Historicist: Going Pro
The Toronto Oslers, perennial amateur baseball champions, jump to the professional game.
By the time they faced the Asahis, the famous all-Japanese-Canadian team, in Vancouver on July 8, 1926, Toronto’s Osler Baseball Club had won nine and lost two games on its cross-country tour. Dubbed “the best known amateur ball club in Canada” by one sports writer, the Oslers were one of two teams to dominate the Toronto amateur baseball scene after the First World War, winning numerous league, city, and provincial championships. In the days before a regular national baseball championship, a tour was the only way for a top team to see how they stacked up against competition in other regions. And so the Oslers covered 6,000 miles in three weeks, playing a game a day against the top amateur talent at Copper Cliff (Sudbury), Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Regina. For most players, it was the first time they’d crossed the Prairies, let alone seen the Rockies or the Pacific Ocean.
More than 3,000 spectators—about half of whom were of Japanese descent—jammed into the stadium to see Toronto’s best defeat the powerhouse Asahis, who were already on their way to winning that season’s Terminal League title. In the spirit of sportsmanship, the teams developed a sense of comraderie. The Asahis toured the Oslers through Japantown, along Powell Street in Vancouver, where the guests were received warmly by residents. Impressed by the Toronto team, Asahis manager Harry Miyasaki was certain the Oslers would be a huge attraction in Japan, and promised to help them plan a trip overseas. Miyasaki’s suggestion piqued the interest of the Oslers management and players, setting into motion a series of events that uncovered the fissures that existed in amateur sports and would lead to the Oslers’ three-year stint in professional baseball.
Upon returning from the Canadian West in mid-July, the Oslers secured the Ossington Park League title, then won their third consecutive city championship. By the end of the summer, Oslers had beaten the Kingston Ponies, Walkerville Chicks, and Copper Cliff, to win the senior provincial championships for the second time in three seasons. The sports editor of the Star (October 12, 1926) called the Oslers’ 1926 campaign “one of the greatest seasons that any baseball club has ever achieved in Toronto.”
Senior men’s baseball was a huge spectator sport in the 1920s, attracting thousands of fans to the city’s parks for Saturday afternoon and weeknight games. The Oslers’ greatest rival, in the years following the First World War, was “Nip” Dwan’s Hillcrest Club, which won the city championships in 1918 and from 1921 to 1923, and the provincial title in 1918 and 1921. The city’s youth, sportswriter Fred Jackson recalled in the Star (September 11, 1940), idolized the players: “[T]he Oslers and the Hillcrests were almost legendary figures, big names in the sports pages, amateur stars the like of which we have never seen again.”
By virtue of codifying the rules governing amateurs and organizing competitions, amateur authorities exerted a great degree of control over amateur athletes. While day-to-day oversight was left to individual sport bodies, like the Ontario Baseball Amateur Association (OBAA) and Toronto Amateur Baseball Association (TABA), the final arbiter on all questions of amateurism was the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada (AAUC), which was dominated by a cadre of long-serving executives who interpreted amateur rules stringently.
The Oslers, Hillcrests, and other top teams, therefore, had a difficult relationship with the amateur authorities. “They didn’t only check Toronto’s baseball growth—they ruined it,” the manager of the Oslers, Fred Hamilton, argued years later. “Baseball in this city hasn’t recovered from those old fuddy-duddies yet.”
According to the amateur code, players couldn’t receive material gain directly or indirectly for athletic performance. So, while the Oslers were in great demand for exhibition matches in places like Iroquois Falls, Ottawa, and Cobalt, touring could be a financial burden on players. Athletes could be reimbursed for actual travel and hotel expenses, but not for time off work. Gifts to players, by rule, couldn’t exceed $35, which meant even accepting a new suit could jeopardize one’s amateur standing. The amateur code also meant never playing against athletes who’d turned professional in any sport, and never attending a pro tryout or training camp. Some enterprising ballplayers might play under assumed names in Detroit or Buffalo on occasion, but by skirting the rules they risked never playing baseball in Toronto again.
