As we approach this year's Blue Jays home opener, a look at the grand—and rainy—opening day for one of Toronto's greatest baseball teams.
The bottom of the ninth inning. Trailing by a score of 5-0, the odds were terrible for a comeback by the hometown team. The rain which delayed the opening of their new ballpark for day lingered as drizzle. Not enough to force a second postponement in a row, but it made a dent in the day’s attendance. In a field built for 23,500 fans, around 14,000 witnessed the Toronto Maple Leafs fall behind the Reading Keystones. Perhaps attendees were already headed to their cars to avoid the post-game traffic jams along Bathurst and Fleet streets.
Those who stayed for the last moments of the debut baseball game at Maple Leaf Stadium on April 29, 1926 were rewarded for their perseverance.
From 1907, the minor league baseball Maple Leafs had played at Hanlan’s Point on Toronto Island. By the mid-1920s, attendance declined due to the inconvenience of moving large crowds via ferries to and from the ballpark, and drivers who didn’t want to pay the ferry fare to catch a game. Team president Lol Solman looked to the mainland to build a new, larger stadium. A site at the foot of York Street was surveyed, and construction on a playing field started in 1924, but differences arose between the Maple Leafs and the Toronto Harbour Commission (THC). The following year, the team acquired land atop fill into the lake the THC had recently created at the foot of Bathurst Street. Plans reported in September 1925 called for a 30,000 seat venue which, besides baseball, could also be used for football, lacrosse, soccer, and track meets. Additional features included an apartment for the groundskeeper, a restaurant, and team offices. Acres of parking would be provided for the growing stream of fans that preferred driving to games. The stadium was designed by the architectural firm of Chapman and Oxley, whose works soon dominated the neighbourhood: over the next few years, they were responsible for the Princes’ Gate, the Government of Ontario Building (now the Liberty Grand), and the Crosse and Blackwell Building (now OMNI). Unlike the furor which greets modern stadium financing, Solman privately financed the stadium.
As construction began on Maple Leaf Stadium in fall 1925, motorists driving along Fleet Street (sections of which are now Lake Shore Boulevard) saw around 150 workers and 50 teams of horses prepare the field. From an estimated budget of $300,000, the price tag wound up being around $750,000. Pictures taken the week before opening day showed scaffolding still up and workers finishing the park.
Star sports columnist W.A. Hewitt (the father of pioneering hockey broadcaster Foster Hewitt) gave fans an advance preview of what to expect inside the new park, along with a joke at Solman’s expense.
Toronto baseball fans will be amazed when they get their first look at the new Maple Leaf Stadium—from the inside. The seating capacity is 23,500 and a good view of the field can be obtained from any seat. The stand, which is 65 feet high, is of steel with concrete floor and practically surrounds the diamond in V fashion. An additional portable bleacher section to seat 1,000 fans is being erected close to the left field fence. The score-board is in deep centre field and the flagpole is in the same neighbourhood, being on a direct line with home plate. The good condition of the diamond and playing field is a surprise. It cost $57,000 to make this field last fall, and it stood the winter very well. It is thoroughly drained and the sodded portion is in good shape, but will require plenty of rolling to make it as true as the Island playing field. The diamond is “skinned” and it will likely be lightning fast when the season is well advanced. Left field will be the “sun field,” but it won’t be bad at that for the man playing the position as he won’t have to look directly into Old Sol very often.
The Maple Leafs started the 1926 season with a 13-game road trip. Coming off a second-place finish the previous season, they were expected to be the team to end the reign of the Baltimore Orioles, who had won seven International League championships in a row. Manager “Dapper Dan” Howley lost only three members of the 1925 squad, and expected a boost from several players handed to the team from the Detroit Tigers. At the end of the trip, the Maple Leafs sat in second place behind Baltimore, with a record of nine wins and four losses.
Officials from all levels of professional baseball flowed into Toronto during the last week of April. Among them was major league commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who thought the wrong name was applied to the stadium. “I don’t often abuse the absolute authority reposed in me, but that won’t do,” he observed. “As High Commissioner of Baseball I command that this beautiful place be called Solman Field, and that’s that.” Solman never followed through on the suggestion. As for the possibility of Toronto hosting a major league ball team, Landis declared, “It’s entirely up to your own city.” Given how slow things work in Toronto, the 50-year wait for top-level baseball wasn’t too bad.
As the stadium’s opening on April 28 approached, the press filled with stories extolling the venue’s virtues and profiles of interesting fans. A Landis lookalike received front page coverage in the Star. The Mail and Empire ran a story about Henry P. Brown, a fan from Woodstock who had gone to 39 opening days in Toronto. Brown had an impressive streak of attending 29 in a row, ever since he was forced to miss the 1897 opener due to illness. One fan who wouldn’t be there was “the great Hamilton statistician” Addie Richardson, who the Globe noted had “passed to his reward.”
