Before Paul Beeston, there was Jack Kent Cooke. Before Cito Gaston, there was Sparky Anderson, and before Roberto Alomar, there was Charlie Gehringer. Before the Blue Jays, there was indeed baseball in Toronto, a baseball past filled with Hall of Famers and championships. A history not honored nearly enough.
The original Toronto Maple Leafs spent 71 years in existence, 41 of which were played by Bathurst Street and Lake Shore Boulevard West at Maple Leaf Stadium. Over those years the farm club enjoyed stints within ten organizations, making an instrumental impact on the careers of many future stars. But somehow, even the most hardcore fans are often found unaware of the connection between a star and the city.
At Canuck Baseball Plus, we assembled a list of the greatest stars to impact the Toronto Ballclub, a list that combines one’s Maple Leaf impact and Major League impact with an emphasis set on the player’s career success in the pros.
The colorful Jack Kent Cooke owned the Toronto ballclub through 1951-1964. Cooke, best known for his promotional antics, allowed for a game at Maple Leaf Stadium to have an exceptional, unique entertainment level. While he was at the helm, the club won championships in 1954, 1956, 1957 and 1960. Cooke gave now HOFer Sparky Anderson his first chance to manage after recognizing his tremendous leadership abilities as a player. Cooke’s impact on Toronto eventually getting a Major Leauge team is terribly underrated. Similar to William Shea’s impact with the Mets, Cooke fought long and hard for a Toronto expansion team in the late 1950’s. He was one of the founding team owners in the Continental League. Cooke was also the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Kings, Los Angeles Wolves and most notably the Washington Redskins.
The great Hall of Famer George Lee Anderson had the distinct honor of playing for both the Montreal Royals and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Anderson’s tenure playing for the Maple Leafs came as a 27-year-old light hitting second baseman in 1961. Three years later, after Kent gave Sparky the manager role, he led the Leafs to an 80-71 record. Six years later, after his first gig as a manager, Anderson was now in charge of the Cincinnati Reds. He ended up winning five pennants and three championships over 26 years split between Cincinnati and Detroit. He is one of just two managers to win a World Series in both the American Leauge and the National Leauge.
Before Elston Howard became the first African-American New York Yankees player in 1955, he was already a star North of the Border. In his one and only season with the Maple Leafs, he hit .330 with 22 home runs and 109 runs batted in, winning the league’s MVP. Although he would never drive in 100 runs again, he had a very memorable career as the Yankees catcher. He was a four-time WS champ, 12-time all-star, two-time gold glove award winner and he won the 1963 AL MVP. His number 32 was retired by the Yankees in 1984.
After spending 21 years racking up Hall of Fame career numbers in the show, Nap Lajoie spent a year in Toronto as a player-manager. In his big league career, Lajoie accomplished everything but winning a World Series ring. He hit for a career .338 clip winning five league batting titles highlighted by hitting .426 in 1901. He was also the triple crown award winner in ’01. Lajoie was inducted into the Hall of Fame’s second-ever class in 1937. The only pennant he won came as the player-manager of the Leafs in 1917. The next year, he left for Indianapolis to finish off his career.
Charlie Gehringer, the heart, and soul of the Detroit Tigers teams in the 1930’s, got his start nowhere else but in Canada. His first professional season was with the 1924 London Tecumsehs playing at the historic Labatt Park. After the Tigers called up the young second baseman, he later returned back to the minors, joining the Maple Leafs for the next season. He spent a full year with the Leafs refining his craft while hitting .325 with 25 home runs. Gehringer, the man who hit in front of Hank Greenberg, won a batting title, an MVP and three pennants over a 19-year career. The Hall of Fame infielder is indeed one of the greatest players to play the game.
Tony Lazzeri was primarily a second baseman during his 14-year Major League career. He was one of the New York Yankees key members on the greatest team ever, the ’27,’28 Murderers Row. The hard-nosed Italian infielder was a fan favorite in New York. Although he wasn’t an elite batsman, he was a great all-around ballplayer. The eventual Hall of Famer joined the Maple Leafs in 1939 and stayed until the end of 1940 as the team’s manager. One of the men who Lazzeri managed is the third baseman on this list, Bob Elliott.
He’s not the Hall of Fame columnist, but this Bob Elliot also made an impact North of the Border. Before Elliott grabbed a role as a big league regular, he spent a year at Maple Leaf Stadium hitting .328 as a 22-year-old. Over Elliott’s career, he hit .289 with 170 HR’s and 1195 RBI’s. His best seasons came in his early 30’s. In his 30-year-old season, he won the National League MVP, and in his 31-year-old season, he was arguably even better. He was nicknamed, “Mr. Team” for his enormous impact in his club’s lineup and rightfully so. Although he was never inducted into the Hall of Fame, he has a locked down spot in the Hall of Very Good.
