The Toronto Maple Leafs win the International League pennant and play in the 1926 Little World Series.
Between 1919 and 1925, the Baltimore Orioles dominated baseball’s International League. Thanks in no small part to the machinations of their determined manager, Jack Dunn, the Orioles won seven consecutive pennants, averaging 111 wins over seasons that featured anywhere between 150 and 166 games. Finally, in 1926, the Orioles were bested by the Toronto Maple Leafs, who finished the season 109-57, eight games ahead of Baltimore, thereby earning a spot in the Little World Series against the Louisville Colonels.
In the early 1920s, minor league baseball teams did not yet have firm affiliations with specific major league teams as they do today. Jack Dunn operated the Orioles as an independent team, doing his best to retain his top players, and occasionally selling a rising star to an interested major league team. Many other teams in the league had relationships with major league teams, wherein the big league club could assign a player to the minor league team for further development. Toronto had such a relationship with the Detroit Tigers, and many of the players who passed through Toronto in the 1920s went on to play at the major league level for Detroit. Even on the Maple Leafs, however, many of the players had no contract with a major league team, although players who performed well might be drafted by a major league franchise at the end of the season.
In the early 1920s, Dunn became extremely adept at recruiting new talent to restock Baltimore’s roster to the point that the Orioles’ continuing success had begun to grate. International League historian David F. Chrisman notes that “the competitive edge had certainly been worn off by this time. The fans and players alike felt that to strive for another pennant was tantamount to gluttony—an unwarranted desire for perfection that bordered on the obscene.” A Toronto Globe writer, noting that Baltimore was no longer drawing big crowds to their games in 1926, wrote that “the Southern city has lost interest in the race and is satiated with pennants.”
In Toronto, however, baseball’s popularity was growing. In 1925, Toronto finished in second, just six games back of the Orioles. Indeed, in the seven years that Baltimore dominated the International League standing, Toronto had only one losing season and averaged an impressive 92 wins a year.
Prior to the start of the 1926 season, Leafs owner Lol Solman had financed the construction of Maple Leaf Stadium, a 23,500-seat venue at the foot of Bathurst, enabling him relocate the Leafs from their previous home at Hanlan’s Point Stadium. The new stadium, combined with a competitive team, saw Toronto draw 221,846 fans in 1926, a team record which stood for more than two decades. This record is especially impressive considering that most 1926 Toronto home games started at 3:30 or 4:00, as the team did not install light stands permitting evening play until 1934.
The key to the Leafs’ success in 1926 lay in its pitching corps, which, in addition to being highly talented, was also extremely deep. Lefty Stewart, who had won more than 20 games in each of his previous two seasons with Toronto, turned in another strong season, finishing the year 18-9 with a league-leading six shutouts, and leading the team with a 2.99 ERA and 1.202 WHIP. The Leafs’ winningest pitcher was young Tigers prospect Ownie Carroll, who came to Toronto following a sensational career at Holy Cross College, where he went 50-2. Although Carroll struggled a bit with his control in 1926—he walked as many batters as he struck out—he led the Leafs with 39 starts and finished with a 21-8 record. Lefty Faulkner and right-hander Jess “Slow Motion” Doyle also earned 15 wins for the Leafs, giving the team four dependable starters throughout the season.
Toronto’s pitching staff was further improved midway through the season by the addition of bespectacled Tigers prospect Vic Sorrell, who joined the team after graduating from Wake Forest University. Sorrell made 20 appearances for the Leafs in 1926, compiling a perfect 8-0 record, with an ERA of 3.06.
Struggling for playing time was another Tigers pitching prospect who worked mostly out of the bullpen for the Leafs. The prospect was Carl Hubbell, who showed little indication of the remarkable career that was ahead of him. Hubbell had developed a pitch known as a screwball (or “fadeaway”), in which the pitcher twists his arm away from his body as he throws, causing the ball to curve in the opposite direction of a curveball. Detroit’s management, worried that the unusual arm motion associated with the screwball would damage Hubbell’s arm, forbid him from using it. Hubbell complied with the Tigers’ orders and, without his top pitch, was less effective than most of his teammates; he finished the year 7-7 with an ERA of 3.90, one of the highest on the team.
(Right: Carl Hubbell in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform. The Toronto Star, May 13, 1926.)
