June 7, 2022
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
By the end of my tour at Labatt Park in London, Ont., I half expected the ghosts of Mooney Gibson, Frank Colman and Stan “Gabby” Anderson to waltz out of the backroom of the Roy McKay Clubhouse.
That’s a credit to the vivid details and compelling anecdotes, and the enthusiastic delivery of them, by tour guides Liam Clifford, Jonathan Bayer and Dave De Kelver.
De Kelver was quick, however, to credit local historians Stephen Harding and Barry Wells, as well as Barry Boughner and the London Majors Alumni Association, for much of the information they were able to impart. Mike Dove and students from his Western Public History M.A. program also helped script the tour.
Gibson and Colman were London-born major leaguers who returned home after hanging up their professional playing spikes to savor Labatt Park, which is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s oldest continually operating baseball grounds.
Between 1958 and 1966, Anderson was a six-time All-Star with the London Majors, an Intercounty Baseball League team that still competes in the park today.
I’m fortunate to live in London, Ont., and to have played in Labatt Park as a teen and visited it at the corner of Wilson Avenue and Riverside Drive dozens of times. So I thought I knew everything there was to know about it, but during my tour, I discovered I was wrong – very wrong.
Before I describe my tour, I want to take the time to applaud the selfless and passionate work of Stephen Harding, Barry Wells, Barry Boughner, the London Majors Alumni Association, the Friends of Labatt Park and Mike Dove’s history class. They have devoted countless hours to keeping the story of this historic park alive. Credit should also go to Tourism London’s director of sports tourism Zanth Jarvis for initiating public tours of the facility in 2021.
This was my first tour of Labatt Park since several storyboards illustrating the history of the facility, which dates back to 1877, have been erected. In listening to the tour guides, I was impressed by the resiliency of the park and its supporters. It has bounced back from major floods in 1883 and 1937 that wiped out the main grandstand. The latter flood was so bad that the field was under 12 feet of water.
One of the most fascinating storyboards of the tour for me is located behind the seating down the first base line. It highlights some of the baseball legends that have made appearances at Labatt Park. I was aware that Ty Cobb and Charlie Gehringer had played there, but I didn’t know that Tris Speaker and Walter Johnson had set foot there. And the photo of Pittsburgh Pirates legend Honus Wagner in the dugout for an exhibition game is more than worth the price of the tour alone.
Liam Clifford, the first tour guide of the day, also shared the story of Alf White, one of the great London players of the 1930s. White was actually offered a contract by Philadelphia A’s manager Connie Mack, but opted to stay in London because the A’s couldn’t give him more money than he was making between the Majors and his day job, and he didn’t want to uproot his family.
Another fact I learned on the tour was that it was George “Mooney” Gibson, himself, who encouraged John Labatt to purchase the park at the end of 1936. Labatt was, of course, the owner of a successful brewing company and he purchased the park and promptly donated it back to the city with two stipulations: that the park be named Labatt Memorial Park and that it would always be used for recreational purposes.
For the middle of the tour, I wished I had brought my baseball glove. This is when you have the opportunity to walk onto the beautifully manicured field and play catch. It’s a wonderful and heartwarming “Field of Dreams” idea. And I found myself wishing my dad was there to toss a ball with.
Behind the seats down the third base line, there are storyboards that shine the spotlight on the trailblazing African-American teams and players that competed at Labatt Park. Satchel Paige and famed boxer Joe Louis were among those who played for barnstorming teams at the facility. I also learned that many groundbreaking women’s teams had played at the park over the years.
Another storyboard highlights the near 100-year history of the London Majors, a semi-pro Intercounty Baseball League club. The club’s storied history includes several name changes, many superstars and ex-big leaguers and 13 championships. (I can’t do their history justice here. But go to the park and read about them.)
Some of the more recent major league stars that have played at Labatt Park are also highlighted, including two-sport athlete Deion Sanders, Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell and Jim Thome and five-time American League All-Star Travis Fryman, who suited up for the London Tigers (a Detroit Tigers’ double-A affiliate) in 1989.
A photo of Corunna, Ont., native Rob Thomson, a former London Tigers coach, was on the same storyboard. On the day of my visit, as the tour guide pointed out, Thomson had been named the interim manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. This made him the first full-time Canadian major league manager since Gibson served as the dugout boss of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1934.
At the end of the tour, we entered the historic Roy McKay Clubhouse, which was originally constructed in 1937. McKay started as a bat boy with the Majors, but he was later the club’s long-serving manager who led them to league titles in 1969 and 1975.
The historic clubhouse is now full of interesting exhibits, including one devoted to Londoner Ted Giannoulas, better known as the San Diego Chicken. The back room features locker stalls with jerseys of all-time great London Majors, including one devoted to Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, Ont.) who played with the Majors in 1984 and 1985. The day of my tour was to have been Fergie Jenkins Day at Labatt Park, and Jenkins was going to take the tour with us. But the legend had to cancel after suffering COVID-19 symptoms. Fergie Jenkins Day has since been rescheduled for July 29.
As much as it would’ve have been great to have Jenkins there, the tour was still truly fascinating and compelling without him. The tour guides were passionate and great storytellers, the storyboards are well-designed and informative and when I stepped on the field and into the Roy McKay Clubhouse I felt something magical.
So magical, in fact, that I plan to return for another tour.
And when I do, I won’t be surprised at all if the ghosts of Gibson, Colman and Anderson waltz out of the backroom of the Roy McKay Clubhouse.
About Labatt Park Tours:
- They run Thursdays to Saturdays in June, July and August. (Thursdays and Fridays: Tours are at 2 and 4 p.m., Saturdays: Tours are at 10 a.m. and noon).
- $5 per person, Kids 12 and under are free.
- Tours must be pre-booked at least 24 hours in advance. You can pre-book them here.
- Larger group tours are available, but you must make arrangements in advance.
- For less than $20, you can visit three area baseball destinations using the Southwestern Ontario Baseball Heritage Pass (which also includes admission to the Beachville District Museum and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont.). More information here.