Despite its ongoing efforts to consolidate its power and authority in the early 1920s, the AAUC’s influence was weakest in baseball—the most widely played amateur sport—because organizations like the OBAA and TABA had less control over their membership. Leagues formed and folded with regularity, and teams had long exerted a good deal of power at the grassroots level. For example, the president of the Osler club Grant A. Edwards and “Nip” Dwan of the Hillcrest club engineered their own teams’ transfer to the Hampden Park League in 1923, because they wanted to stage more frequent matchups between the two perennial contenders for the city and provincial crowns than was possible when the Oslers played at Perth Square, and the Hillcrests in the Western City (Pit) League. Then, in 1926, after a dispute with the owners of the Hampden Park diamond, the two clubs jumped to the Ossington Park League, displacing several long-standing teams in the process.
(Right: The Star [February 21, 1927].)
Exercising such independence could create friction between clubs, leagues, and those governing amateur sport. The Oslers’ 1926 mid-season trip west—their second in two years—had so disrupted the Ossington Park League’s schedule that league officials passed a resolution at season’s end that, going forward, no team would be granted leave to travel. Nevertheless, through the winter of 1927, Oslers officials pressed forward in negotiations with officials in Japan to arrange a summer tour of that country, centered around Kobe, where a newspaper was interested in sponsoring their visit.
The Oslers players, who felt they’d achieved all they could in Ontario amateur baseball, declared that they were excited at the prospect of touring Asia—the longest trip any Canadian team had ever planned, even if it meant resigning from the Ossington Park League. Their resignation sent ripple effects across the local amateur baseball scene. Despite having been given notice months in advance, league officials didn’t move forward with alternative plans and remained inactive for the 1927 season—leaving numerous clubs, including Hillcrest, without a league to play in.
By April, when definitive arrangements for Japan had not yet materialized, rumours abounded that the Oslers might fold—or at least lose some of its players to rival amateur teams. Oslers manager Hamilton, who, at 33 years of age, was roughly the same age as many of the players, reiterated the players’ commitment to the club: “The talk about the trip being abandoned is nonsense.” Fans were invited to an open practice at Ossington Park in April 1927 to see for themselves how many returning Oslers players turned up.
(Left: Portrait of Fred Hamilton, January 7, 1929. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 15512.)
The Oslers anticipated playing exhibitions against the Walkerville Chicks and other TABA- and OBAA-affiliated teams as a warm-up to their overseas tour, but those authorities refused to sanction any Oslers games on the grounds they would disrupt established league schedules. The Oslers were left without anyone to play, and the trip to Japan now next to impossible. Within days of the ruling, the Oslers players and management decided at a hastily convened meeting on April 15 to quit amateur baseball for the uncertainty of the professional game. “It was not without a great deal of consideration,” Edwards explained to the press, “that the Ontario champions have decided to desert the simon pures and the club feels that it is doing its duty to both the public and the players by playing professional ball at Ossington Park instead of remaining out of baseball altogether.” Almost immediately, Edwards and Hamilton were aboard a Buffalo-bound train to negotiate with semi-pro teams in New York.
“Oslers have taken the jump,” the Star (April 18, 1927) reported. “All they have to do now is step out and play their first game against a professional or semi-professional ball club and they will have forsaken the amateur ranks forever.” Rumours circulated, as the Oslers’ first professional game approached, that some players might quit at the last moment in order to retain amateur status. But, on Saturday April 23, 1927, almost the entire 1926 championship roster took the field at Ossington Park to face the Elite Elks, a black semi-pro team from Buffalo. The Oslers’ victory that afternoon proved they would be able to hold their own against semi-pro competition, and resulted in the Torontonians being invited to join a newly formed cross-border league.
(Right: Globe [April 25, 1927].)
As members of the International Independent Professional League, the Oslers played a full schedule against company-sponsored ballclubs like General Tires and Easter Brands (both of Buffalo), black teams like Elite Elks and John Boli’s All-Stars (also of Buffalo), as well as teams from Lewiston, Youngstown, and the Black Rock suburb of Buffalo. With rosters composed of former minor leaguers, college stars, and long-time barnstorming players from the Negro leagues, the opposition’s calibre of play was high. Some observers felt the league was one of the strongest independent leagues in the United States—although it’s difficult to assess the quality of the opposition since just about every visiting team claimed ownership of some title or crown of dubious merit.
