The original Maple Leafs: Pro-baseball in Toronto before the Blue Jays
Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run on Toronto Island in 1914
The Blue Jays and baseball are synonymous for most Toronto fans, especially now as the bandwagon grows each time the team gets a step closer to the World Series. But for eight-year-old Bill Humber in the late 1950s, baseball was all about the Maple Leafs.
That's right, the Toronto Maple Leafs — a baseball team. The minor league Leafs played in the International League, and held the name more than 30 years before the NHL hockey team took it on as well.
"My earliest memories are going to games at Maple Leaf Stadium," said Humber, now one of the leading Canadian baseball historians and a professor at Seneca College.
"It was a magical place. You could smell the grass, smell the popcorn and smell the cigar smoke from the old men betting on the games."
Maple Leaf Stadium was torn down by the Toronto Harbour Commission in the late 1960s when the team moved to Louisville after the 1967 season, but the Fenway-like ballpark just south of Lakeshore Boulevard at the base of Bathurst Street was home for the ball team from 1926 until the end.
"It was a magical place. You could smell the grass, smell the popcorn and smell the cigar smoke from the old men betting on the games."- Bill Humber, Toronto Maple Leafs baseball fan
Today, apartment buildings and a park have replaced the classic stadium, but two old landmarks remain nearby.
"As you sat on the first base side you could see the Canada Malting building off to your left," Humber recalled. "You could also see the Tip Top Tailors building sometimes if you were sitting on the third base side."
Humber grew up near Yonge and Eglinton and went to games with his dad and younger brother Larry.
"If you wanted a hot dog it was very expensive," joked Humber, "it was 25 cents and that didn't always work out for us."
A diehard fan through the 1950s, both Humber and his brother had miniature Maple Leaf uniforms.
Humber's interest in the team, like the city's, waned by the end of the decade, when Toronto started to consider itself a major league city. By the 1960s, the Maple Leafs hockey team had overshadowed their baseball counterparts by winning a series of Stanley Cups.
That was the end of the Maple Leafs' baseball reign in Toronto, but it had a storied history — one that features Babe Ruth, himself — long before Humber sat in the stands at Maple Leaf Stadium, before even that ballpark was built.
Hanlan's Point Ballpark
Primitive forms of baseball date back to 1803 in Toronto, according to Humber.
But an organized, professional team using the "New York rules" that resemble the game today, didn't form in the city until 1886. That's when the Toronto Maple Leafs started playing in the International League before disappearing after the 1890 season.
About five years later the team returned to the International League under the wing of Lol Solman, says Humber. Solman was an avid sports fan and businessman who catered to both his fancies by building the team a ballpark on Toronto Island.
Why? Well, he owned the Toronto Ferry Company.
"He was a pretty clever guy," said Humber. "If people wanted to go the ball game they'd have to pay to go on his ferry before they even paid for a ticket at the game."
Babe Ruth's first pro homer
The Toronto Maple Leafs played at Hanlan's Point Ballpark in all its various incarnations — the first few wooden structures had a tendency to burn down — through the 1925 season.
In that time, one game sticks out.
On Sept. 5, 1914, soon after Canada entered the First World War, a 19-year-old Babe Ruth was pitching for the Providence Grays in a game against the Maple Leafs.
The Bambino threw a shutout game, beating the Maple Leafs 9-0, but most notably Humber says, he hit his first professional home run to cash in three of those runs.
"There are many legends associated with the home run that he hit," said Humber. "One is that it landed in the water and it's still there."
Humber doesn't buy that myth, mostly because the recap in the Toronto Star Weekly said the ball went into the bleachers.
"I always like to tell people in 1914 Babe Ruth wasn't Babe Ruth," said Humber. "He was just a guy for the other team who hit a home run."
"Either the ball would have been thrown back into play or somebody would have picked it up and taken it home and played with it on the side streets of Toronto," said Humber.
"Eventually the ball would have become a nice piece of yarn that would have rolled away into eternity."
The ball, like baseball in Toronto before the Blue Jays arrived in 1977, is more myth than memory for most sports fans today.