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SPORTS (JULY 2017): The Maple Leaf(s) Forever

August 1st, 2017 · No Comments

A Toronto baseball institution for over a century

PHOTO BY R.S. KONJEK/GLEANER NEWS: Grant Tamane and his Intercounty Baseball League teammates in 2017.

By R.S. Konjek

In some quarters of Toronto, this year’s Canada Day celebrations were a time of spirited debate.

People argued whether a giant rubber ducky on the lakeshore was a whimsical tourism boon or an outrageous financial boondoggle.

Some wondered what a rubber duck had to do with Canada in the first place. As Canadian symbols go, it’s no loon or beaver, and certainly no maple leaf. There’s an icon with staying power.

“The Leafs of the International League are considered one of the best minor league organizations of all time.”

The leaf, for instance, goes hand in hand with images of Canadian athletes. Here in Toronto, baseball players have been taking the field with a leaf on their uniforms for over a century.

Long before the Blue Jays were hatched in Toronto, baseball in this city was the domain of the Maple Leafs.

Founded in the late 1800s, the city’s first professional ballclub was known simply as the Toronto Baseball Club, or the “Torontos”. The “Maple Leafs” nickname was adopted around the turn of the last century. Not long after that, a small silhouette of a leaf appeared on the left breasts of players’ uniforms. Later on, a “T” for Toronto was laid overtop the foliage to create the iconic “T-Leaf” logo that is still worn to this day.

The original Maple Leafs played in the International League — one level below major league baseball. Over the years, the team’s home park moved around the city. From Sunlight Park near Queen Street East and the Don Valley Parkway, to Hanlan’s Point Stadium on the islands, to Maple Leaf Stadium at the foot of Bathurst Street.

The Leafs of the International League are considered one of the best minor league organizations of all time. They won ten championships and several Hall of Famers spent parts of their careers there — players like Nap Lajoie, Ralph Kiner, and Sparky Anderson all wore the maple leaf. Former Montreal Expos manager Dick Williams’ first managerial job was with the Leafs.

By the 1960s, Maple Leaf Stadium was showing its age. The team also started losing money. They played their final game in the International League in 1967, and then were relocated to Louisville, Kentucky.

Toronto was a baseball black hole for just one year. In 1969, a new Toronto franchise joined the Intercounty Baseball League — an independent league for clubs around southern Ontario. The present day Maple Leafs were born, and they have called Christie Pits their home ever since. Now playing their 49th season, the Leafs of the Intercounty League have won eight championships.

Neither the long history of minor league baseball in Toronto nor the symbolism of the maple leaf are lost on current Toronto players.

“I definitely feel a sense of pride every time I put on the Leafs jersey,” says third-year shortstop Ryan White. “It’s cool to be a part of such a storied franchise.”

Players have discovered that items of clothing that bear the team logo are highly prized in other parts of the world.

“A lot of my friends and players I’ve played with in college in the States love the old school look, and everyone asks me if I can get them a ‘leaf hat’ whenever they know I’m going home for the summer,” White adds.

Players have also come to appreciate that the fans at Christie Pits quickly learn your name once you don the home team’s uniform.

“It’s an amazing feeling to represent Toronto as a part of the Maple Leafs baseball club,” says second-year outfielder Troy Daring. “We have some really loyal fans that truly support the club. I remember my first game back from college this summer, a fan came up to me and welcomed me back by name. I couldn’t believe he remembered who I was.”

The relationships between clubs and symbols, fans and players — they span the decades of our city’s baseball history.

The Leafs of 2017 find themselves in the middle of the pack. As the season rolls on, they have been holding steady at fourth place in the standings, hovering around the .500 mark.

August will be playoff time, and one thing the Leafs have shown in recent seasons is that they are something of a sleeping giant. Last summer, they made it all the way to the championship series before falling short.

Weather permitting, the Leafs play at Christie Pits every Sunday through the rest of July. Games start at 2:00 p.m. The playoffs will begin in August.

 

READ MORE

SPORTS: Weather permitting (June 2017)

SPORTS: Leafs return with sights on a title (May 2017)

SPORTS: Late summer blues (September 2016)

Tags: Annex · Sports