How Canada invented ‘American’ football, baseball, basketball and hockey

How Canada invented ‘American’ football, baseball, basketball and hockey


North America's favourite sports all have Canadian roots

By David Giddens, CBC Sports
June 15, 2017
 

Editor's note: This is part of CBC Sports' series of stories celebrating some of Canada's top sports heroes and moments as the country marks its 150th birthday this year. We've also revisited the lives of baseball hall of famer Ferguson Jenkins, speed skater Gaetan Boucher, skier Nancy Greene, figure skater Barbara Ann Scott, distance runner Tom Longboat, Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer, sprinter Harry Jerome, auto racing's Villeneuve family and track star/sports writer Bobbie RosenfeldWe've also explored the Richard Riot and Babe Ruth's Canadian connections.

Find all of CBC Sports' Canada 150 stories here.

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The combined revenues for the four major North American pro sports leagues are pretty close to $50 billion a year. That's in Canadian dollars.

And, yes, we should measure in Canadian dollars. That's because, despite the tub thumping from our southern neighbours, the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball all have Canadian roots.

It’s true. Canada more or less cooked up all of North America's "Big Four" sports. We’re just too humble to brag about it. Except, as a proud immigrant here, I can bend the national code of conduct and dismiss the alternative facts.

America’s Pastime? Sorry, Abner Doubleday, Canada played it first. And a Canadian baseball hall of famer also takes credit for the earliest baseball glove. Plus, we patented the bases.

American football? Canadians introduced the U.S. to a new game that borrowed a lot from rugby. The Americans loved it, and so we helped them tweak the rules into that thing they now air between Super Bowl ads.

James Naismith? Everybody knows the Canadian invented basketball.

Hockey? Well, of course. But let’s have a quick review anyway, just in case you need to marshal your arguments for the next time you tipple with American friends.

 
 

Hockey: Let the scrum on ice begin

In 1875, Montreal’s Victoria Skating Rink was an unheated indoor ice pad, just below Rue Sainte-Catherine. The facility had previously caught the eye of engineer and rugby fan James Creighton, who wanted a place to play a game that he and his rugby buddies used to stay in shape during the winter. The rink, being covered, was perfect for their needs. Not because the roof kept the snow off, but because the walls shielded their play from disapproving eyes.

Creighton and his teammates liked to play on Sundays, but Montreal in the 1870s was not yet a town where mirth was permitted on the Sabbath. The rink closed on the Lord’s day, but our hockey pioneers slipped the caretaker a few quiet bucks each week to let them in. In so doing, Creighton established not just the birth of our scrum on ice, but also the fine art of weaseling good rink times for your team.

So, the rugby player on skates and his friends laid out the rules of hockey, and then, as a fundraiser in the days before chocolate-covered almonds, they held the first public game. It made the newspapers and everything, which is how we can be so sure of the dates.

On Wednesday, March 3, 1875, the Montreal Gazette announced what we now recognize as the first recorded game of hockey:

“A game of Hockey will be played at the Victoria Skating Rink this evening, between two nines chose from among the members. Good fun may be expected, as some of the players are reputed to be exceedingly expert at the game. Some fears have been expressed on the part of intending spectators that accidents were were likely to occur through the ball flying about in too lively a manner, to the imminent danger of lookers on, but we understand that the game will be played with a flat circular piece of wood, thus preventing all danger of its leaving the surface of the ice. Subscribers will be admitted on presentation of their tickets.”

A century and change before the invention of StubHub, and tickets were already precious. It is not clear if that "flat circular piece of wood" really did stay on the ice surface for the entire game, but there is no record of the puck injuring anyone watching.

We cannot say the same for our hockey players. In 2016, writer John Kalbfleish dug into early accounts of that historic first recorded game, and unearthed the juicy morsel that it ended in a hellacious brawl.

The cause of the donnybrook is a little unclear. One version says that some boys who got bored of watching decided to run out and play around on the ice, which resulted in an adult hitting one of the little rink rats on the head. “The man who did so was called to account, a regular fight taking place in which a bench was broken and other damage caused.”

Or it could have been a different beef altogether. The hockey game went long, annoying the Victoria Rink’s figure skating club, which had booked that ice time. It sounds a lot like the figure skaters, milling among the fans, started chirping the hockey players. Words got a little heated, and the scrap was on. A Kingston newspaper reported: “Shins and heads were battered, benches smashed and the lady spectators fled in confusion.”

