Two. Count ‘em. Two. Although still styling itself, with typical American hubris, as the National Baseball of Fame, Cooperstown now has two Canadians cluttering its hallowed walls among all those Yanks, plus a scattering of Latinos. And they will soon be joined by one of the greatest to ever play the game, the incomparable Ichiro “I am very rare” Suzuki from the distant shores of Japan.
It didn’t happen without great gobs of tension. As befits a ballplayer known for coming through in the clutch, outfielder Larry Walker left it to the proverbial bottom of the ninth. Because of the arcane way most things work in baseball, this was the 10th and final year Walker would be on the list of eligible candidates. In order to succeed in his last crack at the bat, Walker needed a nod from at least 298 (75%) of the 397 baseball writers who get to vote. Some are wise, some less so. Some are fair, some less so. It’s a crap shoot at the best of times. Even Walker thought he would be nipped at the plate. A few hours before the official count was announced, he tweeted: “Although I believe I’m going to come up a little short today I still wanna thank all you that have been pulling for me and showing your support…Cheers 🍻 LW”.
As we know, however, the good old boy from beautiful downtown Maple Ridge squeaked home safely, evading the catcher’s tag by just six votes. He was in. Ferguson Jenkins, the fabulous pitcher from Chatham, Ont., who won 284 games in his 17-year career, now had company. Amid these ever-darkening times, it was a rare bit of wonderful news. Jenkins was quick off the mark to welcome his Canadian compatriot, tweeting out a picture of the two of them together at Walker’s induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame a few years ago in idyllic St. Mary’s, Ont. “The biggest thing is you’re able to put ‘HOF’ behind your name, and people recognize your career because of the fact that you’re one of the best,” said Jenkins. “That’s what Larry Walker is now — one of the best.”
As someone who began following baseball as kid, when the only Canadian in the majors was a mediocre infielder from Windsor named Reno Bertoia, it’s difficult to overstate how special it is to now have two Canadians with a plaque in Cooperstown, alongside the likes of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Warren Spahn and my boyhood hero, Harmon Killebrew.
How Canadian is Larry Walker? His twitter handle is @Cdnmooselips33. His profile pic is the Canadian flag. Growing up in Maple Ridge, he played endless street hockey with a bunch of pals that included Hockey Hall-of-Famer Cam Neely. He dreamed of cracking the NHL as a goalie. “Being Canadian, you’re born into this world with a stick in your hand and skates on your feet,” Walker has said. “So that’s how I was as a kid. You played hockey, and that’s all that really mattered.” But after failing a couple of Junior A tryouts, he stumbled into baseball. At one of his whistlestops in the minor leagues, just for fun, he would sometimes use his spikes to sketch a semblance of the Canadian flag in the dirt, during the Star Spangled Banner. And, of course, he spent his first six years in the majors with the beloved Montreal Expos. For the humble Walker, his selection wasn’t just about him: “As a Canadian, it was a proud moment for me to represent my country and be able to join Ferguson Jenkins in the Hall of Fame.”
Jenkins’ Canadian roots also run deep. His mother’s family first came to southwestern Ontario via the legendary Underground Railway that brought fleeing slaves to a safe haven in Canada. Like Walker, he too played hockey, an athletic, rushing defenseman who made it to Junior B. His heroes were the great Montreal Canadiens’ great blueliner Doug Harvey and the local Chatham Maroons, who waxed the renownedTrail Smoke Eaters in 1960 to win the Allan Cup, Canada’s senior hockey championship. While playing for the Chicago Cubs, Jenkins occasionally worked out with the hometown Blackhawks, borrowing Dale Tallon’s stick to join the likes of Bobby and Dennis Hull on the ice. “My baseball friends won’t like this comment, but I still look on hockey as a greater challenge than baseball,” says Jenkins.
Whenever he took the mound at historic Wrigley Field, where he enjoyed his greatest success, the Cubs’ PA guy would play Canadian Sunset. As further evidence that you can take the pitcher out of Canada but you can’t take Canada out of the pitcher, at the end of his long, stellar career, Jenkins returned to his stomping grounds in southwest Ontario and pitched two seasons for the semi-pro London Majors. At 42, he was riding the bus with awe-struck teammates and spinning tales of “the show”. He has his own Canadian postage stamp, and finally, since few things are more Canadian than beer, Jenkins naturally has a Chatham craft beer named after him. Fergie’s Classic Pilsener is advertised as having “a crisp delivery just like his slider hitting a catcher’s mitt.”
On a personal note, I remember how thrilled I was when a guy from Chatham ended up at my high school. I asked him if he knew Ferguson Jenkins. “Fergie?” he replied. “Sure. Everyone in Chatham knows Fergie…” Now I could claim I knew a guy who knew him well. Okay, small bragging rights, but bragging rights nonetheless.
These are different times for Canadian ballplayers. No longer is it rare for them to not only play, but star, in the major leagues. Like Larry Walker, another BC player, Justin Morneau from New Westminster, where a US baseball announcer once speculated that moose ambled down the main street, has won a Most Valuable Player award. So has Cincinnati’s celebrated first sacker Joey Votto. His lifetime batting average is fourth among current players. Last year, Mike Soroka of the Atlanta Braves finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, after the Calgarian fashioned a 13-4 record from the mound and dazzled in the playoffs. Lest we forget the “Big Maple” himself, James Paxton from Ladner, who memorably threw a no-hitter on native soil against the Toronto Blue Jays. There are so many other, more modestly- talented Canadians in “the bigs”, it’s hard to keep track of them all. Rowan Wick, we hardly know you.
When I was kid, any Canadian who made the majors was a big deal. I remember being stunned to find that someone from Canada, the aforementioned Reno Bertoia, was actually playing for the Detroit Tigers. From just across the river in Windsor, he often walked back across the international bridge to attend Windsor’s Assumption University as part of his successful pursuit of a teaching degree. Later there were Penticton’s Ted Bowsfield, and southpaw Mike Kilkenny from Bradford, a small community just up the road from my hometown of Newmarket. (I once saw him pitch for Bradford’s bantam team against our bantams at the grassless Newmarket Fair grounds. He rang up strikeout after strikeout.) And then there was John Hiller, a fireballing reliever who spent 15 years with the Tigers. Hiller was the first Canadian in my lifetime to star in the major leagues, rather than just scuffling along.
Okay, one more. A special tip of ye olde Mickle hat to the amazing Ron Taylor, whose life might be an inspiring Hollywood movie. After ending his major league career at 34, he beat even higher odds than those of the Miracle Mets winning the 1969 World Series, with Taylor as a key reliever, by entering U of T’s medical school in his mid-30s and getting his MD. But that’s not the reason I wanted to include Ron Taylor. There’s this. He pitched a total of seven no-hit innings in two World Series – for the winning St. Louis Cardinals in 1964 and the New York Mets in 1969. I think that still stands as a World Series record for most career innings pitched in the Fall Classic without giving up a single hit.
So, all hail Larry Walker and Ferguson Jenkins, both of whom inspired all those Canadian ballplayers who came after them. The torch has been passed. Observed Mike Soroka, on the eve of spring training: “I think as Canadian players we have a certain duty in Major League Baseball to represent and wave that flag and make sure people know.” As fabled baseball announcer Mel Allan used to say: “How About That!”