The Leafs have been on fire and have made a really impressive (if likely doomed) run and I’d love to write about them, but the simple fact is that they seem to do significantly better if I don’t. At the start of every season, I joke that they haven’t made the playoffs since I started doing the Leaf of the Day series and I hoped that it wasn’t me. Around New Year’s, I kind of hit a wall with the LotD, and their run started immediately afterwards. It thus appears that the entire post-lockout era actually has been my fault, and for this I sincerely apologize. Go Leafs Go.
That said, the Jays have been also-rans for most of the past 16 years and that is definitely not my fault, so I think I’m in the clear here.
I haven’t been this pumped about the start of baseball season since ’94. The same prognosticators that suggested the Jays were going to win 70 games last season are now suggesting they will win 75, so they clearly don’t share my optimism. I don’t expect miracles, but I think this year will be fun, and I might actually get a ticket for the first time since a Dave Stewart start in June of 1994.
Baseball cards present me with a bit of a conundrum that I simply don’t face in hockey. As with hockey, my general preference is for vintage cards over modern. The problem in baseball, though, is that I cheer for an expansion team. Once I’m into sets older than 1977 (which I finished a long time ago), my team is missing.
Now, for the most part, I can’t say I miss them. The Jays simply weren’t born yet. It makes me kind of a free agent and I can collect more or less whoever strikes me as interesting. I don’t have to particularly dislike anyone because in 1965, for example, there was no Toronto/Detroit rivalry. Not in baseball, anyway. I have a bit of an affinity for the Brooklyn Dodgers and I’m fascinated by Sandy Koufax and there is no valid reason not to be.
That said, it would be nice to have a local angle to chase, and I can’t believe I didn’t hit on it sooner – the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Nobody seems to realize it, but the history of professional baseball in this city is significantly longer than the history of professional hockey. Part of that, of course, is that pro hockey didn’t get off the ground offically at all until about 1902 and that was in the States. Toronto would get involved in the old Trolley League in about 1907 and then the NHA in ’12-13 (100 seasons coming up, folks).
In baseball, however, the Toronto professional history seems to start all the way back with the 1887 Toronto Canucks of the International League. By 1899, the Toronto Maple Leafs make their first appearance in the Eastern League, which was at the highest level of the minors. They’d monkey with their name for the next two seasons, then from 1902 through 1967 they played minor league ball as the Maple Leafs at whichever level constituted the highest level not in the majors.
They had good teams, too. When baseball commissioned historians to put together a list of the top 100 minor league teams of all time, five of them were from Toronto. During their heyday in the 1920s, the local hockey team (the St. Patricks) was floundering and mired in lawsuits. They began to look at the success of the local ball club and thought about adopting that nickname for themselves. In 1927 Conn Smythe bought the St. Pats and made the Leafs we all know and some of us love, claiming the name was for a military regiment. That may or may not be true, but the switch had been discussed well prior to that.
The biggest names to come through Toronto are probably pitcher Carl Hubbell and hitter Nap Lajoie. Sparky Anderson played and managed here. Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run against the Leafs in the old ballpark at Hanlan’s Point. That ball was in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame until some meathead stole it and threw it in the lake.
I’d seen a number of cards from a 1912 Imperial Tobacco set, but had never taken the bait. This card, however, is from the 1909 T206 set. There are five Maple Leaf players in it, and there are scattered others through the rest of the teens, twenties and thirties. It looks like a decent project. There’s even a Toronto player in the 1887 Allen & Gintner set, though I don’t expect to ever see that one or afford it if I do.
This card came through Sweet Caporal Cigarettes. It’s a year older than the oldest hockey release, of which I have none. The back is solely advertising, which is a bit different. The tobacco releases in hockey all had a fairly minimal writeup on the back. The card itself doesn’t say anything about Dick Rudolph. Fortunately, we now have the internet.
Now, before I go too far into Dick Rudolph, I have to admit that I had it in my head that this card was of Moose Grimshaw. I did a whole writeup on him and was more than a little irked to realize that this was not a card of Moose Grimshaw, who played parts of three major league seasons with the Boston Americans (AL), but some kid nicknamed “Baldy.” Baldy, however, turns out to be pretty interesting. While Moose was on his way down, this kid was definitely on the way up.
Dick (“Baldy”) Rudolph was born in New York City on Aug 25, 1887. He was a 5’9″ righthander who first appeared as a 16-year-old for the 1904 Providence Grays. (They’re obviously American. We’d have called then Greys.) After a year at Fordham University and another at New Haven, he made it to the Eastern League for keeps with Toronto in 1907. He’d play parts of seven seasons here, ending in 1913. I say “parts” because he had a few games in 1910 and 1911 with the New York Giants (he got hit pretty hard), and after one start in 1913, he was gone for good.
Toronto had a pretty solid team through most of that time period and Rudolph’s pitching certainly played a part. With Toronto, he never finished with a winning percentage below .600 (save for that 0-1 1913 record). In 1909 he was 23-14 with a 2.07 ERA and a 0.954 WHIP. In his last season in Toronto, he went 25-10, 2.83 and 1.196. Overall in Toronto, he was 120-71.
In 1913, the one game he played was a three-hit, 1-0 loss to Newark. Wanting another chance at the big leagues, he left the team and basically forced a trade to the Braves. Toronto’s loss was Boston’s gain. (Tuukka who?) He’d start for them for the next eight seasons.
A brash little guy from the Bronx, he never had much of a fastball, but got by on smarts, control, an excellent curve and the occasional spitter. (Dick Rudolph was one of the pitchers legally allowed to throw it after 1919.)
His best year came in 1914, when he went 26-10 as the Braves won the NL pennant, then went 2-0 as they swept the World Series from the A’s. (He won Games 1 and 4, giving up 2 runs in 18 innings.) The Braves had been in last place as late as July 4, but then surged all the way to the title. Rudolph’s 26 wins were second overall behind Grover Alexander.
He got into arm trouble in 1918 and after 1920 he worked for the Braves as a coach, appearing in just a handful of games when needed (3 in 1922, 4 in 1923 and 1 in 1927).
In his post-Braves career, Dick would manage a minor league club, work as an undertaker with his brother, supervise the company that handled concessions for Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds and coached back at Fordham. He died in 1949.
A baseball Leafs project could be kind of fun. I’ve learned a lot already.
Go Leafs (of all types)! Go Jays!