 
 

Basketball: The Reverend’s slam dunk

Dr. James Naismith. (Canadian Press/Associated Press)
Dr. James Naismith. (Canadian Press/Associated Press)

A funny thing about the Canadian inventor of the sport that gave us Dennis Rodman, Bobby Knight, Latrell Sprewell and Bill Laimbeer: the goal of James Naismith’s game was to wring good behaviour from its players.

On Dec. 21, 1891, Ontario’s Naismith was working at the School for Christian Workers in Springfield, Mass. His boss asked him to invent an indoor game that would distract the otherwise rowdy students, who were horsing around far too much during the long winter term.

Naismith, who lived his first 30 years in Canada, would have been a handful in any sport he played. He was not a big bloke, but his strength was legendary. He was athlete of the year at McGill University in Montreal, and by all accounts a natural at everything physical. On top of that, he earned 11 degrees in his studies and became both a doctor and a priest — which probably gave his sickest patients a moment’s pause.

The story of Naismith’s invention, nailing up peach baskets to use as goals, is too well known to dwell on here. But it's interesting to note that, in the early days, play had to stop after each basket while someone propped up a ladder, climbed it and fished the ball out of the basket.

Naismith wrote the first basketball rules. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press) Naismith wrote the first basketball rules. (Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press)

For such a learned gentleman, the fix for that vexing problem was surprisingly elusive. Naismith’s first workaround was to drill a little hole in the basket bottoms, so that players would only need to stop long enough to jab a long pole through and knock the ball back out.

What is amazing, to this day, is how quickly the game’s fame spread. Naismith’s 13 rules of basketball were published in a YMCA magazine and — presto — the game was everywhere. Within a year sportswriters were already covering the basketball beat.

Naismith remained modest and humble about the entire invention. People suggested his game be called Naismithball but he pooh-poohed that. He never sought money for it. And other than throwing up the ceremonial first jump ball in Berlin in 1936 to get the Olympic basketball tourney started, he never showed much interest in fame either.

Oddly enough, Naismith didn’t even think too highly of his own game. When he considered the original reason for its invention, Naismith always thought that gymnastics and rugby were better teachers of quality life lessons for the young and rowdy.

 
 

American football: Made in Montreal

This is the riskiest thing I will ever write. I can picture a smouldering haystack in a Bills jersey giving me a thumping for it. But here goes:

Canadians gave Americans their football game. We showed them that there was a whole new kind of ball to play with, kind of an egg-shaped thing, and that there was a game called rugby, and that with a little rule tinkering here and there they could use that new ball and new set of rules to develop a very lucrative sports property.

$30 billion a year later, and they still don’t want us to watch their Super Bowl ads. Such ingratitude.

The gory details are these: In the spring of 1874, McGill University (again McGill!) sent a letter to Harvard University, challenging them to a couple of friendly-ish games of "Foot-ball" in Cambridge, Mass. The idea was to play two different games — one using Harvard’s rules, the other with McGill's.

Harvard accepted the challenge, and on May 13 or 14, 1874 (the accounts vary) intercollegiate American football made its debut. Five hundred people showed up and paid 50 cents each to watch, which proves that college ball was destined to be a big deal from the get-go.

They played Harvard rules on the first day. From a distance, the game must have looked like soccer with a lot of cheating. Harvard’s so-called "Boston game" involved 11 men per side, kicking a soccer ball, but players also had the option of picking up the ball and running with it, as long as an opponent was chasing them. If the chaser stopped, the player had to kick or throw the ball away. It was a little bit of an oddity, this game, and history shows us that it fizzled from the popular record. Harvard won its version of football handily.

The next day, McGill and Harvard met again on the field, and McGill laid out the rules for its game. First of all, a wobbly, oblong, rugby-type of ball was used. The Canadian game allowed 13 players per side to kick, throw or carry the ball. There were downs, there were "tries" in the rugby sense (which quickly came to be known as touchdowns) and there was tackling.

On that day, football, as Americans came to know it, was played for the first time in America.

That first match finished tied at zeroes. The players put some of the $250 gate toward a big party that night, and the rest of it helped cover McGill’s travel costs.

Scorelessness aside, the Harvard team was smitten with this new sport. They had such a hoot playing McGill’s game that the Harvard team taught the rules to its rivals at Yale the next year.  Princeton was the third American school to fall for football. After that, the game took off like a turkey through the corn. All the colleges were playing football shortly thereafter. Next thing you know, half the planet bears witness to a "wardrobe malfunction" in the same instant.