Opening day plans called for ceremonies to begin at 2:30 p.m. Landis and Mayor Thomas Foster would unfurl the Union Jack, while former Mayor Tommy Church would throw the first pitch. Mother Nature had other ideas. “The downpour of last night slowed up the new grounds badly but not enough to have prevented the game being played as per arrangements if the sun had put in an appearance,” the Star reported. But the cold, damp weather, coupled with a soggy field, prompted Solman to call off the game just before noon. Despite the cancellation, around 4,000 fans showed up. The opening was rescheduled for the next day, while the cancelled game became part of a May 1 doubleheader.
The rain continued on April 29, but the drizzle was light enough that club officials decided to proceed. Landis and several other officials had to leave, requiring a rejigging of the opening ceremony; Foster now threw the first pitch to Church, while the speaker of the Ontario legislature, Joseph Thompson, served as honorary catcher. The Queen’s Own Rifles played the national anthem, after which the Toronto and Reading squads marched to centre field to attend the flag raising.
According to the Globe, the rain didn’t deter the 12,871 paid attendees, estimated to have swelled to 14,000 with comp tickets:
It didn’t seem to matter much whether the lordly umpires permitted the team to play or not; the fans, impatient after Wednesday’s postponement, demanded to see the inside of the massive structure fashioned as to architecture, somewhat after the Roman Coliseum, and of which they had been vouchsafed nothing more than unsatisfactory glimpses as they passed along Boulevard Drive. What mattered the lowering clouds, the chilling wind, the rain? Nothing at all.
Fans began flowing into the stadium around 1 p.m. Cars filled every available space along Fleet Street and the vacant land surrounding the venue. “There was a noticeably large attendance of ladies, and the brilliant colours in their spring hats lent about the only touch of colour to an otherwise necessarily drab scene. It was no day for new chapeaux,” the Globe reported. “Civic and other dignitaries were just fans among fans; they slapped one another on the back, cheered, and rooted with the rest. That’s baseball, and baseball is democracy.” The few disagreements in the stands revolved around umbrellas blocking the view of fans sitting behind them.
For most of the game, the Maple Leafs’ play was as miserable as the weather and the muddy field. Staff ace Lefty Stewart gave up four runs and 13 hits, while reliever Joe Maley gave up another run. No Maple Leaf crossed home plate during the first eight innings.
Then came the bottom of the ninth.
First, Del Capes hit a sacrifice fly which brought home Cleo Carlyle. Fans cheered with joy that a shutout had been avoided. Then, with two out and one man on base, Maple Leaf bats woke up. A series of hits tied the game at 5-5, sending the game into extra innings. The crowd in the stands erupted. “Papers, hats, umbrellas and shout everything else loose went into the air in the frenzy of excitement and never before in a ball game in Toronto has anything like it been seen,” observed the Telegram.
During the top of the 10th inning, pitcher Owen Carroll, who went on to win 21 games that season, shut down Reading’s offence. The Maple Leafs’ luck continued in the bottom of the inning, as the combination of a wild pitch, a sacrifice fly, and a bunt scored the winning run. End result: a 6-5 Toronto victory.
The rain continued, forcing the cancellation of April 30’s game, but it didn’t stall the Maple Leafs’ momentum. As some had predicted, the team ended Baltimore’s championship streak. Maple Leaf Stadium could proudly boast that its debut season produced the International League title holder and the winner of that fall’s Little World Series. Finishing with 109 wins against 57 losses, the 1926 Maple Leafs are considered one of the best minor league teams of all time. The Reading Keystones weren’t so lucky: they finished the season with a jaw-droppingly awful record of 31-129, 75 games behind the Maple Leafs in the standings.
Maple Leaf Stadium had plenty of glory to come: more championships and, under the ownership of Jack Kent Cooke, record-setting attendance during the 1950s which twice outdrew major league teams. The “Fleet Street Flats,” as the stadium was nicknamed, was demolished in 1968, but its name lives on in the neighbourhood via Stadium Road.
Additional material from Baseball’s Back in Town by Louis Cauz (Toronto: Controlled Media Corporation, 1977); the September 5, 1925, October 6, 1925, April 28, 1926, and April 30, 1926 editions of the Globe; the April 28, 1926 edition of the Mail and Empire; the April 14, 1926, April 20, 1926, and April 28, 1926 editions of the Toronto Star; and the April 28, 1926 and April 30, 1926 editions of the Telegram.