BATTER UP: A profile of early area baseball
By Mel Robertson
A few weeks ago, in my article about local soccer, I mentioned the fact that in the early days baseball, or "Hard ball", competed with soccer as a Township sport. Indeed, there was so much competition that
newspaper correspondents, in their sports reports, seemed to have trouble separating arms and legs.
Baseball! ... If you ask an American who invented the game he will tell you it was Abner Doubleday and that the first game was played at Cooperstown in 1839. If you ask an Englishman he will tell you that baseball was a development (or a corruption) of the old English game of "Rounders." If you ask many Canadians they will tell you that the game was invented at Beachville, Ont. and that the first game was played there on June 4th, 1839. So sure are Canadians of this fact that in 1988 the Woodstock Coin Club issued a handsome medallion to commemorate the first game. It depicts a baseball player on one side and a playing field or "diamond" on the other. The "diamond" is unusual as it shows "Home Base" plus 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th bases. The use of a 4th base in modern baseball would have created problems for some Toronto Blue Jays who have trouble getting to 1st base let alone 4th base. Anyone interested in this fine medallion should contact the Woodstock Coin Club through Mr. Jack Griffin, RR1, Burford.
It is not known when the first baseball game was played in the Burford area but when the "Times" began to publish in 1886 it was a well established sport in every cross-road, hamlet and village in the area.
The first reference to a baseball game seems to have been on April 29th, 1886 when a Fairfield subscriber wrote to the "Times". He complained that two baseball games had been planned with the Townline team (which rejoiced in the name of "The Light Footed Frogs") but after the first game the Townline team had changed the date of the second game without letting Fairfield Know. As a result the Fairfield nine arrived at the Townline field and found no one to play. The Fairfield correspondent was "very provoked" and felt that his team has got left. The term "got left" was reserved for young men who had been "stood up" by their lady friends. It was considered to be slur on a man's masculinity and when applied to nine men of a baseball team was a serious affront.
The annoyance of the Fairfield team was justified for as reported in my soccer article,the Spring of 1886 was a bad one with country roads in terrible shape. To travel by horse and wagon several miles over such roads was a real test of endurance and then to "get left" by "The Light Footed Frogs" was too much.
In other parts of the Township Spring training for the 1886 season began early in May. On May 13th the New Durham team announced that they were starting practice on Philip Kelly's farm every Saturday evening at 6 p.m. Invitations were issued to players from Northfield and Mt. Zion. On May 20th the Fairfield "Athletics" announced that they were starting practices for a game with the Dutchcr Settlement "Fir Groves" (9th Concession). The game took place on June 10th and the Fire Grove team won by such a margin that the "Times" refused to print the score. Eventually, it was reported that Fair-field had lost by 38 runs in what was described as an easy win for the Dutcher Settlement team.
In Harley baseball fever was at a high pitch and or
June 13th the local team beat New Durham in a game that the "Times" editor said was played "with great determination" (whatever that meant). There was great joy in Harley until June 24th when Scotland visited Harley and beat the locals by 16 runs in a game described by the Scotland correspondent to the "Times" as "The Harley team was not very good." The ability of the Scotland team was indicated by the fact that on July 1st they *u;al f5u: previously iuvin-, cible Dutcher Settlement "Fir Grovers" 37-2.
In the meantime at Mt. Zion there had been great activity in trying to get a team together and on June 24th there was a canvas of the community to find players. This was so successful that on July 15th Mt. Zion challenged both Scotland and Harley to games which either did not take place,or were not reported. At New Durham baseball was so well organized that outside teams were using the New Durham "diamond". For example, on July 8th the New Durham "Times" correspondent wrote that "contrary to previous reports of a Bur-gessville-Otterville game in New Durham, Burgessville won by 38 runs and not the other way round." Other New Durham games included two at the New Durham Union Sunday School picnic - one between New Durham and Burgessville and one between New Durham and Mt. Zion. Indeed, baseball enthusiasm at New Durham was so great that a junior team was organized to play on John Hill's farm. Enthusiasm spread to Northfield where a team named "The Clippers" was formed.
The August 12th, 1886 issue of the Burford "Times" i contained the first: reference to a baseball tournament and whereas was not in the Burford area i but in Teeterville, the Scotland team won the $25 first prize by beating Simcoe and Burgessville. Not so fortunate were the New Durham "Hard Hitters" who journeyed to Mt. Zion and were "very provoked" when the Mt. Zion team failed to show up for the game. However, a little World Series was arranged between the two teams. This was a runaway both ways for in the first game on Sept. 10th New Durham won by 12 runs and in the second Mt. Zion beat New Durham by 22 runs. If he final win was a great encouragement to the Mt. Zion "Times" correspondent who felt that his efforts to form a team in the Spring had been justified. No such joy existed in Vandecar whose correspondent bemoaned the fact that the local "sporting fraternity" was not interested in baseball, soccer, or debating but were ever ready to bicycle to Fairfield on a Sunday afternoon to try their luck with the local girls.
