27 August 1872
In 1994, the federal government passed a bill naming hockey as Canada’s national sport of winter and lacrosse as the country’s national sport of summer. The latter might surprise some since I suspect relatively few Canadians have ever watched a lacrosse game. Football, soccer and even baseball have greater followings. Samuel Hill, author of an article titled Baseball in Canada that appeared in the Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, makes the audacious claim that if it wasn’t for baseball being the national summer game of the United States, it would be the national sport of Canada.
Back in the mid-nineteenth century, there were three popular summer sports for Canadian men—lacrosse, cricket and baseball—that could claim to be the nation’s favourite. Lacrosse was a game first popularized by Indigenous Canadians and later adopted and adapted by European settlers. First Nations’ games could involve as many as 1,000 participants in a community event with religious overtones that could last for days. Apparently, it was combat by other means. The European version of the sport, codified by Montrealer William Beers in 1860, reduced the number on a team to twelve and drastically shortened the game. This version of the sport proved to be very popular, with lacrosse clubs and teams forming throughout Canada, and indeed in the United States and even in Britain and elsewhere.
Cricket was also popular, especially in what is now Atlantic Canada and in Ontario. While it may have had an elitist connotation, there were many cricket clubs across the country, including in Ottawa. Cricket was also enthusiastically played in the United States until baseball supplanted it. Perhaps Canada’s most prestigious cricket pitch in the nineteenth century, and even today, is found on the grounds of Rideau Hall, the home of Canada’s governor general.
In 1869, the Ottawa Daily Citizen commented that cricket was growing in popularity among young men and that the sport deserved that popularity. It was “both a graceful and manly game and a healthy exercise.” The newspaper added that at one time it believed that lacrosse would supersede cricket in Canada and become the national game but that this was now unclear. “We are inclined to think that cricket will maintain a place in the regard of our young men for many a day to come.”
Baseball, or base ball (two words back in the nineteenth century) was also very popular throughout southern Ontario, with the first game reputedly played as early as 1838 in Beachville, Ontario. Apparently, the Canadian game was very different from that played today, or even in the United States at the time, as the sport’s rules had yet to be standardized. Among other things, there were five bases in the Canadian version instead of four, and the ball could be thrown directly at a runner for an “out”. According to Samuel Hill, “New York Rules,” which became the standard rules of baseball, were introduced to Canada during the 1850s. Canadian and US teams competed frequently, with north-south matches facilitated by easy rail access. The first international baseball match was a contest between Hamilton and Buffalo, New York. By 1877, London and Guelph baseball clubs joined the International Association which also included US teams, such as Pittsburgh and St. Louis. That year, the London Tecumsehs won the league championship over the Pittsburgh Alleghenies—Canada’s first major league baseball championship, ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays by more than a century.
According to a splendid 2005 Citizen article on early Ottawa baseball written by David McDonald, a member of the Society of American Baseball Research, the sport was brought to the nation’s capital in 1870 by Ottawa-native Tom Cluff. Cluff, who had been an avid lacrosse player, became enamoured with the new sport after a visit to the United States. He and others formed the Ottawa Base Ball Club, an amateur team.
By 1872, the Citizen was lamenting the disappearance of lacrosse in the city. The newspaper opined “What has become of our old Lacrosse Clubs? Are they disposed to let the national game die out in the capital of the Dominion? We hope they will take a lesson from the more enterprising devotees of the United States game and revive the excellent sport.”
That year, the Ottawa Base Ball Club leased a ten-acre field “in a line with Elgin Street and running close to the Rideau Canal, a ten-minute walk south from the old Post Office. It was accessible by foot and boat. The Club erected a 7 to 8-foot fence around the site, and built a grandstand with refreshment booths. Unlike games today, there was no alcohol served. According to the Citizen, this was “something which will, we are sure, meet with universal approval” as it will show that the “sport can be enjoyed without the use of the drinks that invariably ‘inebriate’ but seldom cheer.”
The inaugural game played in the new ball field was a match between the Ottawa Base Ball Club and the Boston Red Stockings held on Tuesday, 27 August 1872, a civic holiday. The Boston team had been formed just the previous year and had been a great success, playing in the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. It also toured throughout the United States and Canada playing exhibition games. The team should not be confused with the similar-sounding team, the Boston Red Sox. That team was founded in 1908. The Boston Red Stockings became the Boston Braves in 1912, and are now known as the Atlanta Braves.