The Oslers proved to be as popular with spectators on the road games in upstate New York as they were in Toronto. The debut against the Elks had drawn 2,000 fans to Ossington Park, but soon the Oslers were regularly playing home games—usually evening games under lights or weekend doubleheaders—in front of 4,000 or 5,000 ticket-buyers.
On its earlier western tours, the Oslers management couldn’t always guarantee the on-field quality of their opposition. So, taking a page from the barnstorming teams of the era, first base coach and sometime pitcher H.R. “Hap” Watson started playing comedian. Before the game, between innings, and along the coaching lines, the rotund Watson kept crowds in hysterics by juggling and performing comedy skits—sometimes with the assistance of his protege, outfielder Cecil “Teedle” Walker. Watson had never performed any of his antics in Toronto until the Oslers turned semi-pro, when his popular routines became another way for the club to ensure spectators got their money’s worth.
(Left: Pitcher Joe Spring of the Oslers, between 1920 and 1940. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4309.)
The career of Joe “Digger” Spring, the “wily old veteran” and ace pitcher, was typical of his Oslers teammates. Growing up in Toronto and rising from the playgrounds through other organized leagues, Spring earned a reputation as one of the city’s best pitchers, firing a “wide terrifying curveball.” Serving overseas with the 48th Highlanders, Spring was wounded twice in the First World War, but upon his return in 1919 he joined the Oslers in time to help lead them to that season’s city title. In 1927, the 34-year-old was joined in the pitching staff by Charlie “Lefty” McCay, the club’s southpaw starter, and Billy Greer—nicknamed “Glassy” or “Specs” for the eyeglasses he wore—who was among the youngest of the semi-pro Oslers.
A hard-hitting team, the Oslers were known for jumping out to early leads. Ossington Park’s shallow left field fence boosted the home run total enjoyed by outfielder Tommy Burt and Joe M. Breen, the hard-hitting shortstop who’d been a star halfback on the Grey Cup–winning University of Toronto football team and the Toronto Argonauts. The Oslers infield was known for its clever fielding, honed through years of playing together. At first base was the team’s sparkplug, Bert “Buck” Hughes, who could be a mean scrapper on the diamond.
The Oslers impressed the competition by their play, and ran away with the league for the first half of the summer before hitting a slump. Nevertheless, at season’s end, the Oslers were atop the standings and faced the second-place General Tire Company—their toughest competition all year—for a five-game championship series. The Torontonians took the series 3-1, clinching the deciding game before a large crowd at Bison Stadium. The Oslers had hoped to participate in the All-American Semi-Pro Championship. But, when the tournament fell through, they instead played—and lost—an exhibition series against the Cleveland-based Pennsylvania Railroad team reputed to be the best semi-pro ball club in the United States.
(Right: Pitcher Billy Greer of the Osler Baseball Club, ca. 1920s. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3086.)
In addition to playing league games, the Oslers hosted barnstorming teams like the Havana Cuban Red Sox, a strong independent team of Cuban-born players, and the famous squad fielded by the House of David religious sect from Benton Harbor, Michigan. Incredibly popular with Toronto spectators, the House of David was among the most skilled touring teams and a novelty because, by religious rule, all of the players had long hair and beards. The “whiskered men” visited Toronto several times a season during the Oslers’ time as semi-pros—often drawing capacity crowds.
The cross-border league folded at the season’s end, forcing the Oslers to greatly expand the number of exhibitions into something resembling a regular schedule for the 1928 season. The season opener on May 12, 1928, had all due pomp and circumstance, with the Governor-General’s Body Guard Band providing music, and Mayor Sam McBride throwing out the first pitch in front of 1,000 spectators.
