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 step on the same mound that has been stepped on by the likes of Ferguson Jenkins, Satchel Paige, Denny McLain, and the House of David barnstorming baseball team.
The history of Labatt Park
Tecumseh Park circa 1925. Image credit: Western Archives
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 a capacity of 5,200, 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. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Labatt Park is the “oldest continually operating baseball grounds in the world,” with a history dating back to 1877. It’s the home of the Intercounty Baseball League‘s London Majors, the Western Mustangs, Fanshawe Falcons, and London Mens Baseball League. It’s the former home of the now-defunct London Tigers, London Werewolves, London Monarchs, and London Rippers.
While Labatt Park has the record for oldest continually operating baseball grounds, it should be noted 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 river-forks, 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 London Tecumsehs
The founding of the London Tecumsehs Baseball Club in 1868 ultimately led to the creation of Tecumseh Park in 1877, a park that rivalled most American fields at the time. 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 had a short but illustrious career, defeating the Pittsburgh Alleghenies in 1878 to win the International Association pennant before folding.
The London Tecumsehs (image credit: London Sports Hall of Fame)
The London Tecumsehs reformed in 1888 and played in the American Association, and later in the 1920s in the Michigan-Ontario Baseball League. Charlie (Mechanical Man) Gehringer played 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.
Image via John Thorn, official historian for Major League Baseball
On September 15, 1920, with Ty Cobb in the lineup, the Detroit Tigers defeated the London Tecumsehs 5-4 in front of 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 with 3,500 fans in the stands in an exhibition contest. 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.
1924 London Tecumsehs at Tecumseh Park. Image source: Mike Delmanowski
The Labatt family purchases Tecumseh Park
Labatt Park ticket gate in the Kensington (now Blackfriars) neighbourhood of London, Ontario, circa 1950. Image source: Western Archives
Following a devastating flood in the 1936, 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.
Labatt Park, 1940. The ticket gate can be seen in the bottom left corner. (Photo credit: Ron Nelson)
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 Negro League star 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. The House of David players sported beards and long hair and traveled with their own generator-powered lights (Labatt Park installed lights in the 1940s).
London had its own barnstorming team of Black players as well. On October 1, 1923, The London Colored Stars placed an ad in various papers announcing they had won 15 of 19 games and “are looking for more engagements.”
The London Majors
The London Majors, currently of the Intercountry Baseball League, have called Labatt Park home since their inception in 1925. Initially part of the Senior Intercounty Baseball League (and known as the London Braves), the team won their first championship that same year. Since 1925, London has won a total of 12 IBL pennants (finished first atop the regular season standings) and 12 IBL championships (playoff champions).
The 1925 London Braves (incorrectly referred to as the “Cockneys.” Image credit: Sara Lewis)
Over the years, the London franchise has had a variety of names, including: the London Braves in 1925, London Winery from 1934 – 1936, London Silverwoods in 1937, London Seniors in 1938, the London Army Team from 1942 – 1943, London Majors from 1944 – 1959, London Chester Pegg Diamonds from 1960 – 1961, London Majors again in 1962, London Pontiacs from 1963 – 1969, London Avcos from 1970 – 1973, and London El-Morocco Majors in 1974. In 1975 adopted the military-inspired nickname of “Majors,” a moniker first coined by Captain Chet Smith, manager of the 1943 London Army Team, IBL, OBA Sr. ‘A’ and Canadian Baseball Congress Champions. Thy have been the Majors ever since.
The 1945 London Majors (Image credit: 1946 Baseball Annual from the National Baseball Congress)
The 1948 London Majors, IBL Champions, Canadian Baseball Congress Champions and Can-Am Baseball Congress Champions. (Image credit: The London Free Press Collection, Western University Archives.)
The 2018 London Majors (image credit: Matt Hiscox)
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.
