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.
White Borders (T206) baseball cards of Jim McGinley and Myron “Moose” Grimshaw, 1909–1911, from the Library of Congress.
For the first half of the twentieth century, this city was a major venue for minor league baseball. The Toronto Maple Leafs, a minor league team one tier below the major leagues that lasted until the the 1960s, were one of the leading teams of the era. It is an apt illustration of the team’s status in this period that seven players dressed in the white-with-black-trim uniforms of the Maple Leafs were among the 523 minor- and major-leaguers issued as baseball card’s in the era’s most famous and sought-after set of tobacco cards.
The T206 set—also known as the “White Border” set for the distinctive framing around each card’s main image—was produced by the American Tobacco Company between 1909 and 1911. Measuring two-and-five-eighths inches by one-and-a-half inches, the inserts were originally used to prevent the crushing of cigarette packs during shipping. But, bearing a full-colour lithograph of the most notable baseball players on the front and an advertisement for one of the American Tobacco Company’s sixteen brands on the back, the cards were also collectibles and marketing tools.
While only one other Canadian minor league team featured even one player on a card, the Maple Leafs were represented by Joe Kelley, Moose Grimshaw, Fred Mitchell, Dick Rudolph and Jim McGinley (as well as Ed Killian and Ed Fitzpatrick, who shared a single card). Some were veterans on the backside of illustrious careers; others were journeymen who’d never really stuck with one team long enough to make an impact; and still others were promising up-and-comers.
Their stories—where they came from and where they went—were demonstrative of what life was like for baseball players in an era when they bounced from team to team from season to season, and sometimes dropped down to the minors after quarrels with penny-pinching major league owners.
Joe Kelley’s White Borders (T206) baseball card, 1909–1911, from the Library of Congress.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Maple Leafs had been rather successful, winning the pennant in 1902 under the direction of co-owner and future architect of the New York Yankees dynasty, Ed Barrow. But the team faltered badly in the following seasons, finishing in eighth place in front of lacklustre crowds by 1905. Local pub owner James Johnstone McCaffery and businessman Lawrence “Lol” Solman bought the debt-ridden team out of foreclosure. One of their first moves to rejuvenate the Leafs was to give future hall-of-famer Joseph James Kelley a five-thousand-dollar salary—the highest ever given to a minor leaguer at the time—to sign as the club’s player-manager in 1907.
In the major leagues, Kelley had been one of the best defensive outfielders and a powerful hitter who batted .317 in his seventeen-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Baltimore Orioles, Brooklyn Superbas, and Cincinnati Reds. Known as “Handsome Joe Kelley” by adoring female fans, Jimmy Keenan writes, Kelley “kept a small mirror and comb in his back pocket in order to maintain his well-groomed appearance during games.” But to fellow players, Kelley was a menace. Mean and dirty, he and his Orioles teammates “would fight at the drop of hat and bend the rules when given the slightest opportunity.”
After a disappointing stint as playing manager with Cincinnati, Kelley took charge of the moribund Leafs and promptly won the Eastern League pennant and the Junior World Series. With his “tremendous spirit and magnetism,” Louis Cauz writes in Baseball’s Back in Town (Controlled Media Corporation, 1977), Kelley was popular with Toronto players and fans alike. His Leafs teammates soon adopted his combative spirit towards opposing players and umpires. “Bullet” Jack Thoney—a swift outfielder who won the league batting title twice while with the Leafs—badly injured his shoulder, Cauz writes, “while taunting a pitcher as he danced off first base.”
After a disastrous stint as a major league manager with the Boston Doves in 1908, Kelley was soon back in Toronto. He continued to manage here until 1915, when he was eventually released as the team tried to shed expenses.
During Kelley’s absence, the Leafs muddled on, with the 1908 season being most memorable for pitcher Fred Mitchell’s no-hitter against Montreal. Mitchell—also featured on a T206 card—was born Fred Yapp in Massachusetts. He worked as a hostler, clerk, and bartender as a young man while playing unorganized baseball on the side. After a stint in New Brunswick with the Saint John Roses, he was invited to join the newly founded Boston Americans (later renamed the Red Sox), and started that franchise’s first exhibition game in 1901. In Mitchell’s own estimation, the young right-hander “was a little wild, but fast, and had a good curve ball.” Beset by injuries and a tendency to walk more batters than he struck out, Mitchell drifted from the Americans to the Philadelphia Athletics, the Phillies, and the Superbas, ending up 31–50 in a thirteen year career, with an earned run average (ERA) of 4.10.
Fred Mitchell’s White Borders (T206) baseball card, 1909–1911, from the Library of Congress.
A steady performer with a good curveball, Mitchell was consistently one of the Maple Leafs’ best starters from 1906 to 1909. Besides his no-hitter, Cauz notes, Mitchell’s most famous Leafs moment was rounding the bases at Hanlan’s Point Stadium on a donkey that had escaped from the Island’s nearby zoo, in order to win a $50 bet from team co-owner Lol Solman. But, craving a taste of the majors again, he decided to convert himself into a fielder and gave Kelley an ultimatum: “I’m going to be a catcher or else I’m going home.” As the Leafs’ starting catcher, Mitchell earned one last shot in the majors with the New York Highlanders (later the Yankees) in 1910. Mitchell later became a well-regarded pitching coach and manager with the Boston Braves and Chicago Cubs.