You’re welcome, America.

 
 

Baseball: Canada's pastime?

It always was a load of old hooey, that story about Abner Doubleday inventing baseball.

Doubleday really was an American war hero. He really did fire the first shot in defence of Fort Sumter in April 1861, which really did start the American Civil War.

But the whole business of him dreaming up the game of baseball? That was just a marketing ploy, sponsored and encouraged by Mr. Spalding of sporting goods fame, who wanted everyone to believe that baseball was 100 per cent all-American (Doubleday was already a resident of Arlington Cemetery when the myth was invented).

Toronto's Foxy Irwin introduced the fielder's glove to baseball. Toronto's Foxy Irwin introduced the fielder's glove to baseball.

The truest version of events is that baseball wasn’t invented by anyone. It’s kind of like barbecue sauce. There are lots of versions, and they all have their delightful regional differences, but nobody can claim real authorship.

Baseball, as we know it, came together fitfully, over decades and decades. There are etchings of people playing something called "Bass-Ball" in Guildford in Southern England in the 1740s. And certainly, English immigrants to Canada and the U.S. brought games like cricket and rounders and stickball with them. So there was plenty of baseball-ish play going on in North America as far back as the mid-1800s.

In 1791, Pittsfield, Mass., passed a bylaw forbidding all manner of ball games in the field near the town meeting house. Glass was expensive, and the town had gotten fed up with replacing broken windows. "Baseball" was on the long list of Pittsfield’s verboten hijinx, so there is recorded proof that "baseball" — whatever that actually meant — was a known thing way back then. And obviously, it was slowly changing and growing in popularity. But while that was going on, it was happening beyond the notice of any newspapers or record keepers.

It turns out that the earliest, detailed, reputable account of baseball being played in North America came out of a game in Beachville, Ont., which is in the Woodstock-London neck of the woods. The date of record is June 4, 1838. Teams from the neighbouring townships of Oxford and Zorra squared off. An eyewitness to the game wrote about it (admittedly, a few decades after the fact) in the pages of Sporting Life magazine.

The game was played in the field behind the Beachville blacksmith’s shop, perhaps in honour of the 100-year anniversary of King George III’s birthday. (Though that date might be a coincidence. Was there ever a time when people said, “We must play baseball to honour a long dead king?” That would be like insisting we all polka on Remembrance Day.)

The Beachville game would be recognizable to fans of modern baseball, with a couple of quirks. They had five bases, rather than four, which were called "byes" back then. And if catches were made after a single bounce, the batter was out. The other thing that might have seemed odd to Americans at the time is that the Beachville pitching was overhand, as in the modern game. Underhand pitching was the most common style in the U.S. at the time.

Twenty-nine years ago, the CBC interviewed the citizens of Beachville as they were making merry on the 150th anniversary of this first game.

 

If there is any controversy about Beachville’s game, the people stoking the flames would likely be citizens of Hoboken, N.J., who would prefer very much if their game (played at Elysian Fields seven years later) was universally declared to be the first recorded ball game. I don’t know what to say about that, except that "second recorded baseball game" is a pretty good claim, and Hoboken is the undisputed birthplace of Frank Sinatra, which ought to be enough for anyone.

While we are taking a moment to look at the deep Canadian roots of baseball, we should pause to consider one of the all-time great characters of the game, Toronto’s own Foxy Irwin. He was Canada’s own cross between Field of Dreams and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Born in Muddy York on Valentine's Day 1858, Arthur Albert Irwin had an Irish dad and a Canadian mom. At 25 years old, playing shortstop for the Providence Grays, he broke two fingers. Rather than quit playing, the wily fielder proved he deserved his nickname when he got an oversized leather glove, added padding to it, stitched fingers three and four together and invented the fielder’s glove.

Two weeks later he signed an exclusive manufacturing deal, and it was not long thereafter that 90 per cent of big leaguers were wearing "Irwin Gloves.” Not content with that little earner, he also patented the modern baseball scoreboard and padded bases. And he pulled off the first known squeeze play.

Foxy hustled profitably at developing professional baseball in Toronto, too. His love of invention also extended to his personal life. When he died (a mysterious drowning at sea) women and children in both Toronto and Savannah, Ga., were startled to learn that Foxy was husband and father to at least two families. 

Canada played it first, but we don’t claim to have invented baseball.

Just the gloves, bases and scoreboards.

So there.

Baseball, hockey, basketball, American football. Canadian roots, all of them.

Happy 150th, Canadian sports fans.

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