Historicist: The Best Minor League City in the World
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Historicist: The Best Minor League City in the World

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Jack Kent Cooke (centre) with Mayor Nathan Phillips (left) and Metro Chairman Frederick G. Gardiner (right) at Maple Leaf Stadium, between 1955 and 1962. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2624.

When Jack Kent Cooke bought the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 4, 1951, the effervescent entrepreneur explained his intentions for the International League baseball franchise that had been losing games and fans for years. Cooke promised a return to winning ways to regain fans, but more importantly he promised entertainment. Under his guidance, fans would get their money’s worth at each and every game.

The shrewd businessman had already shown his uncanny common man’s touch when he adopted a pop music format at CKEY—the radio station he acquired in 1945 to lay the foundation for his business holdings in publishing, manufacturing, and industry. First, he spent $57,000 cleaning up Maple Leaf Stadium, the once venerable home field at the corner of Fleet and Bathurst streets. It had been deteriorating for years because, while the Toronto Harbour Commission owned the stadium, responsibility for its upkeep fell to the team. Next, at his first game as owner, Cooke gave away free hot dogs and soda to everyone in attendance.

For more than a decade, Cooke would do just about anything to lure fans to the ballpark. Contests let fans walk away with bats, caps, ponies, and—according to Louis Cauz’s Baseball’s back in town (Controlled Media Corporation, 1977)—even “long chunks of salami.” Once, when Cooke had given away automobiles and other valuables to fans with winning program numbers, Toronto’s ever-present finger-waggers decried his promotion of gambling. Luckily, as sportswriters and others came to his defense, Cooke escaped with only a misdemeanour charge for running an illegal lottery. Players weren’t immune from the carnivalesque atmosphere either: at times sharing the spotlight with “bathing beauties”/swimsuit competitors; at others, participating themselves in cow-milking contests. Other innovations Cooke introduced included music blaring during lulls in the action and fireworks displays after games. With plenty of celebrity guests and dignitaries attending games, Cooke made the baseball diamond the place to be.

Jack Kent Cooke and wife, Barbara Jean Carnegie, in stands at Maple Leaf Stadium, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2632.

Under Cooke’s tutelage, the Maple Leafs became a flagship franchise of the International League, which was the strongest of the AAA leagues at the time and a single step below the majors. After setting a league record with 512,325 ticket buyers in 1952—the same year Cooke won the Sporting News award for minor league executive of the year—the Leafs led the league in attendance for much of the 1950s. On two occasions, according to Cauz, the AAA team outdrew a few major league franchises. By 1953, when an over-capacity crowd of 22,216 jammed into the ballpark for opening day, the Leafs were such a hot ticket that scalpers did brisk business on Fleet Street.

Cooke, who was such a hands-on owner that he had a telephone installed connecting his box seat to the dugout, quickly made a name for himself in the world of sports promotion. As sportswriter Milt Dunnell pointed out in The Star in January 1964, Cooke had been practically unknown in business—even the radio business—before he bought the Maple Leafs, but “[w]ithin a few months [of purchasing the team], you could mention his name in St. Louis, Washington, New York and somebody would say he was on the phone to Cooke an hour ago.”

Jack Kent Cooke with unidentified Toronto Maple Leafs Baseball Club players, Maple Leaf Stadium, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2621.

Cooke worked the phones and spent his own money freely to secure the best players possible for Toronto—reportedly spending $208,000 in his first year alone. He was taken advantage of initially, as teams unloaded recognizable but past-their-prime major leaguers, like Cliff Mapes and Marv Rickett, on the unseasoned owner. But he quickly became a more astute judge of talent. When he signed Toronto’s first African American players, Charlie White and Leon Day, in 1951, Cooke made clear his motivation was by no means pure benevolence. “I’m not crusading for minorities,” official biographer Adrian Kinnane quotes Cooke as saying, “I’m looking for someone who can do a better job than anyone else.”

As an unaffiliated team between 1952 and 1960, the Maple Leafs were able to sign players outright rather than being indentured to any major league team with the right to recall the best players at any time. The Leafs prospered under these conditions, Dunnell noted, as “[m]any of the players whom Cooke acquired in deals were shipped back to the majors eventually at several times the original price.” Others remained with the team so long that they became the faces of the franchise. Lew Morton broke the team record for most runs scored in club history. Infielder Mike Goliat was the league MVP in 1956. Each of them played more than a thousand games for the Leafs. Rocky Nelson was another star. Despite one of the sport’s most distinctive batting stances, Nelson hit a team record 43 home runs to win the league MVP in 1958 before finally making the majors and winning a World Series with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Before he became a perennial all-star with the Yankees, Elston Howard was optioned to Cooke’s club in 1954. That year, more important than hitting .330 or winning the league’s MVP award, Howard frequently hit the Tip Top Tailors “Hit Sign, Win Suit” billboard. “That sign,” he’d fondly remember, “kept my father and me in suits for years.”

