” pro National League was still two years in the future, the 1874 Watertown tournament has to count as a baseball world championship for a Canadian team.

The icing on the cake is that most of the players on the Maple Leaf team were Guelph residents, many born in the town for which they played. As L.A. Johnson said in his History of Guelph, 1827-1927, the team included young, well-to-do sporting men but also “locally born machinists, as well as a butcher, a tinsmith, a miller, and a Methodist clergyman.”

George Sleeman
George Sleeman, beermaker, seven-time mayor of Guelph and champion baseball executive/owner

The club’s newly installed president (and owner), brewer George Sleeman (yes, that Sleeman), juiced the lineup with the addition of a few American semi-pro players, including ace pitcher William Smith. The Yanks didn’t get paid salaries but Sleeman gave them a share of whatever financial “surplus” the club had accumulated at the end of the season.

Harpersmag1874

I first became aware of the Guelph Maple Leafs a couple of months ago when I saw a woodcut drawing of them prominently displayed in the Sept. 12, 1874, edition of Harper’s Weekly — sort of the Life magazine of the 19th Century but with drawings instead of photos.

There was no information with the photo, but the Guelphers had obviously done something big to warrant a group portrait in one of the most popular and widely circulated magazines in the U.S.

I did a bit of digging and discovered the Maple Leafs’ historic “world championship.”

(I should point out here that the old Guelph Maple Leafs have nothing to do with the current Toronto Maple Leafs baseball club of the Intercounty League. The Guelph Maple Leafs, after a number of name and organizational changes over the years, are now the Guelph Royals, also of the Intercounty League.)

The Watertown tournament had been held on a smaller scale the previous year, but the 1874 tournament would last a week over the Fourth of July weekend, with the top teams in New England and eastern Canada invited to participate.

In all, seven teams participated in the tournament. As well as the Maple Leafs, the Kingston St. Lawrence baseball club also represented Canada.

(Something that is almost unbelievable today is that one of those seven teams was a Ku Klux Klan club from Oneida, N.Y. I am pleased to say the Maple Leafs kicked Klan ass all over Watertown. There’s a downside to this story: Seven years later, in 1881, the white players on the Guelph Maple Leafs disgraced themselves by refusing to play alongside Bud Fowler, the first professional black American baseball player. Racism was in the process of becoming rampant in organized baseball at that time and Fowler, an outstanding pitcher and batter, was stuck in the minor leagues throughout his career.)

KuKluxKlan
KKK scorecard for the Maple Leaf-Ku Klux Klan game in the 1874 Watertown tournament.

But back to the world championship tournament of 1874.

The Guelph Maple Leafs arrived in Kingston on June 29 and the two Canadian clubs left together for Watertown the next morning at 7 a.m. Hundreds of Kingston-area fans also flocked to the tournament, with the steamship Maud crossing the lake that afternoon to Cape Vincent, N.Y., packed with Canadian supporters.

Guelph was dominant in the tournament, winning three straight games (including a 13-4 drubbing of the KKK team and a 13-8 win over the Nassaus of Brooklyn) to meet the Eastons of Philadelphia on the morning July 7 for the championship final.

Guelph, behind the masterful pitching of American William Smith, won 13-10 to claim the $500 prize (about $16,000 in today’s dollars) and bragging rights as world champions.

Sleeman awarded each on the players on that championship team a total of $65 — about $2,000 today — with star players getting extra payments.

The following year, the Maple Leafs retained their Canadian championship but came in second at the 1875 Watertown tournament.

But no one could ever take away their 1874 world baseball championship.

To heck with the Yankees. Go Guelph! (And Go Leafs Go!)

1880s Maple Leafs
A later edition of the Guelph Maple Leafs in the 1880s — but with a few of the same players and president Sleeman standing at the back.

By the way, the first well-documented game of baseball in North America took place in southern Ontario (then Upper Canada) in 1838, just six months after William Lyon Mackenzie’s rebellion fizzled — although the account has some doubters.

Baseball is a descendent of various round-ball games that had been played in England and France since the Middle Ages and that had been fairly well codified since the mid-18th Century.

The description of the game played on June 4, 1838, in a farmer’s field at Beachville near Woodstock was sort of close to modern baseball — except that there were five bases and you could get an out by hitting the runner with the ball. On the other hand, the targeted runner didn’t have to follow the basepaths — he could duck and weave and head into the outfield while the other runners kept advancing.

The first recognized, codified baseball game in the United States took place more than eight years later in Hoboken, N.J., on June 19, 1846, although there were games played under “Knickerbocker rules” in the New York City area the previous summer.

So until someone proves otherwise, Ontario hold bragging rights to the first “official” North American baseball game — played between teams from Beachville (no beach in the area; it was the local postmaster’s last name) and neighbouring Zorra Township in a cow pasture in June 1838.

Follow-up on the KKK and baseball (and I don’t mean strikeouts)

As hard as it is to believe, a Ku Klux Klan baseball team in northern New York state was not that unusual in 1874.

The first wave of KKK activity after the Civil War and through the 1870s had a relatively strong following in northern New York and the Klan always had a social/community aspect to its “outreach” work.

birthofanation

After a drop-off in interest and activity, the Klan revived starting in 1915 (in large part because of the propaganda effect of D.W. Griffith’s racist Birth of a Nation) in a second wave that ran through the 1930s.

And again, the KKK had some weird sporting activities. Here are clippings from the Washington Post about a ball game scheduled to be played in September 1926 between a Ku Klux Klan team and a Jewish team.

wapo

hebrew

The year previous, there were press reports of a ball game played between Klansmen and an all-black team.

And as you can see from the following photo, the KKK was still big boosters of local baseball in the 1960s.

kkk ballplayers

Canada was not immune to Klan influence. The KKK was most powerful in Saskatchewan in the 1920s, repeatedly able to call 1,000 supporters — often under the guise of a social or sporting event — like a baseball game.

Toronto had its own pogrom in the 1933 Christie Pits Baseball Riot. The leaders in that violence were mainly a pro-Nazi youth group, but the KKK also had a presence in the anti-Jew, anti-black, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant backlash that was sweeping through “old” Toronto in the early years of the Depression.

Anyway, enough about the Kreepy Klan. Play ball! Or hockey. Or something,

Categories: News

Subscribe to the post

Leave a comment

 characters available