Labatt Park: A Brief History

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Labatt Park: A Brief History
by Jeffrey Reed, Editor, LondonOntarioSports.com
Aerial & Vintage Photo: Facebook
Grandstand, London Tigers & London Majors Photos: LondonOntarioSports.com

To London baseball fans, the corner of Wilson Avenue and Riverside Drive holds a lifetime of memories. In fact, that park has housed the baseball contests since the late 1860s. It is indeed the world’s oldest continuous baseball grounds.

lp1But Labatt Park, as it was dubbed in 1936, is an important cultural landmark because of a number of significant dates in history. The park was the site for London’s first moving picture in 1895. China merchant W.J. Reid, who purchased the field in 1877 as the home for the London Tecumsehs Baseball Club, constructed a bicycle track at the park in 1892. Amateur and professional races were held at the park, which was home to a 24-hour endurance record for many years.
The London Lords football club and high school football teams played at Wilson and Riverside, and there were many other events staged there, including the Forest City Show Jumping tournament, RCMP Musical Ride, public ice skating – the list goes on.

But through the years, baseball and Labatt Park have been inseparable. In 1994, the City of London designated Labatt Park an historic site and deservedly so. Local heritage champion Barry Wells of Friends of Labatt Park was instrumental in this move. Friends of Labatt Park is a grassroots, non-profit (unincorporated) group of volunteers dedicated to “promoting and enhancing Labatt Park in London, Ontario, Canada, as the world’s oldest baseball grounds in continuous use in its original location since 1877.”

lp3The group was first formed in 1993 and was successful in convincing London City Council to designate the municipally-owned ballpark an historic site under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act with a plaque unveiling on Canada Day 1994.

Heroics of the Tecumsehs ballclub, recently recounted in Chip Martin’s book, The Tecumsehs of the International Association, are still bantered about at Labatt Park. The club was crowned champion of the  Canadian Association of Base Ball Players in 1876, and champions of the International Association in 1877 – the first league established to challenge the National League (est. 1876).

Today’s semi-pro London Majors (est. 1925) of the Intercounty Baseball League (est. 1919) are today the main tenants of Labatt Park. London fielded a Tecumsehs club which competed in the Michigan-Ontario Baseball League from 1919 to 1924 and captured three consecutive titles, 1920 to ’22. Charlie Gehringer played his first pro season with the Tecumsehs in 1924 before graduating to a Hall of Fame career with the Tigers.

But shortly after the Majors began play, the grounds resting on a river flat were neglected and actually became a community eyesore. In 1927, a group of local baseball enthusiasts refurbished the park. The group included Ernie Dinsmore, who headed maintenance of all London parks and playgrounds. They rented the park from London and Western Trust Company, tore down and replaced the bleachers, chased hundreds of snakes back into the Thames River and put together the four-team City Baseball League.

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Later, in 1990, head groundskeeper Mike Regan and Labatt Park won the Beam Clay Award recognizing the best natural grass baseball grounds in North America.

Labatt Brewing Company purchased the park in 1936, and donated it to the City on New Year’s Eve. Then, it hit: the great flood of 1937 washed away the old grandstand. After the flood of 1883 had wreaked havoc, home plate became deep centre field in the park layout reversal which is still in play today. In 1939, a new grandstand was constructed. Many years later, thanks to funds connected with the 2001 Canada Summer Games, the old ballpark received a total makeover.

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Gehringer is just one of many famous ballplayers who have graced the field at Wilson and Riverside. For example, London’s own George “Mooney” Gibson, a former Pittsburgh Pirates ironman catcher and Canada’s Baseball Player of the Half Century (1900-1950) played many games at the forks of the Thames. And many teams have called Labatt Park home. The amateur London Alerts played in the Canadian League in 1897 and 1899.  A Pony League affiliate of the Pirates played in London in 1940 and ’41. Since 1955, the Eager Beaver Baseball Association, London’s first organized athletic league for youth, has staged all-star contests at Labatt Park.

In 1990, the London Tigers won the professional Class AA Eastern League title at Labatt Park, which received closed to $1 million in renovations prior to the club’s 1989 charter season. In 1999, the London Werewolves captured the Independent Frontier League of Professional Baseball championship during their inaugural season. In 2003, the London Monarchs of the Canadian Baseball League called Labatt Park home for their partial season.

lp5But no one has made more of an impact at Labatt Park than the Majors, a huge part of local sports folklore, thanks largely to their 1948 World Sandlot Championship. Players like Russ Evon, Tommy White and Tom Burgess are still talked about during Majors contests. Until current owners Roop Chanderdat and Scott Dart moved the team to the London Tigers old clubhouse, the Majors occupied the Roy McKay Clubhouse, built in 1937 and later named after the club’s longtime manager who died in 1995.

I was proud to be third base coach and a pitcher with the London Majors, and to have dressed in the Roy McKay Clubhouse which, like Labatt Park, holds a lifetime of memories.

From the Tecumsehs to the Majors, Labatt Park continues to host magical moments, and it remains an important part of baseball history.

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About jeffreyreed

A leading Canadian communications professional. Corporate office https://www.JeffreyReedReporting.com established 1989. Publisher/Editor of this website and https://londonontariogolf.com. Sports journalist since 1980.

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