1897 Maple Leafs Brought Base Ball Back to Toronto to Stay

Second in a series…..

Buck Freeman

In our last post on this topic, we saw the burgeoning city of Toronto burst onto the professional base ball scene by clinching the International Association title on the last day of the 1887 season.

Toronto’s success was to be short-lived, however, as many of their stars were scooped up by teams in higher leagues the following season.  Jumping teams and leagues from one season to another – and sometimes in mid-season – was not uncommon in the early days of the game.  In response, the National League had quietly established a Reserve Clause in 1879, which bound players to one team until the team decided their services were no longer necessary.  The owners felt the rule created more stability in allowing teams to keep much the same roster from year to year.  At first, the players appreciated the stability and security of a contract as well, but they chafed when the Reserve Clause was used to restrict salaries.

Despite its attempts to corner the market on players, the National League did not have a monopoly on the top players in the game.  The rival American Association began play in 1882, offering fans Sunday baseball, beer, and cheaper ticket prices.  When the rebelling players formed their own league in 1890, the rosters of minor league teams like Toronto’s were decimated, with three major leagues now bidding for the services of players.  Faced with escalating player salaries, Toronto ceased operations as an International Association franchise on July 9th, 1890.  It would be five years before base ball returned to Toronto.

A large town of 81 000 at the beginning of the previous decade, Toronto’s population had more than doubled a decade later, as the city became a major centre for railways, manufacturing, and finance.  The skyline of Toronto continued to change as capital poured in from all directions.  Churches were still the dominant structures, but impressive new buildings sprung up in the 1890s, including the Flatiron Building, Queen’s Park, and City Hall.  The former sleepy government and military town was becoming a bustling city in every way.  And with a booming economy, the city’s inhabitants had the means and the desire to seek amusements in their leisure time.  One of the places where many flocked on weekends was the Toronto Islands.

Queen’s Park

To the east of the downtown Toronto waterfront lies the Scarborough Bluffs, an impressive height of land that stretches for several miles along the Lake Ontario shoreline.  Sediment from the erosion of the Bluffs found its way into the Lake, where currents carried it westward, and deposited it in the form of sandbars across Toronto harbour.  By the early 1800s, the longest of these bars stretched almost 9 kilometers, forming a peninsula that featured a carriage road from town.  A severe storm in 1858 washed away a major section of the peninsula toward the eastern end.  The resulting islands that were formed became popular with the wealthy and working class alike, with the former building grand summer homes on the islands, and the latter flocking to the new hotels and amusement park that were built.  A ferry service from the docks at the foot of Yonge Street, the main street of the city dating back to its founding, brought passengers the short distance to the islands.

As baseball was changing off the field in the 1890s, its development on the field continued, as it more and more came to resemble the game we know today.  In the 80s, a series of adjustments had turned the game over to the Pitchers: restrictions on the delivery of the ball, as well as a gradual reduction in the number of balls needed for a walk had meant a decrease in hits.  Runs were still abundant because of the number of errors committed by both teams per game, but with the introduction and improvement of gloves, offence declined by the start of the decade.  Moving the pitcher’s mound from 50′ to its current distance of 60’6″ evened the tables for the hitter, and the game had all but finished its evolution from its early years.  Rosters had expanded, as teams could no longer rely on one or two Pitchers to sustain them through the year.

The Players League lasted only the 1890 season, and the American Association ceased to exist after the following year, bringing some stability back to both the Major and Minor Leagues.  Toronto returned to the International Association, now known as the Eastern League, in 1895.  But after a lengthy absence, the team had some distance to travel in order to win back fans who had found other diversions.  The team had to share the field at Sunlight Park, their former Queen Street haunt.  Cannonball Crane, who had almost single-handedly pitched and hit Toronto to the 1887 title, was brought back, but he was a shadow of his former self.  A guy who liked a good time, Crane had all but eaten and drank his way out of the National League, and Toronto released him in July.  Crane tried to return to the NL as an Umpire the following season, but he was fired after only several games due to concerns about his game-calling and drunkenness.  The 1896 team showed some promise, bringing in future big leaguers Buck Freeman and Bill Dinneen, but had trouble drawing fans, and played their July home games in Albany, NY.

It would not be until 1897 that Toronto’s baseball fortunes turned around.  Toronto entrepreneur Lol Solman, proprietor of a hotel/restaurant and the amusement park on Centre Island, also owned the ferry company that brought fans over from the mainland, bought the team, and renamed them the Maple Leafs (four decades before Conn Smythe took the name for his hockey team).  Solman moved the team over to the island to play at newly built Hanlan’s Point stadium, and Toronto was about to embark on over a half century of minor league success.  For 50 cents, fans could get a ride on the ferry and a seat at the ballpark to watch either the Maple Leafs, or the lacrosse team Solman also owned.  Spectators flocked to the new ballpark to see the new and improved Maple Leafs in droves – at one point, as many as twelve ferries were needed to shuttle fans back and forth.

Game at Hanlan’s Point – 1897

Toronto won only five of its first twenty-five games, but new Manager Foxy Irwin’s club caught fire, and went 70-24 to finish 2nd behind Syracuse.  Freeman took aim at Hanlan Point’s short right field fence, hitting 20 HRs to go with a .357 average, both tops in the league.  Dinneen was the ace, winning 21 games, including 17 of 18 decisions at one point.  1st Baseman Dan McGann set a league record with 22 triples.  All three would go on to successful MLB careers – Freeman drove in 100+ runs 9 times with the Senators and Red Sox, while Dinneen threw the first shutout in World Series history, and went on to a long and distinguished career as an American League umpire after is playing career.  McGann collected over 1400 hits in a 12 year MLB career.

  A Syracuse brewery had offered a cup to go to a playoff between the first and second place finishers in the league a year earlier, and Toronto made short work of Syracuse in the 1897 final, taking the first three games on the south side of Lake Ontario before returning home to finish the Stars off in the fourth and final game.

Unlike Toronto’s previous championship team, the 1897 outfit was to prove that the pro game was here for the long run.

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