Recently I resurrected my baseball career by pitching in a senior league in London, Ontario. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my home ballpark, Labatt Park, is the oldest continually operating baseball grounds in the world, with history that dates back to 1877. I will be stepping on the same mound that has been stepped on by the likes of Ferguson Jenkins, Satchel Paige, Denny McLain, Jose Lima, and the House of David travelling baseball team.
Labatt Memorial Park (formerly Tecumseh Park, 1877-1936) is a baseball stadium near the forks of the Thames River in central London, Ontario, Canada. It is 8.7-acres in size, has 5,200 seats and a natural grass field. From home plate to centre field, the distance is 402 feet; from home plate to left and right field down the lines, it is 330 feet. Labatt Park is believed to be the “oldest continually operating baseball grounds in the world”, with a history dating back to 1877.
It should be noted, however, that Fuller Field in Clinton, Massachusetts, made it into the Guinness Book of World Records in August of 2007 as the world’s oldest “baseball field” in continuous use, dating back to 1878 — a year after Tecumseh Park-Labatt Park opened in 1877 — as Fuller Field’s home plate and bases have purportedly remained in the same location since 1878, whereas home plate at Labatt Park has been moved (within the same field) from its original spot in 1877.
According to Seneca College’s Professor Bill Humber, a noted Canadian baseball historian and author, the site of today’s Labatt Park was likely used for recreational games when it was a grassy commons area at the riverforks, prior to becoming Tecumseh Park in 1877.
The game of baseball, a derivative of the British game of rounders, had likely arrived in the area with British soldiers garrisoned in London, as well as from United Empire Loyalist settlers from the U.S. in the early 1800s.
The founding of the London Tecumsehs Baseball Club in 1868 ultimately led to the creation of Tecumseh Park in 1877. According to the London Advertiser of May 4, 1877, the first game at the new baseball park was held on May 3, 1877, with a contest between the London Tecumsehs and its junior team, the London Atlantics. The Tecumsehs won 5-1.
“The first regular game of baseball of the season was played yesterday afternoon in the presence of fully a thousand people. The new grounds are the most complete of every respect of any of the kind in Canada, and but few American cities have a convenient playing field.”
— The London Advertiser of May 4, 1877
The Tecumsehs also played at the park pre and post-1920, with Charlie (Mechanical Man) Gehringer playing with the 1924 Tecumsehs before he went on to a stellar career with the Detroit Tigers. Gehringer was subsequently inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
On September 15, 1920, with Ty Cobb in the lineup, the Detroit Tigers defeated the London Tecumsehs 5-4 before 3,000 people at Tecumseh Park in exhibition baseball. Reserved seating for the game was $1.
On May 9, 1921, under manager George (Mooney) Gibson, the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the London Tecumsehs 8-7 at Tecumseh Park before 3,500 people in an exhibition baseball game. Before the game, Gibson and his team were presented with a silver loving cup by the London Kiwanis Club. Gibson thrilled the locals by catching the opening inning with his 1909 World Series-winning battery mate Babe Adams and singling and scoring a run in his lone at-bat. London Mayor Sid Little entertained the team that evening at his home.
On May 23, 1923, Washington’s pitching ace Walter Johnson was in uniform but did not pitch as the Washington Senators defeated the Tecumsehs 13-9 in an exhibition baseball game at Tecumseh Park.
Following devastating floods in the late 1920s, Tecumseh Park fell into disrepair. The Labatt family, owners of London’s Labatt Brewery, purchased Tecumseh Park and invested $10,000 toward its rehabilitation. They then renamed it ‘Labatt Park’ and donated it to the City of London on New Year’s Eve. Just as soon as the renovations were completed, another flood washed away the grandstand in 1937 ¯\_(?)_/¯. It was rebuilt immediately.
During the first half of the 20th Century, Labatt Park was regularly visited by numerous barnstorming Negro teams from the U.S., plus a much-celebrated visit by legendary African-American pitcher Satchel Paige on June 30, 1954, when Paige was barnstorming with a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters. Paige pitched the last three innings of an exhibition game against another legendary barnstorming team — The House of David baseball team, who all sported beards and long hair and traveled with their own generator-powered lights (before Labatt Park installed lights in the 1940s), which featured noted baseball clown, Frank (Bobo) Nickerson.
As of October 1, 1923, The London Colored Stars, a Negro baseball team, had won 15 of 19 games and announced they “are looking for more engagements.”
In 1974, after Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Denny McLain had retired from the major leagues (two years earlier), McLain played a season for the London Majors, restricting himself to home games at Labatt Park. Due to arm problems, however, McLain only pitched nine innings for the Majors, but did play in 14 games at either shortstop, first base and catcher and batted .380, including hitting two homers in one game in London.
After Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Fergie Jenkins pitched his final major league game on September 26, 1983, London Majors’ owner-player Arden Eddie convinced Jenkins to pitch for the Majors in 1984-85, commuting from his home near Chatham, Ontario.
Professional baseball declined in London after the war, with mostly amateur teams playing at Labatt Park in the following decades, until 1989 when an AA Eastern League affiliate of the Detroit Tigers was established.
The inaugural season home-opener for the London Tigers was Friday, April 7, 1989, against the Albany, New York, Yankees.
During the team’s inaugural season, the club derived its offence from unusual sources — shortstop and catcher. Shortstop Travis Fryman led the EL with 30 doubles, while hitting .265/.297/.402 and catcher Phil Clark batted .298/.328/.427.
The London Tigers, managed by former New York Yankee star, Chris Chambliss drew 167,679 fans, more than they had their last two years in Glens Falls.
Chambliss was named Manager of the Year in the 1990 Eastern League after London finished 76-63, just three games behind the Albany Yankees, while attendance was just 15 fans off of the opening season’s pace.
All-Star first baseman Rico Brogna was named the #3 prospect in the circuit and led the league in homers (21), and tied for the lead in RBI (77) while hitting .262/.331/.447. Mike Wilkins (13-5, 2.42), Dave Haas (13-8, 2.99) and Rusty Meacham (15-9, 3.13) gave the club a nice trio of arms; Wilkins was 6th in the league in ERA, Haas 9th and Meacham led in wins.
In the post-season, London lost the first two games to the Canton-Akron Indians but then won three in a row at home Labatt Park. They then beat the New Britain Red Sox in three straight games to become the first Detroit Tigers farm club to win the Eastern League championship.
In 1993 with Tom Runnells as manager, the Tigers drew the fewest fans, with 103,840. Runnells led the team to a 63-75, 6th place finish.
22-year-old OF Bobby Higginson batted .308/.362/.464 after a call-up from the Lakeland Tigers. Felipe Lira went 10-4 with a 3.38 ERA, the third-best ERA in the league, and was the last London Tiger to make the Eastern League All-Star Team. Jose Lima went 8-13 with a 4.07 ERA.
After the 1993 campaign, the Tigers, frustrated with sinking attendance, moved the team to Trenton, New Jersey where they became the Trenton Thunder. After one year in Trenton, the Thunder switched affiliation from Detroit to the Boston Red Sox.
For more on the London Tigers, be sure to check out the documentary Curtain Call: The Tale of London’s Tigers.
On January 20, 1990, In Houston, Texas, Labatt Park was named the “Beam Clay Baseball Diamond of the Year” for “excellence and professionalism in maintaining an outstanding professional baseball diamond” — due to the outstanding groundskeeping work of City of London employee/supervisor, Mike Regan.
On September 7, 2011, Labatt Park was named “Canada’s Favourite Ballpark” by Baseball Canada after a three-month contest among 40 ballparks across the country. The park garnered 63% of the final vote.