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Memory Lane: Remembering when baseball was king

Sudburians have some fond (and sharp) memories of the glory days of Nickel City baseball. Our history writer, Jason Marcon, shares some of the best

We’re back ladies and gentlemen for game two of our local baseball memories doubleheader. Before we run too late (or write too much), let’s jump right into some of the memories that have been pitched my way.

It’s 1951, opening day of the Nickel Belt Baseball League season at Queen’s Athletic Field. That day, there were 4,500 spectators on hand to watch Copper Cliff beat Creighton 7-6 as revenge for the previous season’s Monell Trophy championship loss.  

Sitting in those stands bordering on Regent and Cypress streets, not a single spectator would have had a passing thought that a short two decades prior to becoming royalty on the Sudbury sporting scene this athletic field of dreams was a lowly gravel pit bordering on the western edge of the Town of Sudbury.

Of course, each town that participated in the Nickel Belt League (Copper Cliff, Creighton, Coniston and Garson) had its own field where dreams were made, but nothing compared to Queen’s. A few years ago, a follower of the Sudbury Then and Now Page, Sheila Lafleur, wrote that she remembered “it was such a busy field (and) used to have a high green fence all around it and as kids we would peek through the cracks / holes to watch the action.” 

As Ken Roberts also wrote, “I have many fond memories of the baseball games at Queen’s, in the fifties … my friends and I would wait outside the park, and when a baseball came over the fence, we would run to get it (that) was our ticket to get into the ball game for free.”

Especially in the pre-television days, the ballpark was the place to be during the summer months, no matter the day of the week. 

Terry Dupuis wrote that his father “took (him) to a couple of games there, when (he) was a kid,” and he even remembers that all of the “people used to get dressed up, like they were going to church (with) suits and ties.” Frank Scott echoed that memory, adding that it was true “especially Sunday afternoon, being dressed up, when people would go after church.”

Marina Glibbery, who would have attended games in her hometown of Coniston, also remembers the baseball fans of the day with “the men so debonair, watching the game in suits, shirts and ties, and fedoras.”

Of course, we have to remember those were also the days prior to the rampant commercialization of the sport, which led to a proliferation of merchandise that today’s spectators would be wearing if they were attending a Sudbury ball game. In fact, this writer is wearing Toronto Blue Jays hat, shirt and shorts as these words are being written.

Frank Scott also remembered that Sunday “admission to the ball game was a silver collection as you couldn't sell tickets on Sunday.” As well, in those much more religious times, the games “couldn't start before 1 or 1:30 to make sure church services were over.”

These were times, as reader Terry Closs stated, of “no cellphones, no selfies, no food … just wholesome baseball.” Reader Scott Turnbull echoed a point made in the previous article that “these kinds of afternoons in cities and towns all over the continent were ruined by (the advent of) cable television.”

When this level of baseball returned to the Nickel City in the late 1970s, Queen’s Athletic Field was no longer capable of hosting games, so the Sudbury Shamrocks took up residence at Sudbury Stadium (on the current site of the Taxation Centre on Notre Dame).

Reader Steven Vallarsa remembers that “the main baseball field … bleachers girders made for a wonderful jungle gym for (a) pre-teen boy.” It was a place that he would go almost daily “to play under the stands of the main baseball field.” There was also a two-story announcer box with “a great speaker system (of which) 40+ years later (he) can still hear the echoes of the announcers' calls from where (he) grew up on Mae Street.”

The Sudbury sports scene was full of personalities both big and small, but across the gamut of players none could be considered both of these like Copper Cliff shortstop and manager, Bert Flynn (all 5-5 of him). Under his management, Copper Cliff dominated the championship during the golden age of the Nickel Belt League, even capturing the provincial crown in 1925.

Flynn never let being short stop (sorry for the pun) him from becoming one of the famous players in the league. He was recruited to the Copper Cliff team in 1915 and was provided with a job at Inco (like all imported talent was). He was best known for his skills on the field, his knowledge of the game and baiting the opposition, umpires and hostile fans. 

As local historian Ray Thoms once wrote, “Flynn was possessed of a caustic tongue and was constantly being heckled by female spectators. On one occasion he and a Coniston woman had this exchange (with a silent nod to Winston Churchill and Lady Astor): ‘Hey Flynn, if I was your wife, I'd poison you.’ ‘Lady, if you were my wife, I'd take it’.”

Returning to Flynn’s 1925 Copper Cliff team, Kelly Stutt wrote in that his “Grandfather Leo (Red) McLaughlin (was) raised in Detroit, Michigan, (and) played pro ball there” before being “recruited (by Flynn) along with his brother to come and work at the mines and play ball. That's how big baseball was back in the day.” 

Another player on that team, Fred “Wiggy” Walmsley was later honoured by having the batting title trophy named after him. (remember that last name for later)

By the 1940s and 1950s, recruitment continued unabated. Reader Muriel Jeffs recalls that “in the ’50s, the mines hired summer students from out of town who would play for the town teams (in Frood, Coniston, Garson, Copper Cliff).”  Marina Glibbery, speaking about the Coniston Red Sox team of the same time period writes that “we had some fantastic ball players and many of them came from Nova Scotia.”

