Intercounty League pitching legend, Ron Stead, has passed away at the age of 75.
He died at 6:15 p.m. ET last night after a valiant battle with pancreatic cancer.
Born in London, Ont., in 1936, Stead grew up in Toronto close to Maple Leaf Stadium.
“Where I lived in Toronto was right behind the Maple Leaf Stadium,” Stead told me in a 2006 interview. “I climbed the fence one day and I saw a guy out there hanging out sweat socks and towels and went over and talked to him. And it was the trainer for Toronto, Bill Smith. I just started going over to the park when I thought he’d be out.”
The baseball-crazed youngster was anointed the Leafs mascot in 1946, before becoming the team’s batboy the following campaign. He also honed his pitching skills by tossing batting practice and soon developed into a decent pitching prospect, earning himself a tryout with the Cleveland Indians in 1955.
In Cleveland, the skinny teen would impress the Tribe’s brass enough to offer him a contract, however, Hank Greenberg, who was the club’s general manager at the time, wouldn’t include a signing bonus.
“He (Greenberg) said, ‘Well, you know we would love to have you in our organization, but we can’t get you any kind of a bonus because of your weight,” recalled Stead. “We don’t know if you can get through a full season, especially if you have to go down in the hot weather.”
Stead would be offered a better deal by his hometown Leafs, who were an independent, Triple-A team at the time. He inked a contract with Toronto and was shipped to the Florida State League for the 1956 and 1957 seasons. While pitching for Gainesville in 1957, he recorded 17 wins and a sparkling 2.43 ERA.
The Leafs then asked him to return to the Florida State League the following year, but Stead declined and returned to Canada, where he would join the Intercounty League’s Brantford Red Sox. Of course, not playing professionally meant that he had to find work to support himself. Fortunately, the Red Sox helped him find a job.
“1957 was a very bad year for employment in Canada – in Ontario especially – and they (the Red Sox) had got me several jobs where I got laid off,” he recalled.
Eventually, Stead secured work as a meter reader with Union Gas in 1959. The legendary left-hander would parlay that job into a successful career with the company that lasted until he retired in 1994.
In his near decade pitching with Brantford (1958 to 1966), the crafty southpaw evolved into the circuit’s top pitcher and led the Red Sox to six championships. In 1960, he won 12 games and logged a league record 149 innings. He would top that in 1963 when he went 14-1 with a miniscule 0.63 ERA. But Stead ranked his 1965 season as his finest.
“I had hurt my arm in the spring of 1965. I would stop at the doctor’s office on the way down to the game and get treatment on my arm and then go out and pitch,” he recalled. “And that year for some reason, I suddenly had a legitimate fastball because I had always had a lot of movement on the ball, but it wasn’t overly fast – but for some reason that seemed to pick up. So I was able to actually throw the ball by a few guys.”
And throw the ball by a few guys he did, his 156 strikeouts that season set an Intercounty League mark that still stands today.
When Union Gas asked him to move to Guelph in 1967, he brought his overpowering arsenal to the C-Joys. In his first season with the club, he would post a 0.35 ERA and help the team to a finals berth. In 1970, he would lead the C-Joys to a league title.
Another highlight for Stead was pitching at the 1967 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg for the first national team that Canada ever assembled. The Intercounty League ace holds the distinction of being the first hurler to throw a pitch for Team Canada in an international competition.
“When we got to Winnipeg before the games, the last practice we had before Opening Day, I tore a cartilage in my knee,” recalled Stead.
But the determined southpaw overcame the injury to hold the Mexican team to five hits over seven innings, while amassing 10 strikeouts.
Stead also pitched for the gold medal-winning Team Ontario squad at the 1969 Canada Summer Games.
Though he retired in 1972, Stead still ranks as the Intercounty League leader in numerous all-time pitching categories, including wins (104), innings pitched (1,365), strikeouts (1,231), games started (151), complete games (116), and shutouts (25).
For his efforts, Stead became the first individual player inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame based on their amateur playing career in 2006.
After he hung up his spikes as a player, Stead coached his children (Ron Jr., David, Heather, and his late son, Jeff) in minor baseball. In recent years, he lived with his wife, Betty, in Chatham. And while he still watched baseball, he didn’t enjoy the modern game’s reliance on relief pitching.
“To me one of the biggest things I liked about pitching was you got two or three men on and they let you work at it and you got out of it,” he told me.
This bulldog approach is the reason that Stead set the Intercounty League record for most innings pitched in a season. It’s also one of the reasons he became the first amateur player inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. He hoped, however, that he wouldn’t be the last.
“There are a lot of kids that have got a lot of talent and there are many reasons why they can’t follow it through (to play professionally). It’s just the brakes of life in some cases. I think they deserve some recognition for it too,” he said.
Funeral arrangements are pending.