From humble beginnings to making history in Montreal

By Kelly Anne Griffin

Long before unforgettable Canadian baseball moments, such as Joe Carter’s World-Series-winning home run, the emotion and pride Canadians felt as our national anthem was performed for the first time at a Major League Baseball (MLB) game, and Jose Bautista’s iconic bat flip, baseball already had a strong presence in Canada. While many of us consider baseball a North American sport, it actually has its origins in the European bat-and-ball game played by British schoolkids known as rounders. Variations of baseball were being played in Canada at least three decades before Confederation. The first documented account of the game, however, comes from Beachville, Ontario, on June 4, 1838. Southwestern Ontario was where the game was most prominent in these early days.

A black-and-white photograph of an outdoor baseball field with a game underway. The crowd watches from the packed stands. The background shows the buildings of the cityscape.

A baseball game at Tecumseh Park between the International League’s London Tecumsehs and the Stars of Syracuse in 1878. Now called Labatt Park, it is the world’s oldest continually operating baseball grounds, opening on May 3, 1877. It was designated a heritage site in 1994 (MIKAN 3261769)

A black-and-white photograph of a baseball game from behind home plate. A player is at the plate as a pitch comes in. The umpire stands behind him to make the call.

Hanlan’s Point Stadium on Toronto Island in 1917, the first home of the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs baseball club. It was also where Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run while playing for the Providence Grays (MIKAN 3384487)

A black-and-white photograph of a baseball stadium, taken from the vantage point of the right field bleachers. The bleachers and the field, including the diamond and outfield, are visible.

View from the outfield stands at Maple Leaf Stadium in Toronto. Built in 1927 for the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League, it was built to replace Hanlan’s Point Stadium (MIKAN 3327476)

The first official Canadian baseball team was formed as a result of efforts by William Shuttleworth, who was known as the father of Canadian baseball. The first pioneering team, comprised of various working class men from around Hamilton, was called the Young Canadians. For the next two decades, teams adhering to different rules sprouted up all over Canada. As the popularity of the sport soared, businessmen sponsored their favourite teams as a way to promote their products, and the Canadian Association of Baseball Players was founded. At this time, rather than competing nationally, many local baseball clubs competed cross-border with their closest American neighbours. By 1913, there were 24 minor league teams in Canada.

A black-and-white photograph of 10 children wearing baseball uniforms. The jerseys read "Pages" across the front. The boys are sitting and standing with bats, gloves and other baseball equipment. Behind the boys stands an adult man, wearing a suit and hat. The background is a studio backdrop showing trees.

House of Commons “Pages” baseball team, circa 1900. Baseball was enjoyed by people of all ages in Canada. It was seen as a great way to develop team skills and it was common for companies and their staff to form teams, such as these young men who worked on Parliament Hill (MIKAN 3549043)

First World War

Sports were an important part of everyday life in Europe for Canadian troops during the First World War. They served as a way to break the monotony of the troops’ duties and relieve stress. The leadership saw sports as a way of keeping the men out of trouble and boosting their morale while they stayed physically fit. Baseball became so beloved by soldiers that it was even sponsored by the government. In April 1916, the government held a fundraiser with the proceeds going towards baseball equipment.

A black-and-white photograph of a player sliding into home plate. The catcher is standing over the base while the umpire makes the call. A crowd of soldiers cheers them on.

member of the Canadian team slides into home as troops cheer him on in 1917. Baseball was immensely popular with troops and games were held regularly during down time (MIKAN 3384451)

Second World War

During the Second World War, baseball continued to be a favourite pastime of troops. With the Americans’ arrival in 1942, there were suddenly plenty of other teams against which to compete. As was the case in the early days of the game back at home, Canada-versus-the-US games were commonplace. One of the most memorable games occurred at Wembley Stadium on August 3, 1942, with 6,000 cheering fans in the stands. The Canadian troops defeated US Army Headquarters, 5 to 3.

A black-and-white photograph of a baseball game. A player stands with a bat and behind him are a catcher and an umpire. In the background are players watching the play and spectators in the stands.