In Burford village, baseball was an up and down thing due mainly to the opposition of clergymen who felt that whereas soccer was a "manly" sport, baseball led to bad habits, bad companions and the cultivation of various forms of "vice" (whatever that meant). One point of opposition seems to have been the wish Bur-ford boys had of being paid for taking part in sports. This grew to a point in 1909 where people were writing to the "Advance" to say that the monetary prizes offered at local "field days" were too small to merit the effort of taking part. This attitude did not prevail in other parts of the area for on June 24th the Cathcart relay team went to Vandecar to take part in a 16-mile relay and on July 1st Jerry Johnson and Wm. Hill of Fairfield travelled to Beamsville to run in a 5 mile race. In other parts of the country, and in the United States, Stanley Metcalfe was competing successfully in major foot races. Finally, on April 22nd, 1910 the "Advance" editor became so annoyed with the money-grubbing that he wrote an editorial: "Why no baseball team? Lots of players are practising in the street. Not enough money you say? Let's get on with it." His annoyance seems to have been sparked by the continued success of the Scotland baseball teams, particularly when on Aug. 5th, 1909 the Scotland "B" team won the Vanessa tournament by beating Teeterville and Waterford and winning first prize of $30. Another annoyance was the fact that in 1909 Mt. Zion had organized two baseball teams, the "Locust Avenues" and the "Western" team. He was also annoyed by the lack of response from the clergy in Burford to his editorial pointing out that from his experience in "the Old Country" many young men had been led into living a better life by belonging to sports teams that were led by Sunday School officials. Finally in 1910 Burford businessmen met to organize a baseball team. They elected the following executive: President -George Armstrong, local tinsmith and hardware man whose store was in the building occupied by Greenwood's Meat Market and who lived in the house that is now Burford Medical Centre; George was assisting of Secretary - P.O. Walker; Treasurer - Roy Robertson (no relation); C.F. Saunders,local insurance broker and travel agent; Billy Clement, local baker; Ernie Burgis, pharmacist and photographer; and George Aulseybrook, grain elevator operator. Membership fees were Adults 50 cents, children 25 cents. Women and non-playing members were invited to join and the hope was expressed that a team would be fielded as soon as a playing field could be found.
generated by this meeting did not reflect itself in action to form a team, possibly because the executive did not consist of men who were, or had been, baseball players. The "Advance" editor offered to play him-i self if someone would run for him but despite his 1 prodding about a baseball team most of his sports ? coverage was "shot by shot" I reports of lawn bowling and how the lawn bowlers looked like fairies as they a capered about under the new electric lights.
The formation of the Burford Baseball committee did not seem to generate too much interest in the sport and there is little information about it in local papers until after the First World War when Peter Porter formed a United farmers Baseball league consisting
of Burford, Scotland and a United Farmers team of young farmers from the Fairfield area. This league produced good baseball and in 1921 won the Ontario United Farmers baseball championship. In 1922 they reached the finals but lost to Lambton at the Burford High School diamond by 16-9. Another baseball league was one formed from local church teams. It consisted of Bethel, Cathcart, Fairfield, Scotland and Bur-ford. Not too much is known about this league but it is presumed that some of the players f^m the UFO league also played for their church.
The UFO league generated much interest in Burford. Games were played first on the Maple Ave. Public School grounds and then on the High School grounds. I was too young to attend these games but I can recall that the crowd cheering could be heard all over the village.
Baseball began to fade in the Burford area in the early 1920s and was replaced by soft-ball, a game in which Burford young people of both sexes have had considerable success.
There is no "hardball" played in the Burford Township area any more and although fastball thrives among the very young we seem to be in an era where very few teenagers take part in any kind of sport. This is due perhaps to increased
the lack of easy transportation confined people to their own immediate area and obliged them to make their own entertainment. Now with the easy and general use of motor cars people do not feel obliged to make their own entertainment and can travel easily and quickly almost any place. We must also face the fact that in the past 40 years many of the families who have settled in this area do not come from baseball-playing countries where the game is traditional. There is nothing wrong with that. I never played hardball but I can still recall the times when people pulled my fingers back into joint when I tried to catch a "softball" barehanded and nail someone coming into second base.
Baseball has come a long way since the Fairfield "Athletics" struggled through axle-deep mud to play the Townline "Light-footed Frogs" and we now see multi-million dollar players on TV who draw marvellous salaries for doing very little but spit tobacco and scratch. Time marches on and there is probably more baseball information available than I have been able to turn up.
Only one bit of information remains - How many people knew that in the early 1930s Ernie Collings operated a baseball bat manufacturing company in the little building south of the RR tracks?