That year, the Oslers played many of the same teams, like the Buffalo Black Sox (formerly the Elite Elks), and the Pennsylvania Railroad squad from Cleveland. And they booked new competition, like “Smiling Bill” Ewing’s All-Stars from Schenectady, N.Y., the Pullman Grays of Buffalo, the Niagara Falls (N.Y.) Cardinals, and the Firestone Tire Company team from Akron, Ohio. When a sportswriter asked why the Oslers booked so many black teams, Hamilton responded: “Simply because these colored teams seem to draw better than white teams. Some of the teams may not be ace high as ball players, but their chatter and antics gives the fans a great kick. The fans are after entertainment and we give it to them.”
(Left: Tommy Burt, team captain of the Toronto Oslers, ca. 1920s. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2454.)
Most games were now played at the renovated and improved Hampden Park grounds, but the Oslers also hosted games at Guelph, Hamilton, Kitchener, and elsewhere. Civic leaders in Goderich, for example, put up a purse of $700 for the Oslers to face the Detroit Risdons as part of the town’s Dominion Day festivities. After drawing a huge crowd, the Oslers were invited back to town numerous times.
The Oslers players were eager to test themselves against one of the strongest teams in Class AA ball, the local Maple Leafs—something they’d never been able to do during their amateur days without running afoul of the amateur authorities. Huge crowds turned out for games between the Oslers and the International League (IL) franchise at Maple Leaf Stadium in each of 1927 and 1928. The semi-pros were handily defeated by the minor leaguers. Although Leafs players told journalists that Oslers “would defeat many of the [IL] clubs that are playing ball every day,” critics used the drubbings as evidence that, despite all their victories, the semi-pros had gotten too big for their britches. The games did establish a useful business relationship with Lol Solman’s Leafs. There was talk, for a time, about the two clubs making a joint barnstorming tour of Ontario, and after a mid-season financial dispute with Hampden Park officials left the Oslers without a home field in 1928, the Leafs happily shared Maple Leaf Stadium.
Some players retired (often only temporarily) to focus on non-baseball careers. Others earned opportunities to advance their baseball careers. Greer, the 23-year-old fireballer, had so impressed the Maple Leafs in 1927 that he was offered a contract. Hesitant about the pressure of playing for his hometown team, however, Greer instead accepted a tryout with their IL rival, the Baltimore Orioles. Catcher Clare Hoose moved to Cleveland for work in 1928, but continued playing baseball in that city’s highly rated semi-pro league. A scout for the Cleveland Indians offered him a tryout, but Hoose declined and later returned to the Oslers—a hasty decision he later regretted.
When roster vacancies occurred, the Oslers found them relatively easy to fill. The team was regularly contacted for tryouts by local amateurs—like Sammy Gold (second baseman and shortstop), George Waller (third baseman), George Westlake (centre fielder), and Lou Lister (catcher)—looking to make the professional leap. And the club’s management extended attractive offers to a number of professionals from a variety of sports.
Since turning professional in 1919, Cecil Henry “Babe” Dye had become a bonafide NHL superstar with the St. Patricks/Maple Leafs, Blackhawks, and N.Y. Americans, leading the league in scoring on numerous occasion in his 11-year Hall of Fame career. Although hockey was his primary focus, Dye had also played football with the Argonauts, and baseball with the Buffalo Bisons of the IL for much of the early 1920s. Joining the Oslers partway through the 1927 season, Dye played outfield for a season and a half.
(Above right: Globe [May 12, 1928].)
The Oslers also lured Jess Spring, who’d turned professional in 1923 to play for the Hamilton Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates of the NHL, and football’s Argonauts. After spending a portion of the 1924 season with the baseball Maple Leafs, the outfielder bounced around B-level teams like the Charlotte Giants and Shamokin Indians before sticking with the Oslers for the 1928 and 1929 seasons.
Venerable football and hockey superstar Lionel Conacher, too, suited up for the Oslers on an occasional basis throughout 1928 and 1929. And Toronto Maple Leafs pitcher Claude “Satty” Satterfield joined the Oslers in 1929 when, in a dispute with his Class AA team, he refused to report to a club in Texas to which the Leafs had sent him.