Nevertheless, Hubbell did have some flashes of excellence during his year with Toronto. In the 1920s, it was common for major league teams to play exhibition games against minor league squads on off-days during the season, and Toronto hosted at least three such games in 1926. Hubbell started for the Leafs against the defending American League champion Washington Senators on June 3 and pitched a 5-hit shutout, striking out star players Joe Judge, Sam Rice, and Goose Goslin to the thunderous applause of the Toronto fans. On July 7, Hubbell was again given the ball in an exhibition game and threw another complete game victory, holding the Detroit Tigers to three hits, all of them singles. The Globe wrote that “Carl Hubbell is rapidly forging to the front as a giant-killer,” adding that “Hubbell’s benders made the alleged sluggers wearing Detroit regalia look very ordinary.”
Late in the season, Hubbell was handed another exhibition start, this time against the eventual American League champion New York Yankees, facing a lineup which included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Hubbell managed to strike out Ruth in the first inning, and the Leafs held a 2-1 lead until the eighth when, as the Star‘s Charlie Good put it, “[Hubbell] didn’t do much more than throw the ball up for the Yanks to hit, and they pounded him all over the blooming park.” Toronto’s sportswriters seemed less interested in the outcome of the game and more disappointed that Babe Ruth hit two singles instead of any home runs, Charlie Good adding that “the attendance was much larger than the game deserved.”
On offence, the team was not blessed with power, relying more on speed and “small ball.” Outfielder Cleo Carlyle led the team with 14 home runs, and first baseman Minor “Mickey” Heath was the only other Leaf to hit 10. Most runs were manufactured through singles, stolen bases, and sacrifices. Outfielder Herman Layne led the team with 32 steals and led the league with 16 triples. Veteran outfielder Frank Gilhooley, nicknamed “Flash” because of his speed, usually hit leadoff and led the team with 118 runs. Third baseman Bill Mullen led the team with a .357 average, and slick-fielding shortstop Otis Miller hit .348. The Leafs’ weakest position was undoubtedly second base, as the team was unable to replace the powerful bat of Charlie Gehringer, who, after tearing up the International League in 1925, established himself as Detroit’s starting second baseman in 1926, on his way to a Hall of Fame career. Light-hitting Carl Schmehl and Otis Lawry took turns at second base for the Leafs, while Steve O’Neill and utility player Lena Styles split the catching duties.
The Maple Leafs’ manager was “Dapper” Dan Howley, who likely earned the nickname not because of his appearance, but because of the resemblance of his name to that of Dapper Dan Hogan, a famous Prohibition-era gangster from Minnesota. Described in one Star article as “a big upstanding Irishman with a booming voice and inexhaustible fund of anecdote,” Howley was serving his second of four stints as the Leafs’ manager, and predicted big things from the Leafs in 1926. The team got off to a sputtering start, however, and after briefly holding the top of the standings they were supplanted by Dunn’s Orioles in June.
By the end of July, however, the Orioles’ lead was looking far more vulnerable than in previous years. Only a few games separated Baltimore from the Newark Bears, Buffalo Bisons, and the Maple Leafs. All three challengers moved closer to the Orioles during the first week in August, and fans around the league cheered the prospect of any team other than Baltimore finishing first. The Globe reported that on August 7, even with the Leafs taking the day off, Toronto fans nevertheless gathered around public scoreboards in the city to monitor a game between Newark and Syracuse. “Newark’s victory over Syracuse and their advance toward the top rung brought cheers from the fans, even if the Bears did manage to lengthen their small lead over Toronto. ‘Beat the Orioles’ is the slogan all over the [International League], and if the Leafs fail to grab the flag Toronto fans will welcome a victory by either Buffalo or Newark.”
Over the final two months of the season, Howley’s Leafs played all out, showing a fighting spirit in their quest for the pennant. In a game against the Orioles on August 6, both of the Leafs’ regular catchers, Steve O’Neill and Lena Styles, were ejected, forcing infielder Carl Schmehl to play behind the plate when the game went into extra innings. The Star noted that “although whatever [Orioles] players got on ran wild, none got as far as home plate, thanks to the effectiveness of [Vic] Sorrell who pitched the last four innings.” The weak-hitting Schmehl hit a sacrifice fly in the eleventh inning to score Flash Gilhooley, bringing the Leafs within two and a half games of the league lead.
On August 13, the Leafs played a double-header in Reading against the Keystones, ultimately winning both games in ten innings, but not before tempers flared. The Globe reported that, upon being called out on a close play, third baseman Bill Mullen “jumped to his feet and struck [umpire Tom] Crooke in the stomach,” earning an ejection. Later in the same game, Leafs’ pitcher Lefty Faulkner took issue with a called ball four which forced in a run, upon which he “rushed to the plate, knocked Crooke to the ground and poked him mercilessly. Finally Crooke overpowered Faulkner after removing his equipment.” The Star described the incidents by saying that Mullen “contented himself with jolting [Crooke] in the solar plexus region, but Faulkner was not so bashful, not only upending him with a solid crack to the chin but climbing all over his carcass in most artistic fashion after having done so.”
