Museum remembers Sask.’s baseball history

The Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is in Battleford, where the province’s first ball game was played

BATTLEFORD, Sask. — Saskatchewan knows how to play ball.

The province has a long and rich history in the game of baseball.

Indeed, the Prairies have been a hotbed of natural talent, home to some great ball players and events for well over a century.

Battleford has the distinction for being the site of the first recorded baseball game played in the North West Territories on May 31, 1879.

Two pick-up teams played the nine-inning game. The pitcher, then called the bowler, stood 13.5 metres from the batter and threw the ball underhand to a location requested by the batter. The catcher caught the ball on the first bounce. The batter was out when thrown out on a base or if a fly ball was caught on the run or on the first bounce.

Instead of cheering, “run, run,” the term “leg-it, leg-it” was yelled. Baseball was then two words — base ball.

The North West Mounted Police played the townspeople. Brothers Richard and Robert Wyld, both members of the police force, captained and coached the teams.

The final score was 18-15 for Richard Wyld’s team, but it remains a discrepancy on which side actually won.

A permanent plaque dedicated to that game is erected on the grounds of Fort Battleford National Historic Site in Battleford.

Honouring that heritage and keeping history alive is the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Battleford, Sask., a prairie gem in its own right.

It’s the only organization in the province dedicated to baseball and the first one in Canada along with the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in Toronto.

And it’s not easy to miss its home base on 22nd Street West in Battleford.

Weighing more than 1,000 kilograms, more than 15 metres long and running the museum’s length is the biggest baseball bat in Canada.

“In 2014, we succeeded in getting Canada’s biggest bat, which is a big drawing card. It’s like destination Battleford,” said Jane Shury, president of the volunteer organization.

Shury’s late husband, Dave, founded the hall of fame in 1983. A self-proclaimed baseball fanatic all of his life, Dave became one of the biggest promoters and preservers of baseball in Saskatchewan.

“His dream was to have a baseball museum where the memorabilia of our rich baseball in the province and those people who contributed to it would be available so others could come and see it,” she said.

Mr. Baseball to the community and beyond, Shury’s love of the sport is clear. Hundreds of baseball artifacts are neatly displayed, documented and carefully preserved. Row upon row of autographed baseballs line the walls, including old wooden baseball bats and leather gloves of all shapes and styles. Jerseys and banners hang from the walls and ceiling while a large collection of vintage trophies proudly remembers hard won victories from years past.

There’s even a well-stocked library, which includes several books authored by Dave Shury about the history of baseball in Saskatchewan.

Surrounded by the memorabilia and artifacts, visitors are taken back in time when baseball was one of the biggest social events on the Prairies.

Much older than the province, the game has deep cultural roots in Saskatchewan, but has played a big role in the development of all the prairie provinces and produced many world class talents.

“A baseball diamond was found in every little town, every little city and in many farmyards because there were many farm boys that would do their work chores, then go practice and play,” she said.

“They certainly turned out to be some of the best baseball players. A lot of them were scouted in the early years to go to the United States to play in the major leagues. There were some that did go but the majority of them didn’t, either because they had to stay home and work on the farm or because they didn’t want to leave their family.”

Baseball on the farm often involved the entire family.

“As an example, this one father would put an old mattress up on the wall of the barn and mark it out for the batting zone and the guys would practice throwing the ball there,” she said.

Even sisters and mothers hit homeruns and ran the bases.

“There were some women that did play along with their brothers or fathers or what have you. Of course in those days women playing baseball wasn’t exactly accepted, but when you come to a small town there weren’t enough boys for a team, there weren’t enough girls so you had no choice but to play together,” she said.

A Friday night baseball game between two rival teams was often the highlight of the week, enjoyed by all in the community. A picnic and barn dance would often follow the game.

“It was their social outing. They all got together and enjoyed each other’s company and hospitality,” she said.

“Barnstorming” was also a popular event, where exhibition games were quickly organized outside of the regular season’s roster.

One such event involved the legendary right-hand pitcher, Satchel Paige (1906-1982).

Paige made a living off of his famous fastball nicknamed the cannonball, first in the Negro National League and then in Major League Baseball.

He brought his team, the Satchel Paige All Stars, to North Battleford for a game against the North Battleford Beavers in 1963.

The hospitality and generosity of Saskatchewan left an enduring mark on the segregated ball players.

“When they came here, they were in two sort of dilapidated cars and they didn’t have enough money to eat or for gas. So what the club here did was arrange a game and they also arranged a game the next day in Unity. Our club gave them accommodations and meals and all the money made at the gate was given to them so they’d have money to go on to the next place,” she said.

Shury said those were the glory years of prairie baseball when a baseball field was often the centre of town in many rural communities.

Handmade wooden backstops now sag and rot in community parks as overgrown grass smothers infields and outfields. The sliver of base lines can still be seen if the light is right. Cheers and laughter on a warm summer’s evening seldom float in the prairie breeze.

“It’s sad, the rich history, which included semi-pro baseball in the province — that calibre is gone, but let’s look on the bright side. Like everything, there are always ups and downs with sports. There are so many different eras,” she said.

However, over the past five years, she said baseball has been making a comeback with increased interest and participation.

“The registration for minor baseball across the province has come up each year. More young people are going into baseball and more ladies and girls are going into it. In fact, ladies baseball is on the rise,” she said.

The Saskatchewan Hall of Fame and Museum is celebrating its 35th anniversary in Battleford Aug. 17.

Each year during the third Saturday in August individuals, teams, families and communities are inducted into the hall of fame.

Ferguson “Fergie” Jenkins, the first Canadian to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, will be the special guest speaker at the event.

Shury said it will be an opportunity for people of all ages to bask in the history of baseball.

“It is amazing. You see grandchildren coming in and a lot of them don’t know that much about baseball, but they learn a considerable amount by the time they get through here,” she said.

“When they can hold that glove or see the ball their dad or grandfather played with or the bat he hit with, it’s very heart warming and satisfying because then the hall of fame and museum certainly has reached its purpose.”

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