No one knows exactly when baseball was born. There’s a story about an American war hero, Abner Doubleday, inventing the game in the 1830s, but that’s a lie. What we do know is that by the end of the 1850s, baseball had already arrived in Toronto. That’s when the Globe wrote about a local team practicing every Monday afternoon on the U of T grounds. But back then, many Torontonians still sneered at the new sport — they dismissed it as a sandlot game played by “undesirables.” Cricket and lacrosse were much more respectable. And they were much more popular, too.
That didn’t last long. Soon, baseball had established itself as one of the most popular games in the city. Local teams were beginning to win followings. In the 1870s, the Toronto Dauntless played a home game at the Toronto Cricket Club (it was at the Grange; the field was nicknamed “The Taddle” after nearby Taddle Creek). Meanwhile, the Toronto Clippers played at Queen’s Park. Finally, in the 1880s, our city got our very first professional team. They were originally called the Toronto Baseball Club — they would dominate professional baseball in Toronto for the next eighty years.
Baseball was still so new back then that some of the rules were still being worked out. A pitcher needed four strikes to retire a batter. He could throw five balls before giving up a walk and he was allowed to hit the batter with a pitch. Umpires asked players and fans for their advice. Sacrifice flies didn’t exist yet. And it was only now that they started making home plates out of rubber instead of marble.
The Torontos, as they were called, first played at the Jarvis Street Lacrosse Grounds (near Church & Wellesley, where Barbara Hall Park is now). But soon they had their own 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 for more than 2,000 people. It was originally known as the Toronto Baseball Grounds, but it would soon be nicknamed Sunlight Park in honour of the nearby Sunlight Soap Works factory. When the stadium 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.
The Torontos were one of the founding members of a brand new league. It featured teams from Canada and the north-eastern United States, so they called it the International League. It would eventually grow to become one of baseball’s official Minor Leagues. It’s still around today. The Blue Jays’ AAA team, the Buffalo Bisons, are part of it.
It didn’t take long for the Torontos to make their mark. In their second year in Sunlight Park, they were stacked with star players. Outfielder Mike Slattery stole 112 bases, which is still the International League record. The ace of the pitching staff was a giant of a man: Cannonball Crane. He won 33 games that year — more than any other pitcher has ever won on any Toronto team — and he was also the league’s best hitter. (His .428 batting average is still considered to be the best by a pitcher in professional baseball history.) On the final weekend of the season, Crane pitched three times in two days and hit a game-winning home run. It was enough to clinch the pennant. More than a hundred years before Joe Carter hit his famous blast at the SkyDome, Toronto had won our very first baseball championship.
By the end of the 1800s, the Torontos had a new name: they now called themselves the Toronto Maple Leafs (four decades before the city’s hockey team started calling themselves the same thing). Under the new moniker, they quickly grew into one of the most successful teams in all of Minor League Baseball history. Five of their squads are included on the official MLB list of the top 100 greatest Minor League teams ever. And at least a dozen of their players would eventually end up in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Leafs were now owned by the Toronto Ferry Company, who were always looking for new ways to lure customers to the islands. (The guy who owned the business, Lol Solman, was the brother-in-law and business partner of the famous rower Ned Hanlan, whose family had been living on the island for years.) The Toronto Ferry Company already owned an old timey amusement park at Hanlan’s Point and the beautiful Hotel Hanlan. Now, they added a sports stadium to their empire — it was at Hanlan’s Point that the Toronto Maple Leafs played most of their home games for the next thirty years.