In 1928, the Oslers enjoyed roughly the same degree of on-field success as the year before, but many scheduled games were cancelled due to rain. There was never any discussion of the Oslers’ finances in the press, either in terms of ticket sales or player salaries. But the poor weather and a season of irregular exhibitions against opponents of varying calibre—instead of a regular league schedule—must have hurt the Oslers at the box office.
(Left: The Star [June 8, 1928].)
Grant Edwards therefore initiated discussions regarding the formation of a new semi-pro league for the 1929 season, which would feature the Oslers playing the Jamestown Spiders, Dunkirk Alcos, Buffalo Colored Star, Boli’s All-Stars, General Tires, Lewiston Echoes, and Salamanca Rangers. Sports writers praised this scenario, by which games would have meaning and a league champion would be decided, as preferable to the Oslers staging an endless series of exhibitions.
At planning meetings in Salamanca, N.Y., in early April 1929, Edwards and officials from other clubs got as far as electing league officers, negotiating a constitution, and drafting a schedule before the venture collapsed over the Oslers’ insistence that all clubs post a substantial bond guaranteeing they’d field a team for the entire season.
Amid rumours that, in the absence of a semi-pro circuit, the Oslers would fold, the club’s management announced in mid-May that it was working on a cross-continent tour taking the team through Chicago, Minneapolis, and the major centres of the Canadian West between late June and mid-July. In the end, the tour turned out to be much less ambitious. Hitting the rails on June 28, the Oslers headed straight to the Pacific, with games in Seattle and Vancouver. Then, on the evening of July 10, the club headed east with stops in Calgary, Medicine Hat, Swift Current, and Moose Jaw. Years later, Watson also referenced there being whistle-stop games at Spuzzum, B.C.; Bottle-On-Rock, Alberta; and Bleeding Heart, Saskatoon.
(Right: The Star [June 22, 1927].)
By the time they reached Manitoba to participate in a semi-pro tournament against teams like Gilkerson’s Union Giants of Wisconsin and a Virden (Manitoba) club, the Oslers were feeling the effects of fatigue. Several players had suffered minor injuries—like infielder “Irish” Eagleson, who sustained injuries when a fire escape collapsed from under him.
Moreover, the Oslers weren’t able field their strongest roster when Satterfield sat out several games against the Virden All-Stars, a squad that included disgraced former Chicago White Sox shortstop “Swede” Risberg, and outfielder “Happy” Felsch. Both had been banished from the major leagues for their role in throwing the 1919 World Series, and Satterfield worried playing them would put his own professional career at risk. So first base coach Watson was pressed into service as a starting pitcher.
Wherever they played, the Oslers were greeted by local dignitaries at civic receptions, and feted by their opponents at banquets. The crowds at games were consistently good, but travel expenses were hefty. And it doesn’t appear that the tour was profitable by any measure. When they weren’t playing games of bridge or poker on the train, a number of Oslers players defrayed travel costs by washing dishes in restaurants or making lower berths aboard trains.
Upon the return to Toronto from their western tour on July 22, the Oslers played a number of exhibition games against the Buffalo Colored Cubs and the Pullman Giants in late July. Then, without ceremony, the Osler Baseball Club disbanded as a semi-professional outfit at the conclusion of that summer.
(Left: The Star [April 11, 1931].)
Numerous former Osler semi-pros tried mightily to get back into the amateur game through application to the TABA and OBAA. Lou Lister, backup catcher for two seasons, succeeded in being reinstated to the amateur ranks prior to the 1930 season, but most of his former teammates encountered strong resistance. When, year after year, their applications for reinstatement were rejected, the Star assailed the amateur authorities’ treatment of the Oslers players. “These fellows did a tremendous amount of work for amateur ball in Toronto and have the best interests of the game at heart,” it declared on May 2, 1931, “and now in their declining days they are forced to sit on the sidelines or fall in in the capacity of coach. They practically put the game on the map when it was in its infancy in Toronto . . . [and are] deserving of a better fate.”
