Prairie Baseball

If hockey was the prairie’s passion, baseball was its great delight. For a part of the world where summer could be discouragingly brief, baseball was a surprising ingredient in the fabric of life on the grasslands.

The game came with the early settlers at the turn of the century, probably imported from the US by the exodus of Americans from the midwest to Canada. A little over 40 years after the game was set by the Professional Association of Baseball Players in New York, it was taking root on the Canadian Prairie.

You have to wonder what made it so popular. The settlers were mostly from the British Isles and Europe so you’d think football or rugby would be the sport of choice. Or, given the short summers, something quick and easy like arm wrestling or rock-paper-scissors.

The aboriginal people had lacrosse and the pioneers could have just as easily adopted it.  The game is really hockey played on grass. Legend has it the settlers nixed the idea after discovering they couldn’t a) beat the aboriginals at the game and b) were inept when it came to fashioning their own sticks.   Moreover, the game wasn’t all that popular with the plains aborigines. They were too busy following the buffalo herds.

Settlers didn’t have much free time; this we know.   How they gravitated to using that free time to hit and throw a baseball is grist for a Ph.D thesis.   All we really know is that they did. At the turn of the century, the game was pretty much the same one we fall asleep to today on television; nine innings, three outs, nine players on the field, and ninety feet between bases (Someone had a thing for the number nine and its roots!).   The only outlawed rule lamented by some prairie lads was the one in which you could record an out by beaning a runner on the basepaths.   Aaah, civilization.

So baseball became the prairie’s summer game.   In the first 60 years of the 20th century, almost every rural community had its baseball team. And every Sunday, weather permitting, a community ball diamond was active. And, as anyone who lives in the midwest – Canada or US – knows, “weather permitting” is a very volatile term. A nine inning ball game could begin in 85 degree sunshine and be called after 3 innings – well, not so much ‘called’ as ‘not being played any more’ because anyone with an ounce of brains was headed to their cars or the nearest root cellar to sit out a vicious summer storm.

One thing that always interested prairie baseball historians was the mere existence of the baseball diamond. Clearing the land to accommodate a small wheat crop had to be daunting enough, especially if you lived in the north where the tree line slipped down onto the prairie. Forget pulling stumps just so grown men could play a game. And on the bald prairie, things were marginally better insofar as the trees were much smaller or nonexistent.   But a baseball diamond needed to be on a level piece of ground and if you’re a farmer, trying to optimize your crop yields against a back-breaking career of annually tilling the soil, a level piece of ground would have considerable more appeal than the typical rolling piece of prairie.

By the 1920’s the game was a popular fixture across the prairies. Barnstorming teams from Edmonton and Calgary made regular visits to smaller towns to test the skills of the locals. In the 1950’s, a semi-pro league operated out of Southern Alberta with players recruited both locally and from US colleges.   Towns as small as Vulcan and Granum sponsored teams that for a brief time, shone a bright light on an otherwise obscure farming community.   If you’ve ever been to Granum, you would be hard-pressed to imagine anyone stopping for a coffee much less hanging around for a summer to play baseball. The deep pockets of a local rancher made it possible. Then there was the famous American touring team, the Sons of David, who ranged through North America with their outlandishly long beards that belied their talent for throwing and hitting a baseball. Think of an entire team of Joe Thorntons.

For fastball – and baseball – aficionados, an annual visit by Eddie Feigner, the King and His Court, was avidly awaited.   The King and His Court challenged any fastball team to an exhibition match. The Court consisted of four players – Eddie the pitcher, a catcher, a first-baseman, and a shortstop. It may have sounded lopsided but the real weapon was Eddie’s storied pitching arm, so powerful he could strike out the side pitching from second base. Needless to say, his left arm looked normal but his right arm looked like Popeye’s after a bushel of spinach.   For a part of the world where not much happened that would intrigue a worldly urbanite,  Eddie’s special skills were greatly appreciated. When asked why four players, Eddie said if he only used three and all three got on base, there’d be no one to go up to bat.

Scheduling was erratic, games and tournaments arranged on an ad hoc basis.   And the season ended when the crops were ready for the swather. But on those shimmering Sunday afternoons when the dust hung in the air, when the crows squabbled over a morsel of roadkill, and the mosquitoes hummed ominously in the poplar thickets, prairie people turned out in large numbers to watch their favorite team battle for bragging rights and sometimes – if there was a tournament – a small financial reward.

