The Maritimes     

MARITIME BASEBALL HISTORY: AN OVERVIEW

The Early Years: 1870-1914

Community and semipro baseball in the Maritimes has a lengthy history stretching back to the 1860s in Halifax and followed shortly thereafter in Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John.  Baseball in Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island did not emerge until the turn of the century. By the late 1870s imports from around Boston and elsewhere in the northeastern borderlands began appearing on teams in Halifax and Saint John, along with barnstorming tours of New England teams, following the example of cricket tours like the one in 1874 in which players from the Germantown, Young America and Merion clubs from Philadelphia joined together to take on a garrison team from the Halifax Citadel.

At that time baseball nines were organizing even in smaller communities in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Westville, Pictou, Oxford, Bridgewater and River Phillip, Nova Scotia all organized ball teams in 1876, Londonderry in 1877, and Kentville in the early 1880s. In New Brunswick, teams from St. Stephen, Woodstock, Carleton and Fredericton were already playing teams across the border in the mid-seventies and Moncton began importing players in the eighties. The Halifax Acadian Recorder enthusiastically followed the growth of baseball, predicting in August, 1877 that baseball would be “the standard game…acknowledged by all except some of the old enthusiastic cricketers, who are loath to admit that their noble game will ever occupy second place.”

The earliest imports to Nova Scotia were Mertie Hackett and John Berg. Hackett hailed from Cambridge, Massachusetts and later played in the National League with Boston, Kansas City and Indianapolis. Berg had played for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1876 and came to Halifax in 1879 after his Baltimore club disbanded. Thomas Donahue who captained the Halifax Resolutes in 1878 and 1879 was another professional, identifying himself in the Halifax City Directory as a “baseballist”. His battery-mate Lane was described as “a whole team in himself.”  By the next decade touring teams from Boston and from the Eastern New England League were regular visitors to the Maritimes. In 1890 a four team New Brunswick professional league with Fredericton, Moncton and two Saint John teams drew heavily on American collegians. A number of players in the league, Abel Lezotte, Billy Merritt, John “Chewing Gum” O’Brien, and Fred Lake went on to play in the National League.

John O’Brien was born in Saint John but moved to the States as a teenager, and Lake was a Nova Scotian who like many Maritimers had been caught up in the late century outmigration tide. He ended up his career as manager of the Boston club in 1910. This was not uncommon. Charles ‘Pop” Smith a twelve year veteran of the big leagues was born in Digby but moved to Boston as a child. So did Bill Phillips from Saint John who had a decade long career with Cleveland and Brooklyn in the 1880s.

Before World War One competitive summer leagues were commonplace throughout the region drawing well-known players like Colby Jack Coombs and Lou Sockalexis from just across the border in Maine. The 1911 season witnessed the establishment of both the Halifax Professional League and the New-Brunswick-Maine League with a number of former National League players.  At the end of the summer the Saint John Marathons and Lowell of the professional New England League faced off in a Maritime-New England for a three game championship series. It was so successful that the same two teams competed again in 1912. The Maine-New England League continued to operate with a salary limit of $1150 per month through the 1913 season, when it for the first time became affiliated with Organized Baseball as a Class D League.

The Interwar Years

The period between the wars was a “golden age” for small town baseball. In addition to larger centers like Halifax, Saint John, Fredericton and Moncton, virtually every small town, village and hamlet in the Maritimes had a representative team that took on nearby communities. For the most part they organized on an amateur basis, regulated by the Maritime Provinces Amateur Athletic Association which, among other things, maintained strict residency requirements.

Although amateurism was ascendant, there were occasional but short-lived experiments with professional baseball. In 1924 a Nova Scotia Professional League operated with teams in the Halifax, Kentville, Middleton and Yarmouth, sporting a cadre of imports from south of the border.  Among them were third-baseman Jersey Joe Stripp who went on to an eleven year career in the majors, and left-hander Phil Page who spent parts of four seasons in the majors with the Tigers and Dodgers. Two other future big leaguers, Danny MacFayden and Bob Brown played in Clark’s Harbour and Westville respectively.

For the most part, however, smaller towns like St. Stephen and Marysville in New Brunswick and Yarmouth, Middleton and Springhill in Nova Scotia put together popular competitive teams drawn almost exclusively from local players. In Liverpool, the Seaman brothers - Danny Garneau, Ike and Kal, all of whom had pro offers - were baseball icons. Despite chances to go elsewhere they instead maintained their amateur standing, following their father’s stern advice of staying together and competing for the Maritime crown.

The most successful interwar experiment in professional ball was in Cape Breton. The Colliery League which made an initial transition to professional status before affiliating with Organized Baseball in 1937, operated initially as a Class D circuit and graduated to Class C in 1939. Over this period several players either arrived after their major league careers were over, or were on their way up the ladder. Among them were hard-hitting Del Bissonnette, infielders Fred Maguire, Billy Hunnefield, Billy Marshall, Eddie Turchin, and Lenny Merullo, outfielders Billy Zitzmann and Charley Small, and pitchers Al Blanche, “Doc” White and Jim Hickey. Merullo’s double play partner was New Waterford native Eddie Gillis, a long-time standout in the region, and later a regional scout for the Saint Louis Cardinals.