The great Ralph Kiner also got his last taste of the Minor Leagues with the Maple Leafs. Kiner played in 43 games under Burleigh Grimes in 1943, hitting only two home runs. That was a total that he would never come close to matching again. In his first seven seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he won seven home run titles, a remarkable streak that has never been matched. But the great slugger had his prime cut short as he retired after just ten seasons. Soon after he was controversy traded to the Chicago Cubs in ’53, he was never the same player due to nagging back issues which eventually ended his career. He left the playing field but joined the broadcast booth, a spot where he would find even more success. Kiner is best known for doing color in New York with the Mets, along with hosting a postgame show called “Kiner’s Korner.” He was inducted into Cooperstown in 1975.
One of the best players from the dead ball era also played ball on Canadian soil. Willie Keeler had a historic career before he ever joined the Maple Leafs. In a career split between the Orioles and three New York teams, (Giants, Highlanders, Superbas) the Brooklyn-born outfielder finished with a .341 AVG, 14th all time. Keeler hit .277 in 39 games with the Leafs, but that year would be all she wrote of the Hall of Famer’s career.
Willie Keeler may have once hit .424 in a season, but Hugh Duffy hit .440. Duffy, like Keeler, also joined the Leafs once his big league career was complete. Duffy was also a standout player in the dead ball era. He played 17 years from 1888-1901, 1904-1906, totaling up league high’s in eight offensive categories over his career. Although he is best remembered for his bat on ball skills, the outfielder could drive the baseball. Duffy was an all-around force as a player which led to him being inducted into the Hall of Fame. He joined the Leafs in 1920 as the club’s manager, winning 108 games that year.
One of the greatest individual performances from a Maple Leafs player came in 1966, the club’s second last year in existence. Reggie Smith hit .320/.377/.522 with 18 bombs and 80 runs batted in. He won the batting title that year and got called up to the show shortly after. Along with a cannon of an arm, Smith had a great bat. In his MLB career, Smith finished with well above average statistics in each category. His 64.6 WAR suggests he has a pretty solid HOF case. He was voted into seven all-star games and won a World Series with the Dodgers in 1981.
The Murderers Row Yankees were not only an offensive powerhouse. Pitching-wise, they were also as good as it gets. The rotation was led by guys like Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, and Urban Shocker. Before Shocker became an ace with the St. Louis Browns and the New York Yankees, he was a force with the Maple Leafs. Shocker’s W15 L3 1.31ERA stat line bumped him up to the Bigs quickly, but it wasn’t until four years later when he became a full-time starting pitcher. His peak was short but stellar. He finished with 187 wins, and a 3.17 earned run average. Most of that success came between 1920 and 1927. Due to a heart condition, he threw his last pitch on May 30th in 1928, he passed away later that year.
Ernie Broglio was a big part of the Maple Leafs staff in 1958, but a bigger part of the Cardinals staff two years later. In 1960, Broglio won 20 games to go along with a sub-three ERA, finishing third in Cy Young voting. But other than that year, the righty was just mediocre. He was the Cubs return in the “Lou Brock trade” and is now mostly remembered for that reason.
Sparky Lyle was one of the greatest relievers in baseball during the 70’s. He pitched in 899 games without starting one but still threw over 100 innings six times. The “relief ace” played for both the Red Sox and the Yankees before his career took a detour. His best years came in the Bronx. He won a Cy Young in 1977 along with winning a championship as well that year. But before all his big league success, he was also a weapon in the Maple Leafs bullpen.
Leon Day never threw a pitch in the big leagues, but it wasn’t because he couldn’t. The Negro League’s star was one of the greatest pitchers of his time. Once the great Monte Irvin said, “If we had one game to win, we wanted Leon to pitch.” He was arguably the second-best pitcher in the league after Satchel Paige. Once his career with the Newark Eagles ended, he stuck around a few more years playing minor league ball for the Scranton Miners, the Edmonton Eskimos, and the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was a great pitcher and got the rewarded for his success when he got inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995.
Burleigh Grimes was one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball. The last permitted spitballer won 270 games and pitched in four World Series.’ After his Hall of Fame career ended, he enjoyed two stints managing the Maple Leafs, winning the pennant in ’43. He also had the opportunity to manage the Montreal Royals.
The man who once struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin consecutively in the 1934 All-Star game has Canadian roots. As a 23-year-old pitching in the international league, Hubbell went 7-7 with the Maple Leafs. After that year, his career took off. He won two MVP’s, three ERA titles and a World Series championship. The Lefty known as “King Carl” pitched his whole career with the New York Giants. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1947, but he is better known for his historic All-Star performance.
The Toronto Maple Leafs played their last season in 1967. That was also the last year the other Toronto Maple Leafs team won the Stanley Cup.