Baseball History in Southwestern Ontario Has Very Early Beginnings

Baseball History in southwestern Ontario has very early beginnings and the dominance of Canadian teams in early competition may be surprising to many readers.


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The Great Lakes Raconteur

In previous columns, I have written about the long tradition of the sport of hockey in this area. A short while ago I was talking baseball with some acquaintances from the Ottawa area. One friend remarked it was surprising to him that the Owen Sound Tiremen were such a powerful team. He was equally surprised that baseball (fastball) had such a strong following in a hockey hotbed. 

He was equally shocked to find out that there was lengthy and strong baseball history in southwestern Ontario.

Early diaries and newspapers provide accounts of baseball in various forms being played extensively in the area from Guelph west to the Chatham areas and north to the Grey-Bruce region. 

One of the earliest games recorded in baseball history in southwestern Ontario occurred on July 4, 1838 in Beechville, Oxford County. The contest between the local team and the Zorras from the Townships of Zorra and North Oxford was held as part of a civic holiday celebration to honour the birthday of George IV, and the victory over the rebels in the Rebellion of 1837. 

In the 1870s, a team from Guelph defeated a team from Rochester, New York, to claim the world championship. Later in the same decade the international league was formed. This league still exists as a Triple A franchise league for the major leagues. Two of the original teams were from Guelph and London. In the first season, the champions hailed from London! 

In the Grey-Bruce area, diaries and newspapers illustrate the popularity of the game in this region. In the 1890s, two teams — the Owen Sound Clippers and the Maple Leaf Club — competed throughout the region. In 1895, the Clippers won the Northern Ontario baseball championship. Prominent businessmen such as G.P. Creighton, D.C. Taylor and J.M. McLauchlin sponsored the Clippers. 

They may have played indoor baseball in the astrodome in Houston, Texas, since the 1960s, but Owen Sounders were playing baseball under a roof just after the beginning of the 20th century. Early records show an indoor baseball league ran successfully in Owen Sound at that early date. 

The men of Owen Sound have not been the only prominent baseball players. In 1929, the Owen Sound Wawanekas women's softball team lost to North Bay in the provincial finals and the next year, once again, went to the provincial finals.

Baseball has often been considered an American invention and a North American sport. However, historian Henry Chadwick, writing in 1867, described a game played in England during the reign of Edward Ill called "barres" or "bars" which was similar to the game we know today. 

The object of the game was to run from one bar or barrier to the next. The game became such a popular pastime the Parliament of the day enacted a law to regulate the game because it was becoming a nuisance and a hazard to passersby. 

Two hundred years later, the writer Spenser in his Faery Queen referred to the game of barres, or as it was coming to be known, bace. 

"So ran they all as they had been at bace, 

They being chased that did others chace." 

William Shakespeare in “Cymbeline” also referred to this popular game: 

"He with two stripling lads more like to run 

The country base, than to omit such slaughter." 

The games played today in the schoolyard, by the Blue Jays, and our local heroes, the Tiremen, have indeed changed throughout time. This column is not meant to be the definitive baseball history in southwestern Ontario, but rather an introduction. 

In the past few decades, there have been many great area teams such as the Allenford Orphans, J.J. Grubers and the Owen Sound Bay Motor Hotel. There have also been many exciting players. 

Note: The information used in this column came from many sources, but two books were particularly helpful: Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball, 1825-1908, edited by Dean Sullivan, and Baseball's Hometown Teams by Bruce Chadwick. 

To baseball and softball purists, I apologize for mixing the teams from both sports, but for the purposes of this article I thought that as both games have the same genesis, I thought it to be appropriate.

A version of "Baseball History in Southwestern Ontario Has Very Early Beginnings," originally appeared in my Local History column in the June 1, 1996 edition of the Owen Sound Sun Times.

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