A notable fan-friendly event is the Majors’ yearly “Pack the Park” – a promotion that aims to fill Labatt Park to capacity (5200) for a pre-selected game each season. The idea has been mimicked by the famed London Orioles of the London Mens Baseball League, with lukewarm results.
A capacity crowd in attendance for Game 7 of the 2008 IBL Championship
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 and 1985. Jenkins commuted to games from his home near Chatham, Ontario.
Image credit: Jeffrey Reed
The London Tigers
Professional baseball declined in London after World War II, with mostly amateur teams playing at Labatt Park in the following decades, until 1989 when the Double-A Eastern League affiliate team of the Detroit Tigers was established in London. The inaugural season home-opener for the London Tigers was Friday, April 7, 1989, against the affiliate of the New York Yankees, the Albany Yankees.
During the team’s inaugural season, the club derived its offence from unusual sources – shortstop and catcher. Shortstop Travis Fryman led the Eastern League with 30 doubles, while hitting .265/.297/.402. Catcher Phil Clark batted .298/.328/.427.
The London Tigers, managed by former New York Yankee star Chris Chambliss, drew 167,679 fans in total for their inaugural season. This was more than the total number of fans drawn in their previous two years in Glens Falls, New York.
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. The team also featured Canadian Tim Leiper, former Toronto Blue Jays coach and stalwart of the Canadian national team.
All-Star first baseman Rico Brogna was named the #3 prospect in the league and led all players 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 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.
Labatt Park circa 1989. Image credit: London Free Press
In 1993 with Tom Runnells as manager, the London Tigers drew the fewest fans in the league, with 103,840. Runnells led the team to a 63-75 record for a 6th place finish.
That season a 22-year-old outfielder by the name 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. Future MLB journeyman Jose Lima went 8-13 with a 4.07 ERA.
After the 1993 campaign, the Detroit Tigers were disappointed with London’s sinking attendance numbers and moved the team to Trenton, New Jersey where they became the Trenton Thunder. After one year in Trenton, the Thunder switched their 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.
Awards for Labatt Park
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.” The award recognized the outstanding groundskeeping 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.
Labatt Park documentary
In 2014, Sean Stanley produced a documentary about the history of Labatt Park, how it got started, how it came to be where it is, notable events, and championship teams that called it home. Learn about the park where baseball legends like Ty Cobb, George “Mooney” Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Fergie Jenkins all played a little ball. Copies are currently available at the Downtown London Public Library.
Pandemic baseball at Labatt Park
In 2020, the Intercounty Baseball League cancelled its season due to the global COVID-19. With Labatt Park’s world record of continuous play in jeopardy, the London Majors hosted an exhibition game against the Guelph Royals. The game was “not just a regular baseball game, but a game to ensure the historic longevity of Labatt Park remains intact,” said co-owner and manager Roop Chanderdat. The Majors won the game 3-0 and ensured the continuous use record lived on.
Refurbishments and improvements
On March 4, 2021, the Canadian federal government announced a combined $7.1 million investment in sport, recreation, and cultural facilities in London, Ontario. Of the $7.1 million, $1.5 million is earmarked for improvements to Labatt Park, with upgraded accessible washrooms, new bleachers, and improved lighting. These upgrades will improve the safety and accessibility of the stadium, which supports baseball organizations at all levels and community events. The upgrades are expected to be completed in time for the 2021 season, should COVID-19 protocols allow for it.
Assorted photos of Labatt Park
Image credit: Tourism London
Image credit: Google Earth
London Free Press file photo
Image credit: Callum Hughson/mopupduty.com
Image credit: JVG Aerial Media
Image credit: Callum Hughson/mopupduty.com
Image credit: Kyle McVey
Image source: Butch McLarty
Image credit: Greatest 21 days
Image credit: London Free Press
Image credit: Reddit user theycallmemorty
Image credit: The London Free Press
Image credit: unknown
Image credit: Chris Creamer’s Sports Logos
Featured image credit: Intercounty Baseball League