In 1909, another journeyman major leaguer featured on a tobacco card shone in Toronto. In a career season, Myron “Moose” Grimshaw won the Eastern League batting title that year with an average of .309. Grimshaw, who earned his nickname because—as Bill Nowlin put it—he was “awkward-looking,” had had several stints with minor league teams in London and Guelph in the late 1890s. Then the switch-hitter worked his way up to the Boston Americans in late 1904, having impressed the team’s representatives as “one of the finest batsmen in the business and a clever first baseman.”
Over the course of three middling seasons, he was Boston’s everyday first baseman only by default. The team kept trying to trade him but found no takers. Depending on the source, Grimshaw was either waived and released outright or traded to Toronto for Jack Thoney in time for the 1908 season. Frequently sidelined by injuries, 1909 was Grimshaw’s only full season in Toronto. But he won the batting title, when batting average was the most respected statistic in baseball until Babe Ruth elevated the home run to an art form. Grimshaw was traded to Louisville in 1910 and was out of baseball shortly afterward.
Of the seven Toronto players on the T206 cards, two were up-and-coming prospects. Twenty-two-year-old third baseman Ed Fitzpatrick was perhaps an odd choice to merit a tobacco card. Although he eventually played three seasons with the Braves from 1915 to 1917, his minor league statistics with the Leafs don’t suggest he ever hinted at future greatness.
Dick Rudolph’s White Borders (T206) baseball card, 1909–1911, from the Library of Congress.
Pitcher Dick “Baldy” Rudolph, was another story. By the 1910 season, Rudolph was still only twenty-two, but had been the ace of the Leafs pitching staff since his arrival in Toronto in 1907. At only five-feet-nine-and-a-half-inches and 160 pounds, few had given the undersized pitcher much chance of a successful career in baseball. Despite his writing self-promoting letters to a variety of baseball team owners, no one offered him a try-out.
But, Dick Leyden writes, he had a “great curveball and spectacular control,” and an intuitive feel for how batters would react. In seven years in Toronto, Rudolph won over twenty games three times and 120 games in total. He was joined at the top of the pitching rotation by Jim McGinley—who won one hundred games in six years in Toronto and was also featured on a tobacco card.
“He has terrific speed, good control, is a quick thinker and mixes up his ‘assortment’ as well as any twirler in the big leagues,” manager Kelley said of Rudolph. “I look for him in a few years to be…as great as [Christy] Mathewson.” Rudolph’s talent was enough to earn several call-ups to the New York Giants, but his stays were always brief because Giants manager John McGraw deemed him to be too small for the big leagues.
On a train in New York, Rudolph approached Fred Mitchell, pitching coach of the Boston Braves. The two had been teammates in Toronto from 1907 to 1909, but Mitchell apparently didn’t recognize or remember him. “I know I can pitch better than some of those fellows in the Big League,” Rudolph confided to Mitchell, “if I only get the chance. But if I don’t, I’m quitting anyway.” Shortly afterward, Mitchell arranged for the Braves to acquire “Baldy” from Toronto for the 1913 season. For the next several years, he was one of the most durable and successful pitchers in the majors. He won twenty-six games in 1914—when the “Miracle Braves” won the World Series—and retired with a career ERA of 2.66.
In the early twentieth century, the Maple Leafs acquired their share of former stars who didn’t know when to put down the glove. “Wee Willie” Keeler, a thirty-nine-year-old hall-of-famer who’d been Kelley’s longtime Orioles teammate, joined the team for the 1911 season. A lifetime .341 hitter in nineteen major league seasons, Keeler hit just .277 in 155 at bats.
Ed Killian arrived in Toronto partway through the 1910 season, having been set adrift by the Detroit Tigers. The southpaw pitcher nicknamed “Twilight Ed” had a sinkerball that was so effective at producing ground-balls that Killian once went four seasons (or 1,001 innings) between giving up home runs. He was known as a clutch performer, once pitching both halves of a late-season doubleheader to clinch the American League pennant for Detroit. Between 1907 and 1910, the Tigers won the pennant three times, but lost the World Series each time. In good times, Dan Holmes reported, Killian had a reputation as a valuable teammate. But he could also be so quarrelsome and surly that he once tore apart the Tigers clubhouse in a drunken rage at his teammates.
White Borders (T206) baseball card featuring Ed Killian (front) and Edward Fitzpatrick (back), 1909–1911, from the Library of Congress.
Killian’s season-and-a-half in Toronto was nothing special. He was a member of the Leafs team that, in an epic collapse, lost eleven games in a row to fall out of first place and lose the 1911 pennant. Killian and Keeler and most of the players featured on American Tobacco Company cards—save for Rudolph, Fitzpatrick, and manager Kelley—were gone by the time the Maple Leafs rebounded to win the pennant the following season.
There were other Leafs between 1909 and 1911 who appeared on cards for other teams, notably sluggers Tim Jordan and Al Shaw, and longtime Maple Leaf (and frequently the only Canadian on the roster), Bill O’Hara.
And so it’s a quirk of fate that it was these seven players—some who’d shown early but unfulfilled promise, and some who passed through town so briefly as to leave almost no impression at all—who came to be immortalized in the Maple Leaf colours. And the tobacco cards themselves are artifacts of the city’s role as a staging ground for players on the upward climb to stardom in the big leagues—as well as its role, sometimes, as the first stop on the way back down.
Other sources consulted: Craig Britcher’s article in Western Pennsylvania History (Winter 2004); and William Humber, Cheering for the Home Team: The Story of Baseball in Canada (Boston Mills Press, 1983).