In fact, at one point the Coniston team was made up of not one or two, but a shocking 11 players who had been recruited from towns across Nova Scotia.

Perhaps the most famous player (also an import) to come out of the Nickel Belt Baseball League was Phil Marchildon.

While working in Creighton Mine and starring for the Creighton Cubs, he was convinced to try out with the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs in 1938. Len Fyfe commented that his “father roomed with Phil at one of the boarding houses in Creighton … and always raved to him about Phil’s pitching abilities.” 

The hard-throwing hurler would strike out seven of nine batters he faced at the tryout. However, feeling that he hadn’t impressed anyone, Marchildon immediately returned to his job at Creighton Mine. 

The team was not going to let him get away and sent someone after him to literally pluck him from the mine as he was preparing to descend on the lift. 

After two seasons with the Leafs, Marchildon moved on to Major League Baseball’s Philadelphia Athletics. In his first two big league seasons, he recorded 10 and 17-win seasons for the lowly A’s, establishing himself as the team’s ace in 1942. 

Poised to join the pitching elite, Marchildon was called for military duty and would serve in the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1943 to 1945.  He was shot down in 1944 and held as a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III, (the same prison camp later immortalized on film starring a baseball bouncing Steve McQueen). 

Upon returning from the war, Marchildon would register 19 wins in 1947 – a season many consider to be one of the best ever by a Canadian pitcher. He was elected to the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 1976, and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.

Thelma Jo Walmsley (the sister of “Wiggy” Walmsley mentioned above), who starred with the Sudbury Canoe Club Ladies Softball Team in 1934, went on to play for the Racine Belles of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) for the 1946 season, the year that they won the championship (the league and team were featured in the movie "A League of Their Own"). 

In 1998, Walmsley was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame as part of a group of former AAGPBL players. Her memory (and her Racine Belles jacket) lives on in the collection of the Copper Cliff Museum.

Alright baseball fans, it’s the seventh inning stretch, so before we continue, here is a short piece of Major League baseball trivia tied to our city that I discovered during my research. 

Branch Rickey, a Major League Baseball executive, ended up in our fair city in July, 1961, for an incident completely unrelated to the game of baseball. 

Rickey had been confined to hospital here in Sudbury after suffering a heart attack at his Georgian Bay lodge. Rickey’s importance to baseball could never be overstated as he was credited with inventing the modern farm team system, the batting helmet and championing expansion. But most notably, he assisted in breaking the baseball colour barrier when he signed Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. 

Before leaving Sudbury, Mayor William R. Edgar presented him with the Key to the City.

And, now back to the game … I mean your memories.

Although the game of baseball in Sudbury is filled with stories of the importation of players in order for teams to one-up each other and since all of the teams (except for that short time when Falconbridge was in the league) had ties specifically to INCO, meaning that industry jobs were always offered, there were still many locally developed talents in the spotlight. As Scott Turnbull wrote, “The best competition we saw back then was local.”

Those locally developed players were especially prominent during the second coming of baseball in Sudbury in the 1970s with its very strict rules. Of course, by this time importing would have been seen as unnecessary due to the sheer number of second and third generation ball players.

The Coniston Red Sox, for instance, were stacked full of Foxs and Boyds, the children and nephews of those original League imports.

As with any sport, the local baseball scene was always filled with bitter rivalries on the field, but in the end, respect was formed off the field amongst the players.  

Remember that Coniston Red Sox team that played the reunion game in 1992, of which I spoke of in the last article? Well, one of the players who joined the Red Sox was actually a former competitor from the old Copper Cliff club, Jack Camilucci. 

I’ll let my uncle, Alan Marcon, relate the story from here. 

“Even though he played for the Copper Cliff Redmen, he joined our one-off Coniston Red Sox team for this game. He was a good friend and baseball coaching partner of (Red Sox alumni) John Pidutti. He was a fierce competitor on the diamond and passionate about the game of baseball. 

“Jack was quick with a joke or funny story and always had a smile on his face (just like in the team picture taken that day) even when we were beating his Redmen team in Copper Cliff (Jack would have loved that dig). I will never forget the times we shared on the ball diamond as friends and adversaries … and now batting for the Copper Cliff Redmen … Jack Camilucci.”

Well dear readers, the game is over and you’ve won the second half of the doubleheader with your special memories of what baseball was like in the Sudbury area over the years. Now, the ghosts of the past turn and smile at you as they retreat and disappear into the cornfield (you didn’t think I’d miss out on ending with the same reference I began this topic with, did you?). We will see you back here again in two weeks with another timely topic.

Jason Marcon is a writer and history enthusiast in Greater Sudbury. He runs the Coniston Historical Group and the Sudbury Then and Now Facebook page. Memory Lane is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.


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