Most Oslers turned to non-sporting careers. Third baseman Jack “Doc” Egan was a dentist. Joe Spring took a job with Watson’s Sporting Goods. Hamilton was elected to represent Ward 5 on city council—serving eight years as alderman and another eight as controller—where he would be an outspoken advocate for additional park facilities and youth programs.
Some former Oslers turned to coaching and other sports-related ventures. Hoose managed the Guelph club of the short-lived Ontario Baseball League in 1930, before becoming head Canadian scout for the Cleveland Indians. Breen, in addition to a successful business career with Canada Cement, coached football at the University of Western Ontario from 1929 to 1934. Watson took his comedic show on the road, earning decent money in the American south and the Pacific northwest as part of a travelling ball team known as the American and Canadian Clowns, before returning home to go into business.
Although new baseball clubs and players rose to prominence in Toronto, there were widespread complaints about the declining quality and popularity of the sport since the glory days of the Oslers-Hillcrests rivalry. “Senior hard ball has all gone to pot,” Watson declared in the Star (August 15, 1936). The Oslers’ 1926 championship remained the last provincial amateur title won by a Toronto ball club until 1937. Cuts to city grants providing baseball equipment to clubs meant that there were fewer players on fewer teams. The city’s youth, critics opined, weren’t learning the fundamentals. And players, Watson believed, were too worried about jobs and the family budget during the Great Depression to put on a good show on the diamond. “The rollicking, happy-go-lucky-who-cares-a-hoot boys are gone,” he concluded.
(Above right: Jack “Doc” Egan in a Hillcrest Baseball Club uniform, between 1910 and 1930. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2898.)
In an effort to rekindle public interest, the TABA gave its blessing to a charity exhibition between an all-star squad of current amateur players and a team of former Oslers, who’d kept in shape by occasionally reuniting to face touring teams and stage charity softball games against the Maple Leafs hockey team. The all-stars won 3-2, but the August 1933 game was such a success—with 3,500 spectators in attendance—that a second contest was staged soon after.
It was around this time, in the fall of 1933, that officials at the TABA and OBAA threw their support behind several Oslers’ petitions for reinstatement as amateurs. Almost immediately, however, Bill Snyder, the long-time head of the OBAA, encountered stiff opposition from the AAUC leaders, who steadfastly refused to consider the applications. The AAUC, it seemed, took exception to the TABA and OBAA having sanctioned that summer’s amateurs-versus-professionals charity games. Now the national organization was using its power as the ultimate arbiter on all questions of amateur standing to flex its muscles vis-a-vis the local baseball authorities.
Eventually, Snyder and his allies in the press were able to demonstrate the AAUC’s inconsistent interpretation of its own rules when an American who’d played for a barnstorming semi-pro side was granted his amateur card by the AAUC without question upon his arrival in Canada. Facing growing backlash in the press, the AAUC finally reinstated Walker, Hoose, Waller, Egan, and Hughes in January 1934.
“Whether they will make another bid for fame collectively is conjectural,” Star sportswriter Charles Good wrote on January 5, 1934, “but there is little doubt but that some of the ‘old boys’ will dig up the long discarded glove and try out their ancient arms when the flowers bloom in the spring.” Several of the reinstated Oslers joined the Malvern Grads as part of a new league, based at Ulster Stadium. But most never played organized baseball again, beyond the occasional oldtimers’ charity game.
Sources consulted: Pat Adachi, Asahi: A Legend in Baseball (Coronex Printing and Publishing Ltd., 1992); Thomas Barthel, Baseball Barnstorming and Exhibition Games 1901-1962 (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2007); Ida Clingan, The Virden Story (The Empire Publishing Co. Ltd., 1957) [PDF]; Kevin G. Jones, “Developments in Amateurism and Professionalism in Early 20th Century Sport,” in Journal of Sport History, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring 1975); Alan Metcalfe, “The Anatomy of Power in Amateur Sport in Ontario, 1918-1936,” in Journal of History of Sport Vol. XXII, No. 2 (December 1991); and articles from the Buffalo Courier-Express, Buffalo Evening News, Niagara Falls (NY) Gazette, Regina Morning Leader, Toronto Globe, Toronto Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Windsor Border Cities Star.
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