Wayne Gretzky is “The Great One” in Canada, but inside the century-old stone house that’s home to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, the story of another “Great One” is told.
Roberto Clemente – the “Great One” to Pittsburgh Pirates fans – suited up for the Montreal Royals prior to his legendary major league career. Initially inked by the Brooklyn Dodgers, the rifle-armed outfielder is showcased as a scrawny, 20-year-old in the 1954 Royals team photo in the museum.
Hockey fans need not worry, though. Their beloved “Great One” is also represented in the St. Marys, Ontario shrine. A picture of a 12-year-old Gretzky with the 1973 Canadian champion Pee Wee softball squad from Chatham, Ontario, also adorns the walls.
And you can’t mention Chatham, Ontario, without talking about its most famous son – Fergie Jenkins. The seven-time 20-game winner’s 1971 Cy Young Award, one of his Texas Rangers jerseys and a number of pictures from his career are showcased in the Hall.
“Fergie Jenkins is unquestionably the cornerstone of the Hall, the torchbearer, the identity and Canada’s best ambassador for baseball,” said Tom Valcke, president of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. “Not only is he the most accomplished Canadian ever to don a uniform, but he supports and stands for all of the ideals that the Hall does, and our presence and voice are 100 times as impactful due to the marriage of the Hall with Fergie. Fergie attends every induction ceremony religiously, and he has joined me for numerous key marketing pitches to government agencies, foundations, philanthropists and potential supporters from corporate Canada.”
The popularity of baseball ranks well behind hockey in Canada, so the Hall needs supporters like Jenkins to survive. It received a boost when a recent ESPN article ranked it as the second-best baseball museum in the world. Thanks in part to that story, a record 16,000 people will visit the grounds this year.
Established in 1983, the Hall officially opened in St. Marys in 1998. The museum is located on 32 acres of land, donated by a local cement company. Phase One of the project – which includes three baseball fields built on the grounds – is complete.
“We’re already more than halfway there to putting the shovel in the ground to build Phase Two, which is an academy on our campus that will resemble a dormitory in a college setting. Thirty of the 60 rooms in the dormitory will be themed with the Major League Baseball teams, and the remaining rooms will be themed with the 30 NHL teams. We plan to utilize the housing complex in the offseason for hockey, ringette (a game similar to hockey, played by women) and curling events,” explained Valcke.
The academy will be used primarily for baseball groups, hosting everyone from the Canadian National Baseball team to children attending the Hall’s Kids On Deck summer camps. These camps use baseball as a medium to teach cultural awareness and social justice to 10 to 15 year olds.
A new interactive, state-of-the-art museum is expected to be built within the next five years. In the meantime, the Hall will make due with its current structure, which only has room for 20 percent of its artifacts.
Seventy-eight players, builders and teams have been inducted into the Hall. To be honored, a member must have made a significant contribution to baseball in Canada and receive 12 votes from a 16-member selection committee that consists of Canadian sportswriters and baseball officials. So while the Hall has inducted native sons like Jenkins and Terry Puhl, it has also enshrined Blue Jays great Joe Carter and Expos legend Andre Dawson.
In fact, one of the items on display is a Dawson game-used bat. The Hawk’s lumber is part of a display that also showcases bats employed by Justin Morneau (born in New Westminster, B.C.) in his first major-league game and Jason Bay (born in Trail, B.C.) from his first eight-RBI game on Sept. 19, 2003. Paul Molitor’s 1993 World Series MVP trophy is also front and center in one of the rooms.
On top of the Morneau and Bay bats, artifacts from a number of other current Canadian major leaguers are also featured, including cleats worn by Russell Martin (East York, Ont.) in his first game and an official lineup card from Erik Bedard’s (Navan, Ont.) debut. The glove and spikes that Montreal native Eric Gagne used when he racked up his record 84th consecutive save are also displayed.
“While it’s important that we take kids down the road of Canadiana from Fergie to Jackie Robinson to Babe Ruth hitting his first professional home run in Canada, speaking practically, their interest is limited. But when they can see Eric Gagne’s glove or Justin Morneau’s bat or Jason Bay’s jersey, it grabs the kids’ attention,” said Valcke.
Also exhibited are artifacts from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). A League of Their Own, the movie featuring Madonna and Geena Davis, was based on this circuit that existed from 1943-54. Of the more than 600 women who suited up in this league, approximately 60 of them were Canadian. The Canuck women were inducted into the Hall in 1998.
Another exhibit highlights Ruth’s first professional home run that was hit in Toronto. A Bambino bat and autographed ball are featured.
However, the museum’s largest display is reserved for Jackie Robinson, who toiled for the Montreal Royals in 1946, before breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier. The courageous pioneer was the MVP that year and led the Royals to a league championship.
“Jackie’s wife, Rachel, still tells the story of Jackie’s final game in Montreal. Knowing they (Montreal fans) were never going to see him again after his final game, they gave him a standing ovation, a curtain call, a second curtain call and then, after he had showered and changed, a final curtain call. They literally chased Jackie out of the stadium, and Rachel says it’s one of the few times in history that a white mob was chasing a black man for a totally positive reason,” said Valcke.
Another baseball legend who has been inducted is Sparky Anderson. The loquacious field boss played in the International League for the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Royals, and he also began his managerial career in Toronto in 1964. Numerous artifacts – including programs and photos – highlight Sparky’s tenure in The Great White North.
Tommy Lasorda is another well-known manager who has been enshrined. The longtime Dodgers skipper owns virtually every pitching record in Montreal Royals history. A Lasorda stained-glass window and a game-worn Dodgers jersey are on display.
Another room in the Hall is devoted to the Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos. Pictures, jerseys and other memorabilia illustrate the evolution of the Blue Jays franchise. Standout artifacts include the pitching rubber from the Jays’ inaugural 1977 season, a seat from the old Exhibition Stadium and the batting helmet worn by Joe Carter when he belted his World Series-winning homer in 1993.
Expos artifacts include the chair that Willie Stargell struck with the longest home run (537 feet) in Olympic Stadium history, the home plate from Olympic Stadium and a batting glove that Pete Rose, an Expo at the time, wore when he recorded his 4,000th career hit.
“Claude Delorme (former Montreal Expos executive) is one of the most classy and professional front office executives in the entire baseball industry,” Valcke said. “Once it became official that the Expos were leaving Canada, we contacted Claude to state our interest in anything and everything that the Expos would have to leave to preserve their legacy.”
The Hall president says that a group of volunteers trekked to Montreal to pick up more than $500,000 worth of artifacts.
“We drove up a few trucks to Montreal and a toolbox, and literally dismantled everything and loaded it up for the trip ‘home’ to St. Marys,” he said.
Four former Expos players – Dawson, Claude Raymond, Gary Carter and Steve Rogers – have been inducted into the Hall, and their plaques hang in a hallway with plaques of the other honorees. The induction ceremony takes place on the last weekend of June each year and usually attracts more than 1,000 people.
With increasing attendance at the induction ceremonies and at the museum in general, Valcke is optimistic about the Hall’s future.
“We have received funding from more than 100 sources, including Canadian corporations, Major League Baseball, the Toronto Blue Jays, all three levels of government, foundations and philanthropists,” said Valcke.
This type of support will ensure that more “Great Ones” are honored by the Canadian Hall in the future.