The Toronto press thought that both Mullen and Faulkner might get suspended for their actions, although no indications of actual suspensions seem to have been reported. The Globe reported that Leafs owner Lol Solman was in attendance at the game in Reading, and had warned the team that such behaviour would not be tolerated. “Mr. Solman wants that flag, but he wants to win it fairly.”
The Maple Leafs continued to win. Following the doubleheader against Reading, the team travelled to Jersey City, where they won three games in two days to move ahead of the Orioles for first place. Although Toronto’s sports journalists had doubted the team’s chances a few weeks earlier, they now extended due to credit to the team, and in particular to manager Dan Howley. “Hats off to Howley and his hustling horde,” wrote the Star‘s Charlie Good on August 16. “No club in the league is playing faster ball than the Leafs at this juncture, and if there is anything in the dope they should stick now that they have attained the peak.”
Toronto finished strong, going 37-6 to end the season eight games ahead of Baltimore. Upon learning that the Leafs had won the pennant on September 12, Jack Dunn heaped admiration upon Howley’s Leafs, telling the Globe “Let Dan Howley know that his team was too good to beat and that he handled his players in great fashion…The Leafs won because they were trying all the time, and that kind of baseball is the kind I like.”
The following day, a Globe editorial congratulated the Leafs on their victory, claiming that “the achievement of the Leafs reflects credit not only on themselves but on Toronto and Canada generally, and the public of the Dominion claims their victory as good business and good ball.”
By finishing first in the International League, the Toronto Maple Leafs had earned a date with the Louisville Colonels, who had finished first in the other main east coast minor league, the American Association. The annual best-of-nine series was dubbed the “Little World Series,” although it appears that many considered the event more of an exhibition rather than a significant series. In the Star, Charlie Good reported that Louisville “requested that they be permitted to use players from other American Association teams, but Toronto flatly refused to make a joke of the series.”
“The Leafs intend to stand or fall on their own feet,” wrote Good in another column on the issue, “and they see no reason why the Colonels should not do the same.”
Toronto took the first game at home, 2-0, with Jess Doyle out-duelling Louisville’s Ben Tincup to earn the complete game shutout. The Leafs themselves managed only three hits, but stuck with their “small ball” approach, scoring both of their runs on sacrifice hits. While perhaps not considered an exciting game by modern standards, the Toronto journalists found it thrilling, praising the outstanding pitching and great defensive play from the infielders, in particular Otis Miller. The Mail and Empire wrote that “Otis Miller continued his clever short-stopping which played such a prominent part in the Leafs’ dash to the pennant…There are not a few Toronto fans who feel Miller has no superior.” The Star added that “Miller deported himself as he has done all season, and if there is any better shortstop in the minors than this fellow the fans hereabouts would like to clap their little peepers on him.”
“Yesterday’s opening contest between the Leafs and Louisville was as fine a sample of baseball as the most exacting fan could ask for,” opined the Globe. “It was played in an hour and sixteen minutes, snappily, and without an error on either side. There will be no better baseball played in the forthcoming [World Series] set between [the] St. Louis [Cardinals] and New York [Yankees] than that seen yesterday at Leaf Stadium.”
Hits were somewhat more plentiful in Game Two, but scoring remained low. The Leafs found themselves trailing 2-0 going into the bottom of the ninth, but managed to load the bases with three singles. With one out, Bill Mullen hit yet another single into left field, scoring Lena Styles from third as well as pitcher Ownie Carroll from second, who managed to slide in ahead of the throw. Carroll pitched a brilliant game, striking out thirteen, including the rare feat of striking out four batters in one inning, after one of the Colonels was able to take first when the strikeout pitch got away from catcher Steve O’Neill. Howley stuck with Carroll as the game went into extra innings and earned the win in the eleventh when Herman Layne hit a single to the outfield, scoring second baseman Otis Lawry.
(Left: Jess Doyle and Steve O’Neill. The Toronto Star, September 28, 1926.)
Game Three also went into extra innings, as each team only managed a single run through nine innings. In the bottom of the 10th, with Mullen on second, Otis Miller hit a ground ball through the legs of the Louisville first baseman. According to the Globe, “Mullen was away with the crack of the bat, and when catcher [Al] DeVormer crowded him, Mullen side-stepped, tripped over the plate, and lay there in agony, having painfully injured his knee. He was carried to the dressing room by his teammates, but stated that he will probably be able to play in tomorrow’s game.” Despite spraining his knee, Mullen had scored, giving the Leafs a three-game lead in the series.