The Boston Red Stockings were a professional team. The Citizen was awed that members were paid salaries ranging from $1,800 to $2,500 per annum “to do nothing else but play base ball.” The Boston Club had a capital base of $15,000 and was established under a Massachusetts charter.
That 1872 civic holiday in Ottawa was a sporting extravaganza. The day started with a cricket match at the Rideau Hall pitch between 22 selected Canadian players and the Eleven of England. On the English side were cricket luminaries Cuthbert Ottaway, deemed the most versatile athlete of the age, and William Gilbert Grace, generally considered one of the finest cricketers of all time. Grace, who was feeling ill during the match still managed to score 73 runs. The English team overwhelmed Ottawa, downing the home team 201 runs to 42. The Red Stockings, who were in the crowd of about three thousand, thought the batting was “very fine” but remarked that the game was “darned slow.”
After the match, the Red Stockings were driven to the baseball grounds by the Russell House’s horse-drawn bus. Team members were immediately surrounded by admiring fans. The Citizen journalist appreciatively called the Red Stockings the “most athletic looking lot of players that have ever visited the city.” He added that the “Red Stockings [were] all heavy men, very strong and active, in fact picked men.” The Boston players wore a loose-fitting uniform of light brown flannel with red belts and red stockings—“admirably adapted for their active play of sinew and muscles.”
The team took to the field and immediately began to practise pitching and catching. The crowd of several thousand, some of whom had walked to the baseball field across the newly opened Maria Street bridge over the Rideau Canal, quickly could see that the home team would have little chance against the tourists. “There were very few even of the most sanguine of the Ottawa men who would bet one to ten that our club would obtain a single run,” opined the Citizen’s journalist. Just the day before, the Red Stockings had beaten the Toronto “Dauntless” team 68 to nothing. Indeed, it was reported that nineteen of twenty amateur clubs they had played that season had lost without even being allowed to first base, let alone score a run. Up until their game with Ottawa, the Boston team had only been defeated three times that season, twice by the Athletics of Philadelphia and once by the Haymakers of Troy, both professional clubs. Against these three losses, the Red Stockings had more than forty victories.
The Ottawa Club won the toss and elected to field for the first inning. Initially, the Boston Club found the pitching of R. Lang to be “puzzling,” according to the Citizen. But they visitors soon figured him out. The Red Stockings had considerable praise for the fielding abilities of the home team, especially that of W. McMahon in left field. Reportedly, he made a number of very difficult catches. They also complemented the skills of Tom Cluff at first base.
It was Ottawa’s batting that fell very short. Boston said the home team suffered from the same fault as other amateur teams that they had faced—a lack of confidence that prevented balls leaving the in-field.
The Ottawa-Boston match-up lasted 2 hours and 13 minutes with the score an extraordinarily lopsided 64 to nothing. Mind you, that was better than how Toronto’s “Dauntless” team had fared. The Citizen very charitably noted that the final score was 18 earned runs to zero. The newspaper added that the Boston team was “undoubtedly the finest club in existence.”
This wasn’t the only appearance of the Red Stockings in Ottawa. The following year, the Boston team returned to the nation’s capital for a rematch with the Ottawa Base Ball Club. This time, the Ottawa Club managed to score not just once but four times in a losing cause, being downed 41 to 4 by the visitors.
Hill, Samuel R., 2000. “Baseball in Canada,” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies: Vol. 8. Issue 1, Article 4.
Lemoine, Bob, 2015. “April 6th 1871: Boston Red Stockings take to the field for the first time,” Society for American Baseball Research.
McDonald, David, 2005, “Aug. 27th: The day the tide turned in Ottawa,” Ottawa Citizen, 27 August.
Ottawa Citizen, 1868, “The Lacrosse Match At Prescott,” 2 October.
——————, 1869. “No title,” 6 September.
——————, 1872. “Many Sports,” 12 August.
——————, 1872. “Toronto,” 26 August.
——————, 1872. “The Civic Holiday,” 28 August.
——————, 1873. “The Base Ball Match,” 27 August.