It was no surprise, then, that under Cooke the Maple Leafs began winning again—despite a revolving door of managers. In 1954, with former World Series manager Luke Sewell—who had lead the St. Louis Browns to the World Series in 1944 against the St. Louis Cardinals—the Leafs dominated the International League to win the pennant. The following year, they finished in second place, only a half game back of Montreal. The Leafs would win the pennant again in 1956 (under manager Bruno Betzel) and in 1957 (under manager Fred “Dixie” Walker).

Jack Kent Cooke with two unidentified players at pennant-raising ceremony at Maple Leaf Stadium, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2627.

“Far and wide Toronto became known as the best minor league ball town on the continent,” Morley Callaghan wrote in B.T. Richardson’s Toronto ’59 (City Council, 1959). “Yet there’s the rub. The impatient waiting for the day when Toronto baseball is in the big leagues.” So by the late 1950s, the International League wasn’t big-time enough for Cooke. The minor league team’s box office success convinced him Torontonians deserved and would support a major league team. So Cooke set out to deliver one. He made overtures to buy any troubled major league club: the Boston Braves before they decamped for Milwaukee, the St. Louis Browns before they moved to Baltimore, and the Philly Athletics before they relocated to Kansas City. He offered $5.2 million for the Detroit Tigers. Always, he was unsuccessful. He was similarly unsuccessful in convincing reluctant city officials to replace the thirty-three-year-old stadium with a bigger one. Cooke next tried to gain an expansion franchise—and even helped formed a league that he hoped would one day compete directly against the American and National Leagues in the World Series. When the American League did eventually offer him the expansion franchise originally slated for Los Angeles, Cooke balked at the terms attached as “blackmail.”

Maple Leafs Ad—featuring Handlebar Hank—from Toronto Star, May 23, 1952.

All the talk of big league baseball hurt the popularity of the Maple Leafs. Having been promised a major league team, according to a CBC Radio report, fans grew impatient with the mere minor leagues. The 1960 team achieved such unparalleled success on the diamond—winning 100 games to take the pennant, winning the Governor’s Cup championship, and making the Junior World Series—that it is commonly regarded as one of the greatest minor league teams of all time. Nevertheless, the team played before piddling audiences. By the early 1960s, Cooke was forced to dip into his own pocket to keep the team solvent. The Maple Leafs established an affiliation with the Cleveland Indians, then, a year later, the Milwaukee Braves. Players became more transient and anonymous. The difficulty for fans to identify players—let alone identify withthem—became particularly acute in 1963, when fifty-seven players spent time on the team’s twenty-man roster over the course of the season.

Meanwhile, Cooke’s aspirations for other business enterprises were being thwarted as well. Having long realized that television would have a greater impact than radio, Cooke had first applied for a television license in 1949 but was turned down. Once again in 1960, when Cooke was one of nine applicants for one available TV license, the Board of Broadcast Governors turned him down. Citing his top-forty radio format and low-brow baseball promotions as evidence, some in the Canadian establishment considered Cooke a huckster—or “a nouveau riche upstart,” according to his official biographer—who pandered to the mob at the expense of high culture. Time and again, Cooke refused to apologize for his populism. “If you watch baseball players on the field,” Cooke had told Jim Coleman in Saturday Night in 1958, “you can see more grace and coordination of movement than you’d see in a ballet performance.”

Refusing to abandon his ambition to expand his media holdings into television, Cooke moved to California in the spring of 1960 and, after Congress passed special legislation to waive the usual wait time, became a U.S. citizen. Having neatly side-stepped that country’s regulations on foreign ownership of media, Cooke formed American Cablevision, which became the largest privately owned cable system in the world by 1965. Still the avid sportsmen, in time Cooke bought the Los Angeles Lakers, the LA Kings, and the Washington Redskins.

After he sold his stake in the Maple Leafs in 1964—for a reputed price of $50,000—the team failed to overcome fan indifference. The new owners attempted to sell shares in a community-ownership scheme, but eventually sold the franchise to an American businessman in 1967. The team became the Louisville Colonels in 1968 and then moved again in 1973 to become the Pawtucket Red Sox, where they remain today. With Maple Leaf Stadium demolished in 1968, the only reminder of the Maple Leafs today is the unconnected, but similarly named team that has played in Ontario’s Intercounty Baseball League since 1969.