Tonight, for the first time in 20 years, the Blue Jays will start a new season as one of the favourites to win the World Series. But those glory days of the early 1990s weren’t the first time a Toronto baseball team won a championship. To find the city’s first baseball heroes, you have to look back more than 125 years, to the star-studded old-timey Toronto Baseball Club of 1887.
Baseball was still brand new back then. So new, in fact, that some of the rules were still being sorted out. That year, a pitcher needed four strikes to get a batter out. He could throw five balls before giving up a walk. He was also allowed to hit the batter with a pitch — luckily the ball was softer back then. Umpires were still allowed to ask players and fans for their advice. Sacrifice flies didn’t exist yet. For the very first time, every home plate would be made of rubber instead of marble. And the International League — which included the Toronto team along with 11 others — would become the very first professional baseball league to declare themselves as officially racist: halfway through the season, they introduced a new rule banning the signing of Black players.
The Torontos, as they were called, played in a beautiful brand new stadium on a spot overlooking the Don Valley. Spectators could walk in off Queen Street or ride up in their carriages and park their horses on the grounds. Admission was a quarter — or an extra ten cents to sit in the best seats in the house. The sheltered grandstand had enough room to seat more than 2,000 people. The stadium was originally known as the Toronto Baseball Grounds, but would soon be nicknamed Sunlight Park in honour of the nearby Sunlight Soap Works factory. When it opened in 1886, even the Lieutenant Governor came to see the first game. Someone in his entourage had their hat knocked off by a foul ball.
But 1887 was the season to remember. The International League might have only been a Minor League — it still is: the Blue Jays’ AAA affiliate in Buffalo is one of the current teams — but the Torontos were stacked with star players and memorable characters.
There was outfielder Mike Slattery. He was as fast as anything. He stole 112 bases that year, setting the International League Record. It still stands to this day. Only a handful of professional baseball players in any league at any level have ever stolen more. And as if that wasn’t impressive enough, he and another one of his teammates — August Alberts — both hit for more than a .350 batting average that year. (John Olerud is the only Blue Jay to have ever pulled it off — back in that magical 1993 season.)
Then there was the catcher, Harry Decker. He’s best remembered for inventing a new kind of catcher’s mitt — some people still call them “deckers” — and also, for his life of crime. After a brief stint in the Major Leagues, including time with the Phillies, Pirates and Nationals, he popped up as a star player for San Quentin Prison.
The Torontos’ other catcher was George Stallings. He would go down in history as a Major League manager — “The Miracle Man” who led the hapless 1914 Boston Braves from last place in July to a stunning World Series sweep of Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, a team filled with future Hall of Famers. Bill James (the man behind the modern “Moneyball” revolution in baseball statistics) gives Stallings credit for being the first manager to successfully use a platoon — realizing that left-handed hitters tend to do better against right-handed pitchers and righties better against lefties. Managers still use his technique to this day. (Here’s hoping that includes current Blue Jays manager John Gibbons — because the Jays’ left-handed designated hitter, Adam Lind, tends to do much worse against left-handed pitchers.) After Stallings retired, he would come back to Canada and help bring the minor league Royals to Montreal.
But none of those players was as incredible or as memorable as Cannonball Crane.
They say he was a giant: big and tall and incredibly strong. He once threw a baseball farther than anyone else ever had before. And he threw it faster than just about anyone else too. In 1887, he was by far the best pitcher on Toronto’s Baseball Club. He won 33 games that year — more than any other pitcher has ever won on any Toronto team. At one point, he won 16 in a row. His “deceptive drop ball” completely fooled opposing hitters — and not just for Toronto; he’d go on to have an excellent 3.80 career ERA in the Major Leagues.
That’s not all he was good at, either. When Cannonball wasn’t pitching, he was playing at second base or in the outfield, because he was also Toronto’s best hitter. In fact, he was the best hitter in the entire league that year. He hit for a .428 average. It’s still considered to be the best batting average by a pitcher in professional baseball history. (If he’d hit that in the Majors, it would put him 6th on the all-time list for any position.)
His greatest moment in Toronto came right at the end of the year. The race for the pennant came down to the very last weekend of the season. On Saturday, the Torontos played two games. Cannonball pitched in the first one and won it. Then, in the second one, he not only pitched but also drove in three runs with his bat and launched the game-winning home run. The next day, he came back to pitch again — and he won again. It was over. The Torontos had clinched the 1887 International League pennant and the city of Toronto celebrated our first baseball championship.
It would not, of course, be our last. For the next few decades, Toronto was a major hub for Minor League baseball. The Toronto Maple Leafs are listed five times on the official MLB list of the top 100 greatest Minor League teams ever. Some of the biggest stars in the history of the game played in the new stadiums that replaced Sunlight Park — three of them were built at Hanlan’s Point over the years. Babe Ruth famously hit his first professional home run right into our harbour.
Toronto’s last Minor League ballpark — the majestic Maple Leaf Stadium at the foot of Bathurst Street — was finally torn down in the 1960s, when the team was sold off and moved to Kentucky. But a decade later, the Blue Jays came to town. Twice they’ve been crowned as champions. And tonight, at what was once the futuristic SkyDome, the newest cast of star players and memorable characters will try to carry on the winning tradition that started on the banks of the Don River all those years ago.
A version of this post originally appeared on The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog.
Image: Mike Slattery (left); Harry Decker (centre); Cannonball Crane (right); Yonge Street in 1885-1895 by Frank Micklethwaite (background) via the Wikimedia Commons and some liberal Photoshopping.