You can see the stadium here, built right beside the Circle Swing ride. It also doubled as a venue for lacrosse:
And in this photo of a ballgame played at an earlier version of the same stadium in 1897, you can still see evidence of the old Victorian era rules. The umpire stood behind the pitcher — not behind the catcher, like they do today. And there was no mound either — the pitchers threw off flat ground:
In another photo from 1907ish, you can see the city’s skyline in the background as well as the Circle Swing and some of the other rides:
While in this photo of the same view in 1908, you can see the Union Jack flying on the right:
But my favourite photo of Hanlan’s Point Stadium is probably this one from Opening Day in 1908. (You can click here to make it bigger.) On the left, you can see the sails of a few ships just barely poking up above the grandstand. On the right, you can see the championship pennant flapping in the breeze, with a roller coaster called the “Royal George Scenic Railway” to the right of that. Fans were allowed to spill out onto the edges of the field back then; the women in the crowd are standing in the shade of their big Edwardian hats.
Of course, fans who went to see games at Hanlan’s Point were pretty much forced to take the Toronto Ferry Company’s ferries. The fleet included the brand new Trillium, which — amazingly — is still in service today. Here it is back around 1913, in the days when the Maple Leafs were still playing on the island:
But the island wasn’t the only place the Leafs played their home games back then. In the very early 1900s, they also spent a few seasons playing at Diamond Park. It was on the mainland, where Liberty Village is now:
And it was a good thing the Leafs had a back-up ballpark, because Hanlan’s Point Stadium was made of wood. It burned down twice — the second time, in 1909, it took the amusement park and the hotel with it:
This time, Hanlan’s Point Stadium was rebuilt in concrete and iron. When it first opened, it was hailed as the biggest ballpark in all of the Minor Leagues. It boasted 18,000 seats, which is almost as many as the Air Canada Centre has today. Over the next few years, it witnessed some of the greatest moments in Toronto baseball history. The Leafs won two more championships and featured future Hall of Famers like second baseman Nap Lajoie (one of the best ever) and the slap-hitting outfielder Wee Willie Keeler (whose famous saying “Hit ’em where they ain’t” is still a staple of baseball broadcasts more than a century later).
The new island stadium was also where a young pitcher for the Providence Grays hit his very first professional home run. His name was Babe Ruth. They say his blast soared over the fence and splashed into Lake Ontario.
They played at Christie Pits (which we still called Willowvale Park back then):
They played at Riverdale Park, on the banks of the Don River, not far from where Sunlight Park once stood:
They played beside the ferry docks at Bayside Park (which we call Harbour Square Park now):
And at the Perth Avenue Playground (in what we now call the Junction Triangle):
They played on Deforest Road in Swansea:
And in High Park:
And at Sunnyside, too:
And it wasn’t just men and boys anymore. Back in baseball’s earliest days, girls weren’t supposed to play. Physical activity was seen as dangerous and inappropriate for women. But times had changed. Now, Toronto’s women and girls were picking up bats and balls, forming their own teams and their own leagues, drawing their own big crowds:
Even Miss Toronto got in on the action. In 1937, the winner of the beauty pageant was a teenaged softball pitcher from the Beaches. The night Billie Hallam won, a police escort raced her from the pageant to a ball game at Kew Gardens and then back to a banquet at the Royal York. (“[T]here is nothing like exercise and sport,” she told the press, “to make a girl a real lady.”) The next time she returned to the mound, a crowd of ten thousand people was there to see her pitch — the most ever for a game at Kew Gardens. At one point, she even did a photo shoot wearing her uniform:
That very same year, Hanlan’s Point Stadium was demolished. But by then, the Toronto Maple Leafs were already long gone. They had a new home.
Maple Leaf Stadium was the city’s biggest ballpark yet: with more than 20,000 seats, it was bigger than the biggest Minor League stadiums are today. It was designed in the 1920s by the architects at Chapman & Oxley — the same firm responsible for many other 1920s lake shore icons: the Palais Royale, the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion and the Princes’ Gates. It took a hundred and fifty construction workers and fifty teams of horses to build it. But the entire thing went up in just one off-season, with the crews working right to the very last minute.