A game between Canadian and US servicemen in August 1942 at Wembley Stadium in London, England, a venue that held many baseball games during the Second World War (MIKAN 3211157)

A black-and-white photograph of a woman in work clothes and a headscarf swinging a baseball bat at a ball. She stands in a vacant lot with industrial buildings and other structures in the background.

It wasn’t just those contributing to the war efforts overseas who enjoyed baseball during the war years. Here, a woman from an ammunition factory in Toronto joins a game on her break (MIKAN 3195852)

Upon returning to Canada, many soldiers spoke fondly of the baseball games and continued playing and watching back home. While Canadians played many sports during war times, none was played as often or to such an enthusiastic audience as baseball.

Jackie Robinson

In 1945, the young Negro Leagues player Jackie Robinson was approached by Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey. Shortly after that initial, secret meeting it was announced that Robinson had signed a contract with the organization. The plan was to find the path of least resistance to his race to ease him into the Majors. The first step was to assign Robinson to spring training in Florida then ease him into professional baseball in Montreal with the team’s triple-A affiliate. Montreal was a deliberate selection, a city in which Rickey believed Robinson could get acclimated to baseball with less of a negative experience than he likely could in many American cities. However, during that first spring, in 1946, Robinson experienced unrelenting racism. In Sanford, Florida, the sheriff stepped onto the field and cancelled an exhibition game because African Americans were not allowed to compete with white players.

Montreal was a more welcoming city for Jackie and his wife Rachel. While still not without incident, the city and its fans embraced him. In his first and only season in Montreal, Jackie helped lead the team to an exceptional record of 100 wins and only 54 losses.

Learn more about Jackie Robinson’s groundbreaking career.

A black-and-white photograph of a baseball player rounding the bases as a player on the opposing team tries to catch up to him.

Jackie Robinson in Florida for spring training in 1946. Fans loved the way he sped around the diamond mesmerizing crowds, stealing a remarkable 40 bases during his first and only season in the minors, including many at home plate (MIKAN 3574533)

From humble beginnings in southwestern Ontario to a favourite wartime activity to the city of Montreal embracing Jackie Robinson, by the middle of the 20th century baseball had captured the heart of the nation. Still, Canada’s love of baseball was about to take on new heights. With Major League Baseball on its way, more Canadians than ever would soon fall in love with the game.

Other resources:


Kelly Anne Griffin is an archival technician in the Science, Environment and Economy Section of the Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

8 thoughts on “From humble beginnings to making history in Montreal

  1. Jane Austen mentions baseball in Northanger Abbey:
    ‘”It was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, base-ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books.’

    I always understood it was a solecism to suggest that baseball and rounders were connected:
    ‘Mr. Pollock [an American conscripted into a cricket team] stepped up to the wicket in the lively manner of his native
    mustang, refused to take guard, on the ground that he wouldn’t know what
    to do with it when he had got it, and, striking the first ball he
    received towards square leg, threw down his bat, and himself set off at
    a great rate in the direction of cover-point. There was a paralysed
    silence. The rustics on the bench rubbed their eyes. On the field no one
    moved. Mr. Pollock stopped suddenly, looked round, and broke into a
    genial laugh.

    ‘”Darn me—-” he began, and then he pulled himself up and went on in
    refined English, “Well, well! I thought I was playing baseball.” He
    smiled disarmingly round.

    ‘”Baseball is a kind of rounders, isn’t it, sir?” said cover-point
    sympathetically.

    ‘Donald thought he had never seen an expression change so suddenly as Mr.
    Pollock’s did at this harmless, and true, statement. A look of
    concentrated, ferocious venom obliterated the disarming smile.
    Cover-point, simple soul, noticed nothing, however, and Mr. Pollock
    walked back to the wicket in silence and was out next ball.’

    – from England, Their England by A.G. Macdonell.

  2. For further information about baseball’s early days in Canada, see my books Baseball’s Creation Myth and The Tecumsehs of the International Association. From McFarland Publishing. Both widely available online. Just Google for them.

  3. Labatt Memorial Park in London, Ontario was designated a heritage site under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1994, not 1944.

  4. Pingback: From humble beginnings to making history in Montreal — Library and Archives Canada Blog – Flowers of the Forest

  5. Pingback: From humble beginnings to making history in Montreal — Library and Archives Canada Blog – Flowers of the Forest

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