Despite the many major leaguers who have played for Canadian teams, relatively few Canadian natives have made the majors-a reflection of short summers and a paucity of places to play since television killed the old town teams and outlaw leagues in the 1950s. (Only one high school baseball team exists in Quebec; none in several other provinces.) Of the ten Canadian provinces, only Newfoundland hasn’t produced a major leaguer.
High school baseball programs have flourished in the Metro Toronto area since 1979, when four schools experimented with a short schedule. There are now close to seventy schools playing a spring schedule that culminates in a championship game played at the SkyDome, prior to a regular-season Blue Jays game. The winning team receives the “Blue Jays Cup.”
College baseball was started in 1978, when Seneca College (near Toronto) joined the NJCAA, New York-Penn Conference, for five seasons and was the forerunner to the National Baseball Institute (NBI) located in British Columbia. This college program has produced Canadian major leaguers including outfielders Kevin Reimer and Larry Walker, plus lefthanded pitchers Steve Wilson and Dennis Boucher.
Seven players from the late 1800s are listed by most record books as having been born in the U.S., but are believed to have altered their birth records for various reasons, including the 1894 Alien Exemption Act, which barred Canadian athletes from U.S. employment. In addition, several players who were born abroad actually grew up in Canada, e.g., Hank Biasatti and Reno Bertoia, natives of Italy but raised in Windsor, Ontario, and Jimmy Archer, born in Ireland, raised in Toronto, and signed into Organized Baseball from an independent team in Manitoba.
Many of the best Canadian players actually grew up in the U.S., among them infielder Pete Ward, son of former Montreal hockey great Jim Ward, who learned baseball in Oregon; pitcher Dick Lines, born in Montreal but raised in Florida; pitcher Kirk McCaskill, born in Kapuskasing, Ontario, who grew up in Burlington, Vermont; and infielder Sherry Robertson, born in Montreal but raised in Washington, D.C. (as the nephew of Senators and Twins club owner Calvin Griffith, who was also born in Montreal but was brought to Washington in 1921 by Senators owner Clark Griffith, who married Calvin’s aunt). Pitcher Sheldon Burnside reversed that pattern. Born in South Bend, Indiana, Burnside grew up in Toronto.
The first Canadian-born major leaguer was first baseman Bill Phillips, who played for Cleveland, Brooklyn, and Kansas City, from 1879 to 1888. Born in St. John, New Brunswick, Phillips actually grew up in Chicago.
Among the 150 to follow Phillips are active players Rob Ducey, Larry Walker, Kevin Reimer, and Matt Stairs, as well as pitchers Steve Wilson, Kirk McCaskill, Dennis Boucher, Mike Gardiner, Vince Horsman, Paul Quantrill, and Rheal Cormier.
While the number of players by position are roughly proportional to the numbers on major league rosters, pitchers have won the most distinction, perhaps because pitching skills can be developed more readily in short amateur seasons. Bob Emslie of Guelph, Ontario, was the first Canadian pitcher of note, and won more games in a big league season than any other Canadian, posting a 32-17 mark for the 1884 Baltimore Orioles. A poor start in 1885 sent him back to the minors, with a career major league record of just 44-44. Emslie returned to the majors, however, as an umpire, serving thirty-five years before retiring in 1926.
O’Neill, born at either Woodstock or Springfield, Ontario, in 1858, was the best Canadian hitter of his time or ever, batting .326 in a big-league career that ran from 1883 to 1892. Breaking into the majors with New York as a pitcher, O’Neill soon switched to the outfield. In 1886 he led the then-major league American Association in hits, doubles, triples, homers, runs scored, batting, and slugging. His batting average, at the time, was actually listed as .492, but 50 walks were counted as hits. Subtracting them, he still hit .435. Though O’Neill fell to .335 in 1887, he repeated as batting champion. The best Canadian player of all was probably Ferguson Jenkins, a 6’5″ right-hander from Chatham, Ontario, who compiled a 284-226 record over nineteen seasons from 1965 to 1983. At his peak, Jenkins (the only Canadian-born Hall of Famer won 20 games or more seven times in eight years. Noted for control, Jenkins fanned over three times as many batters as he walked-and led the NL with 273 whiffs in 1969, retiring ninth on the all-time strikeout list. He earned the 1971 NL Cy Young Award by leading the league in wins (24), innings pitched, and, for the third time each, starts and complete games. He also hit 6 homers that year, one behind the NL record for home runs by a pitcher.
Other Canadian pitchers of note include Russ Ford, John Hiller, Reggie Cleveland, Phil Marchildon, Dick Fowler, Claude Raymond, and Ron Taylor. Ford, whose older brother also made the big leagues briefly, won 26 games for the New York Highlanders in 1910, his first full season. Hiller saved a then-record 38 games in 1973 and won an AL record 17 games in relief the next year, but is best known for his comeback from a 1971 heart attack. Marchildon and Fowler were half of the Athletics’ rotation during the 1940s. On September 9, 1945, Fowler became the only Canadian to hurl a no-hitter, beating the Browns 1-0 for his only victory that year after coming back from military service. Marchildon peaked with 19 wins in 1947. Raymond is remembered as the first native Quebecois to play for the Expos. Taylor relieved for two World Champions, the 1964 Cardinals and the 1969 Mets, then became team physician for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Other top Canadian hitters were George Selkirk and Jeff Heath. Selkirk, who replaced Babe Ruth in the Yankees’ lineup in 1934, hit .290 over nine seasons, topping .300 five times and twice driving in more than 100 runs.
He later served for ten years as general manager of the Washington Senators. Heath, who reputedly never lived up to his potential, averaged .293 over fourteen years, beginning in 1936, with 194 homers. His best years were 1938 (21-112-.343) and 1941 (24-123 -.340). In between he led a player revolt against Indians manager Oscar Vitt. In his final full year, Heath hit .319 with twenty-four homers, pacing the Braves to the 1948 NL pennant, but broke his leg sliding during the last week of the season, missing his only chance at a World Series.
Canadian managers have included Art Irwin, Freddie Lake, Moon Gibson, and Bill Watkins, who led the Detroit Wolverines to the 1887 AA pennant.
Catcher Nig Clarke, from Amhurstburg, Ontario, won a spot in the minor league record books on June 15, 1902, hitting eight homers for Corsicana of the Texas League in a 51-3 rout of Texarkana. Outfielder Jack Graney, of St. Thomas, Ontario, was reputedly the first major leaguer to wear a number, and was also both the first hitter to face Babe Ruth when the latter debuted as a pitcher, and the first ex-player to become a baseball broadcaster. Outfielder Glen Gorbous, of Drumheller, Alberta, made the Guinness Book of Records with the longest measured throw on record. Black pitcher Jimmy Claxton, of New Westminster, British Columbia, briefly broke the color line by passing as an alleged Native American with Oakland of the Pacific Coast League in 1916.