This photo was taken just a few weeks before the stadium opened in 1926:
And this one was taken three days before the first game:
The elegant Maple Leaf Stadium would stand at the foot of Bathurst Street for the next forty years — it was the last home the Leafs would ever know. They won six more championships in that building. And they welcomed even more future Hall of Famers onto their rosters: players like the slugger Ralph Kiner and the pitcher Carl Hubbell (who once famously struck out five future Hall of Famers in a row at an All-Star Game, starting with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig). One of Toronto’s second basemen, Sparky Anderson, became the manager of the team in the 1960s — it was the first gig in a managing career that would land him in the Hall of Fame, too. Meanwhile, some of the biggest giants in baseball history came by for a visit: Branch Rickey threw out the first pitch when the stadium first opened; Major League Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had stopped by, too. Ty Cobb got the very last hit of his career in an exhibition game against Toronto at Maple Leaf Stadium in 1928.
Opening Day, in particular, was a party. Players had paraded through the streets of Toronto before their first home game of every season since all the way back in the 1800s. And the tradition continued at Maple Leaf Stadium. In 1960, for instance, the players met fans at the King Edward Hotel the night before. Then, on the afternoon of the game, they paraded up Bay Street from the lake to Old City Hall. They rode in convertibles, joined by four bands, baton twirlers and colour guards. Mayor Nathan Phillips was there waiting to meet them. He declared it to be “Baseball Day” in Toronto. Then everyone headed over to the stadium.
Jim Hunt wrote about it for the Toronto Daily Star: “Opening day is the most wonderful of the year. Fans who may not go to another game will be there. School kids who have buried a grandmother for the past five seasons will have another funeral tomorrow. And spring will have arrived. Officially, it came on March 21 but for a baseball fan it isn’t spring until the ump bawls: ‘Play ball’ at Maple Leaf Stadium.”
Here, you can see some familiar Toronto institutions advertising on the outfield wall. There are three in a row, left to right: the Horseshoe Tavern, Loblaws, and Tip Top Tailors. You can also see that the fans were still allowed to spill into the outfield. Some are sitting where the warning track would be today; others are perched atop the wall itself:
When the Maple Leafs’ reached their Diamond Jubilee, they got a new mascot: a cartoon of an old timey baseball player called Handlebar Hank. You could find him on the sleeves of their uniforms for a while, and towering over the main entrance to the stadium:
Outside the stadium, you would find the familiar chaos of traffic jams, parking frenzies and crowds:
While the stadium might be gone today, many of the neighbourhood’s landmarks are still there. Next door, the Tip Top Tailors building has been turned into condos. Across Fleet Street, the old Loblaws warehouse is now being turned into a new store and some more condos. And the silos of the old Canada Malting complex (behind the outfield wall, next to the lake) are still there today, too:
During the Maple Leaf Stadium years, the International League expanded to become even more international. In the 1950s, the Leafs made regular trips all the way down to Cuba to take on the Havana Sugar Kings. (They were part of the league until the early 1960s, when the JFK administration brought in the embargo against Castro’s regime.) For a while, there was a team in San Juan, Puerto Rico, too.
But the International League’s greatest moment came in the 1940s. All the way back in 1887 — the year Toronto won their first championship — they’d made history by becoming the first baseball league to officially ban Black players. Now, they were on the right side of history. In 1946, the Montreal Royals signed a new player by the name of Jackie Robinson. He played his first professional games for them in the International League, including some at Maple Leaf Stadium. He led the league in hitting that year and led the Royals to the championship. The next year, he became the very first player to break Major League Baseball’s colour barrier.
In the 1950s, the Maple Leafs got a new owner, too. This guy in the tie, Jack Kent Cooke:
Cooke grew up in the Beaches, went to Malvern Collegiate and started his career by selling encyclopedias. But before long, he had landed a media job under Roy Thomson; by the time he turned 30, he’d already made his first million. Eventually, he would go on to own the L.A. Lakers, the L.A. Kings, the L.A. Daily News, and the racistly-named football team in Washington. He even bought the Chrysler Building in New York City. He owned it until the day he died.
