Canada’s (other) pastime

Visitors to Ontario always have a ball at the baseball hall of fame.

Written by Nancy Payne

March 7, 2016

“Touch ’em all, Joe. You’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life!”

Sportscaster Tom Cheek’s famous instructions to Joe Carter can’t help but run through the mind of a visitor to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in St. Mary’s, Ontario. After all, the museum proudly displays one of the bases Carter touched — the home plate from the World Series he clinched for the Toronto Blue Jays with a walk-off home run in 1993.

The museum and hall of fame is actually a modest limestone house, its rooms crammed with memorabilia and informational displays illuminating the long story of the sport in Canada.

Even a reluctant family member can’t help but be impressed by, say, a bat Babe Ruth used and autographed.

There’s a section devoted to the brave and gifted Jackie Robinson, the first African- American major-leaguer, who began his pro career with the Montreal Royals. Of course there’s space dedicated to the Jays and Montreal Expos; thanks to league neglect leading to fan indifference, the latter moved to Washington in 2005. (The nostalgia lives on, though — look for Expos Nation on social media.)

It’s bittersweet to see the Pearson Cup, named for the late Lester Pearson, the former prime minister and hall of fame member. It was awarded to the winner of matchups between the two Canadian teams before the loss of the Expos. Canadians in the major leagues, from heavy-hitters Joey Votto and Justin Morneau to bilingual Jays catcher Russell Martin, also get a nod.

Especially intriguing is the display highlighting the women who played in the All- American Girls Professional Baseball League, made famous in the film A League of Their Own. Roughly ten per cent of the league’s players were from Canada — most from Saskatchewan, the rest from Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Alberta. They were inducted into the hall of fame as a group in 1998.

It seems very Canadian that our baseball hall of fame is literally a hallway. The hall is lined with plaques honouring players, managers, owners, journalists, and more.

Most are Canadians, but others are recognized for their contributions to the sport in this country.

A casual visitor might breeze through in half an hour, which would be a mistake. If you read closely — or, even better, come upon a knowledgeable employee who can direct you — you can spend ages lingering over items ranging from an antique baseball-stitching machine, to former Expo catcher Gary Carter’s mask, to a display showing the stages involved in making a bat, to items from pitcher Fergie Jenkins, Canada’s only inductee into the Cooperstown, New York, Baseball Hall of Fame.

There is even a display on Babe Ruth, the iconic home run king. The Bambino’s slugging career started in Canada — he hit his first professional home run at Toronto’s Hanlan’s Point in September 1914 as a nineteen-year-old rookie who was playing for the Providence Grays against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The house holds only about one third of the museum’s extensive collection. There are plans underway to build a much larger home for the hall of fame and museum — but don’t wait until then to enjoy an afternoon in this beautiful town exploring the history of Canada’s favourite summer sport.

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of Canada’s History magazine. 

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