In addition to competing for Maritime laurels, teams in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick often played on equal terms with touring teams from the United States. There was an annual pilgrimage each year. Bob Bigney’s South Boston All-Stars, Eddie Carr’s Auburn club, Dick Casey’s Neponset Stars, Ray Rogers’ Boston Travellers, the James A Roche club of Everett, The Cambridge White Elephants and all-star town teams from Arlington, Quincy, Malden, Newport, Salem, Somerille and Taunton – testified to Boston’s metropolitan influence in the northeast. From further afield came Frank Silva’s Connecticut Yankees, the Annapolis Naval Academy team from Maryland, the well-known House of David club from Benton, Michigan and the New York Bloomer Girls that included Nova Scotian native Edna Duncanson in the lineup.

Ironically, the close connection between the Maritimes and New England contrasted with an absence of interaction with Canadian baseball. Over two decades the Dow Brewery Club from Montreal was the only competitive club west of the Quebec border to visit the region. Maritime baseball was well-known to New Englanders, yet Canadian audiences remained largely unaware. Some would say that this was evidence of the metropolitan disdain that once led Frank Underhill to conclude that “as for the Maritimes, nothing much ever happens down there.”

Another indication of how closely Maritime baseball was closely entwined with Boston were in- season games involving the Braves and Red Sox.  In 1934 the former travelled to St. Stephen to take on the Maritime Champions and defeated the locals by an 11-3 score. When Yarmouth took the Maritime title the following year the Braves travelled by boat across the Gulf of Maine to take on the Gateways, winning handily. Such mid-season exhibitions would be unheard of today.  A few years earlier the Boston Red Sox defeated Saint John 7-5 in the New Brunswick city. Saint John’s team was import laden and played a regular schedule in the Boston Twilight League that year.

Barnstorming clubs from the Negro Leagues also added to the excitement. The Boston Royal Giants and Philadelphia Stars led by the classy battery of Burlin White and Bill Jackman played as many as a hundred games in the Maritimes during the thirties, sometimes accompanied by the Broadway Stars. Others Black teams included the Cleveland Coloured Giants, Chappie Johnson’s Philadelphia All-Stars - already a summer fixture in Quebec - the Detroit Clowns, the Zulu Cannibal Giants, the Ethiopian (later Indianapolis) Clowns and the New York Black Yankees.

Wartime and Postwar Baseball 1940-60

Competitive community baseball in the interwar years provided a solid foundation for wartime baseball in the region and the highly-regarded Halifax Defense League.  Given its importance as the major debarkation point for those heading overseas, the league was home to some of Canada’s best professional and semi-pro players, and according to Tommy Thompson, GM of the Chicago Black Hawks, was the premier league in the country at the time.  In addition to the Navy, Army, RCAF and Combined Services teams, the bustling Halifax Shipyards had a representative club that would carry on for years after the War. Another was the Halifax Cardinals. RJR Nelson, a former player from Montreal and Shipyard executive took a leading role in Shipyards club. Nelson noted that Shipyards workers were essential to the war effort, especially in the production of war materials, supporting the Victory Loan, the Aid to Russia Fund and the Red Cross. He thought that a ball club would especially “maintain their morale at the high standard it is today.”

Many of the HDL games were played at Wanderer’s Grounds enhanced by a Navy Rec Center opened in 1942 in festivities that included a hitting exhibition by Babe Ruth and a victory by Halifax Navy over a visiting Toronto Navy squad. Big league players Phil Marchildon and Joe Krakauskas were among the many pro players who suited up in the HDL. Halifax Navy was the most successful, winning successive Maritime championships in 1942 and 1943, and the HDL title in 1944.

Cornwallis Navy, notable for a hockey club that included a number of NHL stars (Bob Goldham, Gay Stewart, Gordy Bell, George Gee, Joe Klukay and Jackie Hamilton Smyth) took home Maritime baseball honours in 1944. In addition, community clubs like the Springhill Fencebusters, Maritime Champs in 1945, and the Saint John Dockmen were loaded with players with professional experience.

When the War ended the Halifax and District League emerged, operating until its demise after the 1959. One of the premier summer leagues on the entire eastern seaboard, the league drew players from as far south as the Carolinas and as far west as the Great Lakes. Many were veteran pros, but most were college prospects of interest to big league organizations. Gradually many local stars were shunted aside. More than fifty players went on to play major league ball, including Maritimers Billy Harris and Vern Handrahan. In addition, between 1950 and 1959 some three dozen American Baseball Coaches Association All-American selections made their way to the Maritimes.

In addition to the H&D League, Nova Scotia’s Central League which operated during the late forties, the Cape Breton Colliery League which followed the import model until 1950, and various leagues in New Brunswick including the Maine-New Brunswick League (1950-55) contributed to the region’s reputation as NCAA North.

After the H&D League collapsed, former New York Yankee pitcher and Boston Red Sox minor league director Johnny Murphy offered the following requiem. “When I was with Boston we were very much interested in the Nova Scotia league, a fast summer league that got most of the good high-school and college boys,” said Murphy.  Unfortunately his attempt to secure funding from the other fifteen major league teams fell short of expectations and spelled the end of an era in Maritime baseball.

The history of early baseball in the Maritimes is recounted in considerably more detail in my book Northern Sandlots. A Social History of Maritime Baseball which sweeps across the period from the 1860s to the 1960s and in a forthcoming book on postwar baseball published by McFarland Press.