When he took over the Leafs, they were struggling. Attendance was down; the teams were terrible. But Cooke turned it all around, investing in star players and doing everything he could to make Maple Leaf Stadium the place to be, no matter how crazy his ideas might seem. There were raffles. Giveaways. Free hot dog promotions. Celebrity guests. Ladies’ nights. Family nights. Cheerleaders. Flagpole sitters. Fireworks. One night, they gave away a pony. Another day, there was a diaper-changing contest held at home plate. Players were drafted into a cow-milking competition. If you brought a black cat to the stadium on Friday the 13th, you got free tickets. And it all worked like a charm. Attendance doubled, setting a new Minor League record. Cooke was named Minor League Executive of the Year. The team even started winning pennants again.
But Cooke’s big dream was to bring a Major League Baseball team to Toronto. People had been talking about it ever since the 1800s. Even Al Spalding, the founder of the National League, had suggested it. And Cooke was determined to finally make it happen. Every time a Major League team was struggling, or thinking about moving to a new city, there he was with his cheque book in his hand. He tried to buy the Braves. The Orioles. The A’s. The Tigers. When that didn’t work, he tried to land an expansion franchise. But he was foiled at every turn.
Eventually, he gave up. He moved to Los Angeles and sold the Leafs. It was the death knell for the franchise. They would only last another three years. After eight decades as the biggest baseball team in Toronto, the Maple Leafs were finished. They moved to Louisville in 1967. Maple Leaf Stadium was demolished in 1968. Today, there are condos and a gas station where it once stood.
But Cooke wasn’t the only one who dreamed of bringing Major League Baseball to Toronto.
In the 1970s, there was a new ownership group who followed in his footsteps. Labatt teamed up with CIBC and the head of the Globe and Mail. They were planning to buy the San Francisco Giants and move them to Toronto. In 1976, the deal was done. They’d even renovated Exhibition Stadium to accommodate the new team. But then the mayor of San Francisco stepped in. There was a court case. San Francisco won. The Giants stayed where they were.
But the dream still wasn’t dead. There was one more chance. The Major Leagues were expanding; they were going to add two more teams the following year. One would end up in Seattle. The other, it seemed, would come down to Washington or Toronto — with President Gerald Ford lobbying hard on behalf of the American capital.
On April 7, 1977, it was snowing in Toronto. But no one cared. More than 40,000 people made the trek down to crappy old Exhibition Stadium on the CNE Grounds. They packed the bleachers overlooking the artificial turf, huddling against the cold while a Zamboni borrowed from Maple Leaf Gardens cleared the snow off the field. Mayor David Crombie was there that day. So was Foster Hewitt. All over the country, people tuned into the CBC to watch Anne Murray sing “O Canada”. And then, for the very first time, the Toronto Blue Jays took the field.
Ten years after the death of the Maple Leafs, baseball was back in Toronto. And the rest, as they say, is history:
A version of this post originally appeared on the The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog. You can find more sources, links, click-to-make-bigger-able photos, and related stories there.
Great article! I’m a big ball fan, live near Perth Park and treasure those archive shots – I was just looking at my copy of that one photo and thinking that it’s exactly 100 years since it was taken in a few weeks.
What a fantastic story! Thanks.
Fantastic article & photos. An amazing history of baseball.
I not only used to go to some games at the old Maple Leaf Stadium, I even became a part owner of the team when I was about 14! The group that bought the team from Jack Kent Cooke at one point tried “community ownership”, selling shares for $1. I bought 20 of them. I wish I had that stock certificate now…
Thank you for writing this. I always found it odd that the Blue Jays ignore the long and storied history of baseball in Toronto, as if it started in 1977. People think I’m mistaken when I tell them that the baseball Leafs predate their hockey namesakes and that our history includes the names of Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Ty Cobb, Spark Anderson and even Jack Kent Cooke who was such a larger than life figure south of the border with the Redskins, Kings and Lakers.