ST. MARYS, Ont. — You’ll find it about half an hour off the highway, after a scenic drive through some of the region’s smaller locales.
It’s in a cute old building, made of stone, that blends nicely with its surroundings. Baseball diamonds stretch as far as the eye can see.
No, this isn’t Cooperstown, New York. This is St. Marys, Ontario, and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
The museum is home to more than a century of history, tradition and passion for baseball in Canada. All of this – for now, at least – is crammed into a tiny farmhouse on land donated by a cement company.
It’s so small, in fact, that first-time visitors can be confused as they approach the Hall at the end of Church Street, where a sign asks that you ring the bell for entry.
“From the outside, you’re probably like ‘Hmm’ before you walk in,” said Scott Crawford, the Hall’s director of operations. “But as soon as you walk in you’re like ‘Wow’.”
Why and how a national sports Hall of Fame with 106 inductees ended up in St. Marys, a beautiful town of barely 6,600 that’s a 90 minute drive west of Toronto, is a fair question.
St. Marys is known more for its cement, stone architecture and being the final resting place of Canada’s ninth Prime Minister, Arthur Meighen, than for the history of one of Canada’s most popular sports.
The short answer is that Canada’s baseball history, and perhaps the history of the modern sport itself, began in southwestern Ontario, just 20 minutes south of St. Marys. The community of Beachville, a dot on the map consisting of little more than a church, a store and quaint houses, lays claim to the first baseball game played, on June 4, 1838 – nearly a full year before Abner Doubleday purportedly invented the game in Cooperstown.
But while Beachville is proud of its role, it’s too small to host a national museum.
Enter the St. Marys connection.
Aside from being nearby, St. Marys was home to Dr. Adam Ford, who witnessed the Beachville game. In 1886, Ford wrote the game’s definitive account, published in Sporting Life magazine.
How the Hall ended up in St. Marys is complicated. Canada’s baseball shrine opened in the 1980s at Toronto’s Exhibition Place, as part of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, before moving across the way to Ontario Place as its own attraction.
In 1989, the artifacts were boxed and put in storage as the board of directors worked out what to do with this money-losing museum.
The Blue Jays looked at moving the Hall to SkyDome, but the interest in Toronto was too low – even as Blue Jay mania reached its early-90s peak – and nothing materialized.
A newspaper article about the Hall’s troubles piqued interest, and communities from Belleville to Edmonton put in bids. The story caught the eye of Dick MacPherson, a life-long fan of baseball who grew up in Fredericton but eventually settled in St. Marys.
MacPherson owns two hulking stone buildings in the centre of town, where he and his family still live and operate the variety store and crafts store. The idea came quickly.
“Nothing went beyond just thinking about it,” MacPherson recalled, “but I remember thinking, wouldn’t that be great in St. Marys.”
Weeks later, a group formed to bring the Hall to St. Marys. MacPherson was part of this group, and had connections, having previously served terms on town council and as mayor.
He arranged for the Globe and Mail to run a story on their bid. Still, St. Marys was merely David compared to the bigger locales it was bidding against.
“We could never get the people in Toronto to take us seriously,” said MacPherson.
Well, money talks.
St. Marys had one serious advantage over Guelph, the other bidder: the St. Marys Cement Company donated 23 acres of land. On the land was an old farmhouse that would serve as a temporary home for the museum.
And donated land meant that St. Marys wasn’t asking for any money to build a complex of baseball diamonds beside the museum (a complex that already included a swimming pool and tennis courts).
“From something that seemed to be ridiculous to all of a sudden, most of the basic stuff was already at hand,” MacPherson said.
The town wasn’t completely on board, but the community got together and helped develop the cement land – everybody pitched in, right down to clearing weeds – for the diamonds.
Financial debts in Toronto were settled, for a seamless transition of executive boards. St. Marys would officially open the museum on June 4, 1998 – the Beachville game’s 160th anniversary.
Still, nothing would compare to being in the room when the group of citizens who worked tirelessly to put together the pitch had it pay off.
“The chairman got up and he said, ‘well, I have to say, we’re going to St. Marys,’” MacPherson said. “Well that was a good feeling.”
The town of St. Marys swells with pride and population on induction day every June, depending on the class of inductees.
This year, for the first time, the Hall hosted a street festival on induction morning. Queen Street was jammed. Toronto Blue Jays alumni signed autographs. Local stores displayed memorabilia. Every version of the Blue Jays logo, as well as the iconic symbol of the Montreal Expos, was spotted.
Visitors were given pins from residents volunteering as ambassadors. Those who work at the Hall expected the street festival to bring energy to the proceedings, and it did, adding a new dimension to the day.
“In the past everything’s been out at the Hall of Fame,” said John Stevens, a 14-year resident of St. Marys. “By bringing [the festival] downtown it brings the whole town together.”
At the ceremony, the celebratory mood continued. Under a white tent in the middle of a baseball diamond, a full house paid tribute to the best of Canadian baseball.
The four inductees – a class highlighted by Expos legends Tim Wallach and Dave Van Horne – gave moving speeches.
Post-ceremony, the little stone house was packed for hours. The scene of a jammed Hall prompted an obvious question: is a new building needed?
The 150-year-old stone farmhouse on the quarry land has been the Hall’s only home in St. Marys.
“[There’s] some amazing baseball stories in there,” Scott Crawford said. “You could spend all day in there reading the plaques and talking baseball.”
There’s always that pesky “but” when discussing that stone house, which is so tight that half the Hall’s possessions are boxed up in the attic or basement.
“It does the job,” Crawford notes, “but it’s not good enough for what we want.”
What they want, as Crawford puts it, is to bring the baseball community together at the Hall of Fame. They want a museum to excite people with interactive exhibits, and to make the museum a must-see attraction that reaches beyond the inner circle of Canadian seamheads.
The excitement in Crawford’s voice rises as he shares details of a 10,000 square foot state-of-the-art dream.
“A theatre that can hold a busload of people. Our offices and gift shop.
“It’s going to have the static stuff people like to see, the bats and balls and gloves,” Crawford continues. “But we really want to get more interactive stuff in there, because that’s what kids are all about these days. If kids are happy parents are happy.”
There will be plenty for the hardcore fans, too. The building will include a full Canadian baseball research library.
“We have about 10,000 books in storage right now,” Crawford said. “So we have a huge library that’s at our fingertips, but we have nowhere to put it out.”
Crawford expects plans to be released to the public this year, at which point the capital campaign will pick up.
That campaign remains the one gigantic hurdle that’s never been cleared. As a registered charity – every artifact they own has been donated – finances are always an issue. The timeline for a new building is “all depending on fundraising,” Crawford says.
It’s a stark contrast to visit Canada’s baseball shrine on induction day after visits on quiet weekends. On one sleepy Saturday afternoon, as youngsters chase their dreams on the Hall’s diamonds, the only visitors are interested in using the washroom.
Despite the quiet days, the mood from those at the Hall remains upbeat. Even while looking to the future and a new building, those involved with the Hall are happy and proud.
Dick MacPherson is modest when discussing his role, but he still can’t look back without a smile.
“The whole thing seemed like a dream to us, that we would even get it here,” he recalled. “To be at the stage now where we’ve got the ballfields up there, where it looks so nice, where the induction program runs very smoothly … I am proud.”