Wednesday, November 28, 2012

past pieces of toronto: maple leaf stadium

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on December 16, 2011.

The paid attendance figure said it all: 802. A venue with a capacity of 18,000 that had once crammed as many as 4,000 more people than that into it was going out with a whimper. The sparse number of fans who witnessed the last baseball game at Maple Leaf Stadium on September 4, 1967 didn’t even have the satisfaction of seeing the hometown Maple Leafs achieve a final victory. A 7-2 loss marked the end of upper-level minor league ball in Toronto and 40 years of play at the foot of Bathurst Street. Ironically, the winning team, the Syracuse Chiefs, later became the farm club for Toronto’s long-awaited major league ball club.

Yet Maple Leaf Stadium wasn’t far removed from its glory days. Under Jack Kent Cooke’s ownership during the 1950s, the Maple Leafs were one of the best draws in minor league ball, with stronger attendance figures than at least two major league clubs. In addition to the competitive team that won four International League pennants between 1954 and 1960, fans were drawn by an endless stream of promotions. As Louis Cauz noted in his book Baseball’s Back in Town, “every night seemed like New Year’s Eve. There were fireworks displays and fan appreciation days. Music blared whenever there was a lull on the field and fans left the park with ponies, baseballs, bats, caps and long chunks of salami.” Not to mention car giveaways, leggy actresses and milking contests.

Plans for Maple Leaf Stadium began when club officials saw attendance drop at the team’s Hanlan’s Point home during the mid-1920s. Despite a winning team, delays ferrying ticketholders on and off the island discouraged fans. Team president Lol Solman found a solution nearby, where the Toronto Harbour Commission had reclaimed seven acres of land at Bathurst and Fleet from the lake. Designed by the architectural firm of Chapman and Oxley, who were also responsible for nearby structures such as the Crosse and Blackwell Building (now OMNI television), Palais Royale, the Princes’ Gates and the Sunnyside Bathing Pavilion, Maple Leaf Stadium only took five months to build.

Despite drizzle and temperatures barely above zero, over 14,000 fans witnessed Mayor Thomas Foster toss the first pitch on April 29, 1926. By the bottom of the ninth inning, fans were preparing to head home when the Maple Leafs, who were trailing the Reading Keystones 5-0, suddenly tied the game. Extra innings were few: a bunt by Toronto third baseman Del Capes in the tenth inning allowed outfielder Herman Layne to score. The victory was the first of many for the Maple Leafs that year: the team brought the International League pennant home to the stadium fans affectionately referred to as “Fleet Street Flats.”

By the 1960s, the stadium was viewed as a decaying relic unsuited for a step up in the baseball world. Though many baseball officials and sportswriters declared that Toronto was ready for the major leagues, Cooke repeatedly failed in attempts to lure new or moving franchises. Frustration mounted among fans; as Star sports columnist Milt Dunnell wrote in 1967, “Toronto regarded itself as a big league town. It refused to buy the minor league product any longer.” Both attendance and Cooke’s interest in the team declined. After Cooke sold his remaining shares in 1964, the owners who followed him struggled with disinterested fans, advertisers leery of promotions with little return, mounting municipal tax bills and battles with the stadium landlord, Toronto Harbour Commission.

The demise of Maple Leaf Stadium was swift. Despite interest from the likes of hockey Maple Leafs co-owner Harold Ballard, a month after the 1967 season ended the team was sold to interests who moved the franchise to Louisville, Kentucky. Demolition took place over the first half of 1968, which the Toronto Harbour Commission claimed was necessary due to fears that children who snuck into the decaying stadium would injure themselves. When the site was redeveloped for housing, one of the new streets was named Stadium Road in honour of the old ballpark.

Additional material from Baseball’s Back in Town by Louis Cauz (Toronto: Controlled Media Corporation, 1977) and the October 17, 1967 edition of the Toronto Star. Photo of Maple Leaf Stadium, circa 1950s, from the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 843.

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