Today, Sudbury is a hockey town but for decades in the early half of the 20th century – the heyday of the Nickel Belt Baseball League – Sudbury was a baseball town.
While memories of the games themselves may be fading and those who recall watching the games are now silver-haired, the proud legacy of the Nickel Belt Baseball League remains an important part of Sudbury’s story to this day
The first baseball team in Sudbury was put together in 1890. In that initial season, the team competed against Copper Cliff, a team which consisted solely of employees of the Canadian Copper Company.
While baseball had been played in Sudbury since 1890, when miners from the town began competing against Copper Cliff, in 1902 the Sudbury Baseball Club – the first official baseball club in the Sudbury area – was formed.
The club competed against teams from other nearby mining communities, such as Copper Cliff, North Bay, Wahnapitae and Sturgeon Falls for town bragging rights. Games were dictated by train schedules. The game would be called when the shrill whistle of a train announced impending departure and the players had to race to catch a ride back home.
The sport continued to grow in popularity and in 1908 the professional North Shore Baseball League was formed. Modern readers might be incredulous that any professional sport could thrive in a community still within its infancy, but around the turn of the 20th century, professional baseball was a profitable sport for even small towns across North America.
The North Shore Baseball League consisted of teams from Sudbury (which played at a new baseball field called Victoria Park), Copper Cliff, Webbwood, and Massey. Salaries were high enough that professional players from southern Ontario were enticed to move north to frontier Ontario. Naturally, the addition of talented professional players increased the calibre of play within the region. The repercussions were felt for decades as Sudbury would go on to produce dozens of talented ballplayers, some of whom would go on to Major League careers.
Despite a high calibre of play and widespread support – shops and industries closed for a few hours on Sundays so everyone could take in the games – by 1908 the North Shore Baseball League was coming apart. As players’ salaries increased, it was no longer possible for the league to compete with professional leagues in the United States. Similarly, when mining companies went through economic downturns, the first thing they eliminated in cost-cutting moves was their baseball teams. Only the club at Creighton Mine survived, thanks to the continuing generous support of Inco.
But this wasn’t the end of baseball in the region, not by a long shot. Only five years later, a successor league was formed. The new Nickel Belt Baseball League included Sudbury, Copper Cliff, and Creighton ball clubs. Other teams from Coniston, Frood, Garson and Falconbridge joined the loop. Each of the three clubs put up a $50 bond to ensure teams consisted only of resident players. The league hired only official league umpires to ensure impartiality.
In 1914, Inco provided the Nickel Belt Baseball League with a championship cup known as the Monell Cup, named in honour of Inco’s first president, Ambrose Monell.
The level of competition, already high, grew further during the First World War. With so many of Canada’s young men serving overseas, American ballplayers were recruited to fill out the rosters and fill vacated spots in the mines. These players were so skilled that teams in other northern towns would often pay for their assistance in games to beat a rival team.
In April of 1921, the Nickel Belt Baseball League (NBBL) was officially admitted into the Ontario Amateur Baseball Association (OABA). Only four years later, a Nickel Belt team, the Copper Cliff club, won the Ontario Amateur Baseball Association championship.
While the Depression might have been a dark period for many industries, not so for mining in the Sudbury area, and men from across North America flocked to the region to find work. Many of these men were talented ballplayers and the level of competition on the Nickel Belt Baseball League remained extremely high even as other leagues suffered.
Nonetheless, the league suffered in other ways. In those days, it was difficult for the northern baseball clubs to compete with southern clubs for championship games because travel expenses were often barely covered and the southern teams didn’t want to travel north. The situation was not tenable, and so the Nickel Belt Baseball League decided to sever its affiliation with the OABA.
During war times, men’s baseball continued to thrive in the northern mining communities because men working in the mining industry were not permitted to enlist in the armed forces; they were serving in a vital war-related industry. As such, the men remained in the area and baseball continued uninterrupted.
In fact, the quality of the games improved considerably because, as in World War One, skilled players were imported from the United States and the rest of Canada.
It wouldn’t last forever, however. The postwar period was not kind to the Nickel Belt Baseball League. The advent of television and widespread emergence of movie theatres, as well as other forms of entertainment, began competing with baseball for attention. At the same time, the best ballplayers were lured away by professional and semi-professional leagues in the United States and southern Ontario. Slowly the grandstands emptied and by 1959 the NBBL had folded.
The Nickel Belt Baseball League was no longer, but the memories endured. When aging visitors to the Anderson Farm Museum view the Monell Cup, fond memories inevitably come flooding back to them in a wave of nostalgia and emotion. They know that they had the privilege of witnessing in their long ago youth games played in a uniquely northern baseball league.