People in the City of Toronto have always been sports fans, especially baseball. We had many teams that played in many leagues and had different names, but the two most well known were the Toronto Maple Leafs – and later – the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Toronto Maple Leaf Baseball team was located at one time near the Don River on a street now called Baseball Place. Later, the Maple Leafs moved to the west end near King and Dufferin on Fraser Street. After that the team moved to Centre Island where they played for quite some time. Then in the 1920s they moved across the bay to Bathurst and Fleet Street to a beautiful baseball diamond called Maple Leaf Stadium.
They stayed in this location for many years in the international league until the team moved into Exhibition Place. They entered the ‘big leagues’ and became the Toronto Blue Jays. Later the Blue Jays moved downtown into what was then known as the Sky Dome – a stadium with a retractable roof. The Blue Jays played here for many years without making a great impact on the league, but in the early 1990s our great team won the World Series, a great accomplishment for a Canadian team.
Baseball in the East End
The eastern part of the city has always been a great baseball area especially the Beach. The game was first played seriously in the 1880s on the Grand Trunk Railroad lands in the back of the present Ted Reeve Arena, now called the Toronto or the East Toronto Athletic field and operates under the guidance of Dave Breech, a well known sportsman.
The game moved to different locations over the years – Dentonia Park, Greenwood Park, Dieppe Park, Riverdale Park, etc. The best known park and the one that drew in the most people was Kew Gardens.
From the beginning of the 19th century to the present day, baseball has been played in the same location in Kew Gardens. At first there were only a few hundred in attendance to watch the games. The heyday of baseball was in the 30s and 40s. Today the attendance has dwindled to where there are only dozens in attendance, but the baseball spirit lives on.
During the 1930s there was no TV, little radio. Sports and particularly baseball were king and queen in the Beach. At one baseball game close to 8,000 people watched the game. In the same time period, women’s softball and hardball attracted 7,000 people to watch baseball games at Kew Gardens.
From the First World War until the mid 1920s, the Toronto Maple Leaf baseball team played on Centre Island. During these times, the Major League Teams went on tour of the different cities, and Toronto, being a great baseball town, was no exception.
In 1914 Providence Baseball team came to play against the Toronto Maple Leafs. On its roster was a young pitcher who also was a great hitter, Babe Ruth. This was the beginning of the Ruth legend in Toronto.
There is a story that the Babe hit a ball so long that it landed over the fence into the water. Quite a number of years ago I was on the island with members of the Toronto Historical Board when a plaque was installed in honour of the Babe’s great feat. This plaque was supported by the Toronto Historian Mike Filey.
So who was Babe Ruth? The mighty Bambino, as Babe Ruth was often called, had a great baseball career. George Herman Ruth was probably one of the greatest baseball players of all times. He was a flamboyant figure physically standing well over 6’ tall and sometimes hitting the scales at 250 lbs – but his baseball prowess was never in doubt.
At an early age, it was recognized that he was a gifted ball player. He began his career as a pitcher, at which he excelled in for many years. Then when he started hitting the ball, the Ruth legend began. Babe Ruth, or the Sultan of Swat, led baseball statistics for so many years in hitting home runs and other great feats, it would take me quite a number of pages to write about the feats of this great hitter. One of his records, hitting so many baseball home runs, stood for nearly seven decades until it was broken.
Babe Ruth brought in hundreds of thousands of people to see the games, especially when a great scandal was threatening to ruin the American pastime. Babe Ruth’s presence was so great at this time that he almost alone ensured that people would come to see him play whatever city he would be at.
Boys from the Beach
So in 1921, 90 years ago, the great Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees played an exhibition game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Island Stadium. There were 10,000 cheering spectators in the stands waiting to see the greatest slugger of all time play against their beloved Maple Leafs.
In the right field stands were a group of young boys who have been given the privilege of seeing the greatest baseball player of the day, Babe Ruth – they probably would never see him play again.
These youngsters were from St. John’s Industrial School which was located in the Beach. It is now the site of Neil McNeil Catholic High School. St. John’s was formed in the mid 1890s as a school for wayward, predominately Catholic boys. These children were brought in from all across the area – some were orphans, some were just troubled boys. Thousands of youth went through this school and many played baseball, hockey, learned a trade and were quite an asset to society.
These boys had never had a chance to see a baseball game, especially when the New York Yankees played against the Maple Leafs. And throw in the great Babe Ruth – this was a game for them to remember for life.
For those who do not know about the Babe’s early life, George Herman Ruth had been in the same situation as these boys from the Beach. As a youth, the Babe experienced many difficulties and he too entered a school for boys just like the boys from the Beach at St. John’s. Babe never forgot his days at that boys’ school. It taught him to help other boys and girls who had difficulties and Babe went through life visiting hospitals and boys’ and girls’ homes. So when the Babe found out that the president of the team had brought these boys from the Beach to watch him play, the Babe stopped practice and walked over to the place where the children were. He started talking to the boys asking them questions and kidding around with the them. They couldn’t believe the great Babe Ruth was actually talking to them. They would remember this forever. After a while the Babe gave out a dozen autographed baseballs and said good-bye and good luck. Oh yes, the Yankees won the game and the Babe hit a home run for the Boys from the Beach.