What would surprise the first-time spectator was just how good these farm boys were. There’s a reason why Bernard Malamud in his short story, “The Natural”, had Roy Hobbes coming from the prairies. Maybe there was something in the water but it was always a surprise, no matter where you visited, to see so many talented ball players in so many out-of-the-way places.   Big raw-boned boys who could throw 90 mph fast balls and curve balls that drove batters to their knees trying to hit. As for hitting, some teams were so power laden their fans were disappointed in anything less than a home run. Not many boys made it to the major leagues but many went as far as Double A. Most of them, faced with the decision to pursue a baseball career, opted to stay with the farm and the community in which they were raised. They would never hear of Roy Hobbes.

Most communities were home to at least one baseball fanatic whose playing days were behind him. But he loved the game so much he rarely missed a practice or a game. The players discovered he was a wealth of knowledge, teaching them the intricacies of the slide, the finely-turned double play, and how to lay down a bunt. He generally eschewed any management role preferring to remain as an advisor, the grumpy uncle who knew how to do things. In the early mornings, he could be found at the diamond, clearing the endless assaults of crab grass, raking the base paths, and pointing out the weaknesses of the current team to anyone silly enough to be out with him at that time of day. Acquiring the equipment to play the game was often difficult. Local hardware stores carried a slim inventory but most of it was aimed at beginners. Eaton’s catalogue was a better choice but one didn’t always know exactly what one was getting and nothing would be more embarrassing than bragging about a new glove from Eaton’s only to show up with some embarrassingly shoddy mitt that immediately branded its owner as, at best, a dupe. To the committed baseball player Eaton’s might have been a respected mail-order company but the catalog was unreliable when it came to real sporting equipment. If a player wanted a good Rawlings or Wilson glove, it required a trip to Edmonton or Calgary.   Such trips were a rare treat and, while there, a boy might want to stock up on bats, balls and catcher’s gear.  Perhaps a mask and chest protector for the umpire.

Ball game attendance was a family affair. Most diamonds had tw\o bleacher stands, one on the third base side and one on the first base side (”bleacher” is of American origin and reputedly came from the old covered stadiums on the US East Coast. Fans who had to sit in the uncovered sections were called “bleachers”, presumably because they had to sit in the sun and get bleached) . Children ran freely behind the chicken wire backstop and cars were continually driving in and out of the park area. Safety obsessed parents of today would be appalled at the mayhem going on behind the bleachers. Cheering was raucous and insults creative but rarely crude. Picnic tables were located behind the bleachers and were always in great demand. Local non-athletic yahoos were always out in force, swilling beer and guffawing as they watched the girls watching the ball players while telling each other the girls really liked them even if they couldn’t catch a popfly with a tomato basket.   Louts were a fixture at any rural gathering and, as one wag put it, “would treat the grand opening of a new day care as an excuse to drink”.   But they generally meant no harm and were happy if one youngster asked them how they managed to string up all those dingleballs in their International half-ton or how much that fancy trucker’s wallet cost.

The quality of the diamonds varied greatly from finely manicured fields that would flatter a big city to an uneven clay-baked runway that severely tested the courage of an infielder fielding a sharply-hit ground ball. Some pitcher’s mounds were a tad anemic, looking as if a cleat had merely scuffed up some dirt. A few diamonds were fenced in the outfield but most were simply open fields that may or may not have eventually melded into poplar groves or sloughs or gravel roads.   Outfielders needed a “Spidey-sense” to remember just where they were.   A home run was generally any ball hit over an outfielder’s head.

As the 1960’s unfolded, the classic prairie baseball team faded into history. Baseball was still popular but the dynamics were altered forever. Small farming communities disappeared as farms consolidated into bigger and bigger spreads. The quarter section farm quickly became a thing of the past. Towns grew larger and sponsored more organized baseball teams that replaced barnstorming and tournaments with regular schedules. Boys started to migrate to the city instead of staying to help dad on the farm.

But for over half a century, through two world wars and a devastating depression, baseball survived on the prairie, providing a welcome diversion by delivering a great spectator sport and an even greater game to play.

Robert Alan Davidson,

April, 2016.

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