Unfortunately for Lol Solman, gate receipts in the first three Toronto games were disappointingly low. Solman had reportedly hoped for a crowd of 10,000 fans at the opening game, but fewer than 4,000 had turned up. The newspapers attributed the disappointing figures in part to unseasonably cold weather. “No doubt there will be a large assemblage tomorrow,” wrote the Telegram in advance of Game Four, which was played on a Saturday, “but the games already played should have much better support. Evidently the fans are not very keen on these interleague affairs.”
Mullen missed Game Four in favour of utility player Carl Schmehl, but the Leafs managed to eke out another victory, 4-3. In a rematch between Jess Doyle and Ben Tincup, both pitchers proved more vulnerable than in Game One. Doyle surrendered three runs in the fifth and was lifted in favour of submarine pitcher Red Fisher, who held the Colonels hitless for the remainder of the game. One of the Leafs’ runs came by way of first baseman Mickey Heath, who hit the only home run for either team in the series.
Following Game Four, the teams moved to Louisville. Despite the Maple Leafs holding a stranglehold on the series, all of the games had been very evenly contested, and more than 8,000 turned out to see if the Colonels could get back in the series. Unfortunately for the Colonels’ fans, the well-rested Lefty Stewart pitched the Leafs to a 7-0 victory, the only lopsided score of the series, giving Toronto a clean sweep. Several Louisville players exhibited frustration during the game, and the Star reported that “the announcer of the [Louisville] club went so far as to come on the field and threaten the [umpire] who was abused soundly by the crowd when he called Gilhooley safe at the plate in the third.”
Following news of the Maple Leafs’ victory, Toronto City Council passed a resolution authorizing mayor Thomas Foster to send a letter of congratulations to both Lol Solman and Dan Howley, although a proposal that the City also award gold medals and hold a civic dinner for all the players of the team was rejected by the Board of Control.
Within a few weeks of the Little World Series victory, it was clear that the team would look quite different in 1927. Even before the season had ended, there were rumours that Dan Howley would be offered a job with a major league club, and in early November he was named as the new manager of the St. Louis Browns; Howley found space for both Lefty Stewart and Otis Miller on the Browns roster. Herman Layne was sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates, while the Tigers promoted Ownie Carroll.
The Tigers assigned Carl Hubbell to a lower minor league team in Decatur. Midway through 1928, Hubbell grew tired of being held back by Detroit, and threatened to quit professional baseball unless the team released him from his contract. Later that year, he signed with the New York Giants. Permitted by the Giants to throw his screwball, Hubbell flourished, becoming one of the game’s most dominant pitchers. Hubbell won 253 games over 16 seasons in the major leagues, earning two MVP Awards. In Game One of the 1933 World Series, Hubbell threw a five-hit complete game against the Washington Senators. The losing pitcher for the Senators was his old Toronto teammate, Lefty Stewart.
Additional material from: Lowell L. Blaisdell, Carl Hubbell: A Biography of the Screwball King (McFarland, 2011: Jefferson, North Carolina); Louis Cauz, Baseball’s Back in Town (Controlled Media Corp., 1977: Toronto); Donald F. Chrisman, The History of the International League (1919–1960) Part I (Donald F. Chrisman, 1981); Jane Finnan Dorward, “The Fleet Street Flats” in Dominionball: Baseball Above the 49th (SABR, 2005: Cleveland, Ohio); The Globe (March 23, May 14, June 2, June 4, July 8, July 10, July 27, August 5, August 7, August 10, August 14, August 16, August 17, August 23, August 26, September 2, September 11, Septeber 13, September 14, September 22, September 23, September 27, September 29, September 30, October 1, October 2, October 4, October 5, November 4, 1926; April 27, 1927); William Humber, Diamonds of the North: A Concise History of Baseball in Canada (Oxford UP, 1995: Toronto); The Mail and Empire (September 27, September 29, September 30, October 2, October 4, October 5, 1926); The Toronto Star (May 13, June 4, August 6, August 7, August 9, August 10, August 14, August 16, August 17, August 20, August 23, August 24, August 25, September 2, September 4, September 11, September 13, September 20, September 24, September 27, September 28, September 29, September 30, October 1, October 2, October 4, October 5, October 6, November 3, December 15, 1926; March 11, 1944); The Evening Telegram (October 1, October 4, 1926); Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, “1926 Toronto Maple Leafs” at www.milb.com; Marshall D. Wright, The International League: Year-by-Year Statistics, 1884–1953 (McFarland, 1998: Jefferson, North Carolina).
Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.