By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Gerry MacKay, the head coach of the first Canadian national team to compete in the Pan Am Games, passed away on January 22 in Brandon, Man., at the age of 91.
A multi-sport legend in Manitoba, MacKay was enlisted, along with his good friend and Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Gladwyn Scott (Hamiota, Man.), to assemble a national baseball team to compete in the 1967 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg.
MacKay had less than two months to put together the roster and though the Canuck squad only won one game in the tournament, that victory came against the eventual gold medal-winning Cubans.
“Everything was brand new to us, and I think Gladwyn and I thought we did a good enough job,” said MacKay in an interview with The Brandon Sun in 2021. “We did a couple of crazy things, like beating Cuba in the last game, which was their first loss in years.”
MacKay couldn’t have dreamed that one day he’d be managing Canada’s first national baseball team when he was growing up on his family’s farm in Kenton, Man. Born on February 19, 1930, he was one of four children to Glendon (better known as “Curly”) and Agnes MacKay.
In 1946, MacKay moved to Brandon, Man., with his family after his father purchased a business which became Curly MacKay & Sons Sporting Goods, a store that would become a staple of the city’s retail landscape for decades.
In his high school years, MacKay attended Brandon Collegiate Institute and worked at his father’s store part-time. He was a multi-sport athlete, competing in track, basketball, curling, hockey and baseball.
He developed a deep passion for the diamond and joined the semi-pro Brandon Greys of the Manitoba-Dakota League (Man-Dak League) when he was 19. A versatile player who could play both the infield and outfield, MacKay emerged as one of the best young prospects in the circuit.
He starred for the Greys from 1949 to 1951. By that time, Jackie Robinson had broken Major League Baseball’s colour barrier, but there were still few African-American players in the majors. But this was not the case in the Man-Dak League. MacKay told The Brandon Sun in 2021 that he had five Black teammates in 1950.
Following the 1951 season, Willie Wells, manager of the Winnipeg Buffaloes of the Man-Dak League, put in a good word for MacKay with the Chicago Cubs and the young Manitoban was invited to Cubs’ spring training in 1952. MacKay impressed at the camp and the Cubs signed him and assigned him to their Northern League class-C Sioux Falls Canaries where MacKay would compete against an 18-year-old Henry Aaron, who was making his debut in integrated pro baseball with the Eau Claire Bears.
MacKay batted .347 in 60 games with Sioux Falls which was actually higher than what Aaron hit (.336) in his debut season. Unfortunately, MacKay had also spent 28 games with the class-C Visalia Cubs so he didn’t have enough at bats to qualify for the Northern League batting title.
MacKay returned to Sioux Falls in 1953 where he batted .336 and collected 155 hits – including 10 home runs and 14 triples – in 124 games. His batting average was the fifth highest in the Northern League.
Following that season, he was purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates and he split 1954 between the Bucs’ system and his hometown Brandon Greys.
MacKay returned to the pro ranks full-time in 1955 and enjoyed his finest season. Suiting up for the Pirates’ class-B El Paso Texans, MacKay batted .371 with 208 hits, both of which ranked fourth in the West Texas-New Mexico League. He also had 36 doubles, 10 triples, 17 home runs and 86 RBIs in 140 games.
Following that strong campaign, he was sold to the New York Yankees and MacKay found himself training with a group of outfielders that included Mickey Mantle in the spring of 1956. The left-handed hitting MacKay was assigned to the double-A Birmingham Barons, where he batted .248 with 10 home runs in 91 games and discovered how hard it was to hit against professional left-handed pitchers.
“Everywhere we went we faced left-handers, which wasn’t good for me,” MacKay told The Brandon Sun.
After his poor start, MacKay was demoted to class-B Winston-Salem of the Carolina League.
“I finished that year and came home, and my father had a heart attack,” MacKay told The Brandon Sun. “I had to go to work in the store. I did have a contract sent to me to go to the Yankees, but I couldn’t go because it was time to go to work.”
MacKay played a final season with the Brandon Greys in 1957 prior to becoming a player-coach with the Brandon Cloverleafs of the Manitoba Senior Baseball League (MSBL). He would play for nearly 20 years in the MSBL and lead the Cloverleafs to championships in 1966 and 1967.
“I was lucky as hell,” MacKay told The Brandon Sun. “I found out I couldn’t hit left-handers good enough, so maybe I wasn’t going to (play in the majors.). The senior league here was a damn good quality senior league . . . so I was quite happy to just get on with the Brandon Cloverleafs and really enjoy life.”
And it was while he was involved with the Cloverleafs that he got the call in 1967 to put together the first Canadian national team to compete in the Pan Am Games.
After that tournament, MacKay continued as the national team’s head coach, serving as Canada’s dugout boss at the World Championships and Pan Am Games in 1971. He was also the director of the Canadian Federation of Amateur Baseball from 1967 to 1974.
In his home province, he helped create the Manitoba Baseball Association, an organization he served as the president of in 1972 and 1973. He also helped establish the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame, of which he was later he inducted individually and as a member of four different teams.
In 1990, he was also inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.
On top of his outstanding baseball achievements, MacKay was also an accomplished golfer and curler in his senior years. He won a pair of provincial senior championships in the latter sport.
And even when he was 91, he did his best to remain active. With his vision failing, he estimated that he golfed 50 rounds in 2021.
“I can’t see,” MacKay told The Brandon Sun in 2021. “I had an operation on my eyes and I can’t read so that’s been a major problem. If I put a golf ball down there, I can see kind of a thing and I still have the swing.”
MacKay has left a positive and indelible mark on the baseball landscape locally, provincially and nationally.
“Brandon has produced a lot of great athletes over the decades,” wrote Perry Bergson of The Brandon Sun in 2021, “but few have had the impact on the region’s sports community that Gerry MacKay has.”
MacKay passed away in the Brandon Regional Health Centre. He is predeceased by his wife Anne (2012) and is survived by his three children Gary, Gordon and Lisa and their respective families.
The family expects to hold a Celebration of Life service later this year.
You can read MacKay’s official obituary here.
What a nice, detailed story about a Canadian baseball lifer. His playing in the Man-Dak League brought back some memories for me as my dad and I went to one of the league’s games in Winnipeg (between Minot and one of the Winnipeg teams I believe) when we were visiting relatives in the Manitoba city around 1950 when I was about 8 years old. It was probably the first professional baseball game I’d ever seen and I was amazed at seeing so many Black players. Thanks for the memories Kevin.
Thanks for your kind words and for sharing your memories, Len. Hope you are well.
Great writeup Kevin. What a career he was having. The story of so many that had to come home to work. Who knows what would have been.
Thanks for your comment and support, Scott.