That time Toronto almost joined the National League…in 1886

I’m a Canadian baseball fan and I’ve never really liked the Toronto Blue Jays.

It’s been a source of secret shame for many years. Oh I don’t mind the Blue Jays and being a Canadian baseball fan in the 1990’s, the Blue Jays were a good source of memorable baseball moments and players. Roberto Alomar was pretty cool and I liked Jimmy Key.

I remember watching the Blue Jays win the deciding game six of the 1992 World Series with my friend Kole and being very excited that there might be riots in the streets…of Calgary. I didn’t understand riots. I still don’t.

I was excited by Joe Carter’s home run to win the 1993 World Series. But who in Canada wasn’t?

I too enjoyed the heck out of Jose Bautista’s bat flip heard round the world, but that was driven more by my dislike of the Texas Rangers and the strange drama of that game 5.

When I started following baseball intently as a 10 year old in 1991, I quickly latched on to two teams…the Montreal Expos and the Baltimore Orioles. I was raised with a contrarian streak and an appreciation for the underdog, so who better to root for in Canada than the Montreal Expos? Plus they had a cool logo. Logos were/are very important to me. It was the Orioles cartoon bird logo that I spied in as a 7 year old in the 1988 baseball sticker book that started me on the road to Orioles fandom. Then in 1991, I got the Gregg Olson checklist card in my first ever pack of Upper Deck baseball cards.

The card that sinched by Orioles fandom

I used to be so excited when Baltimore played Toronto because that meant I could watch Cal Ripken Jr., my first baseball hero, and Mike Devereaux and David Segui when they showed Jays games on TSN (Canada’s ESPN, aka The Sports Network). But there was no internet and I just had to read the papers and follow box scores and watch sports recap shows to get my Orioles fix. Not exactly hard times, but quite different from today.

The Expos appeared more frequently on TV and TSN would show maybe one or two games a week. I remember watching Mark Gardner lose a no-hitter in extra innings on July 26, 1991. I slept over at my best friend Billy’s house (don’t all 10 year olds have a best friend named Billy?) the following day and I missed Dennis Martinez’s perfect game. I still kind of regret it.

MarK Gardner, author of the first no-hitter I ever witnessed

I was so devoted to the Expos that I would watch their games on channel 11…the French channel…even though I didn’t speak or understand French apart from the phrase and accompanying shaky hand gesture for “comme ci comme ça.”

I once had a job interview at Earl’s, a Canadian steakhouse chain, and for whatever reason the interview turned into a debate about the respective merits of the Expos and the Blue Jays. The hiring manager spent most of the interview trying to convince me to jump on the Blue Jays bandwagon and I remained steadfast in my preference for the Expos. I remain convinced that my refusal cost me the promising career of working as a busboy at Earl’s.

So long story short, I’m a Canadian baseball fan who doesn’t really like the Toronto Blue Jays.

But how different would my baseball fandom be if Toronto joined the major leagues a century earlier as they almost did in 1886?

In January 1886, it was reported that Toronto was seeking a spot in a professional league. The previous year had been their first foray into professional baseball, as they were one of five teams in the Canadian League.

It was reported that Toronto might join the New York State League or that a new International League might be formed.

The National League was also looking for two new teams.

The National League’s Providence Grays and Buffalo Bisons had folded after the 1885 season. The NL quickly enlisted Washington to fill one of the spots.

In those days, there wasn’t really the same expansion process, so teams could be formed quite quickly and gain entry to the majors within the matter of a couple of months.

The February 3, 1886 Sporting Life reported that Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Toronto were all being considered for the eighth and final spot. Toronto’s case presented as follows:

“In point of population it surpasses Indianapolis, and in regard to sporting enthusiasm, none of the other cities can approach. It is a mistake to suppose that base ball in Canada at present time amounts to a craze that is liable to die out in the midst of the season. The game has a strong hold there.”

The article also pointed out the club had signed strong players, and Toronto was nicely situated in terms of travel for the predominantly eastern National League.

It was reported that Al Spalding, arguably baseball’s most powerful man, was in strong support of Toronto’s entry. Spalding was one of baseball’s first star pitchers, leading the Boston Red Stockings to four straight pennants in the 1870’s. He later became the owner of the dominant Chicago White Stockings (now the Chicago Cubs) and the founded the Spalding sporting goods empire. He had clout.

It was also reported that Spalding “is enthusiastic on tobogganing. He tried it in Toronto recently, and liked it immensely.”

Spalding circa 1871 pre-discovery of toboganning

It was a more innocent time. Instead of wooing baseball’s most powerful man with cash, coke, and ladies, the prospective Toronto expansion committee took Spalding tobogganing.

Despite these rumblings of Toronto’s strong chance of joining in the National League, it was reported the a couple weeks later that Toronto had declined to apply for admission to the National League. Kansas City would take the final spot for the 1886 season.

It is not totally clear why Toronto didn’t make an application, but an article from the January 25, 1886 Globe and Mail reveals that Lemuel Felcher, the Toronto Baseball Club’s chairman thought entrance to the “National League was premature” and that he preferred to join the International League.

Perhaps they were concerned about the strength of their club? Or perhaps the terms to join weren’t advantageous? Major League Baseball in 1886 wasn’t as financially lucrative as it is today. Joining the major leagues in 2017 is a license to print money. Joining the major leagues in 1886 was a severe risk. As proof, the Kansas City Cowboys, the new expansion team that might have been Toronto’s, folded at the end of the season after going a disastrous 30 and 91.

The shortlived Kansas City Cowboys of 1886

In the end, Toronto joined the newly formed International League and enjoyed great success, drawing strong crowds and even winning the 1887 International League pennant.

Almost Canada’s first Major League team, the 1886 Torontos

Major league baseball in Canada would have to wait until 1969, when the Montreal Expos popped Canada’s major league baseball cherry.

Vive les Expos.

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