If you know one thing about baseball…
It’s probably that London is home to the world’s oldest continually operating baseball grounds.
As of May 2017, Labatt Memorial Park is 140 years old… just ten years shy of Canada itself. It has been lovingly maintained throughout floods and numerous changes to London’s infrastructure and that won’t stop anytime soon.
In appreciation for our little, local gem, below are five facts about the Park that will tighten your grasp on local and national sports history.
1 – It wasn’t always Labatt Park.
Records show that the grounds were used for baseball as early as 1870. However, the area became an official park in 1877 when it was purchased by London merchant and pioneer W.J. Reid.
The Park was used as the home field for the London Tecumsehs, our city’s first baseball team formed in 1868. Named for the Shawnee leader whose Native American confederation allied with Britain in the War of 1812, the grounds were called Tecumseh Park until the 1930s.
2 – It wasn’t John Labatt’s idea to buy the Park.
After helping the Pittsburgh Pirates win the World Series in 1909, legendary catcher George “Mooney” Gibson returned home to London to an estimated crowd of 7,000 – 15,000 adoring fans greeting him at the train station on York Street.
Eventually, Gibson would convince his Central Ave. neighbour, John Labatt, to purchase, refurbish, and donate the park to the City in 1936.
Gibson was the first baseball player to be inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame (1958). He is considered to be the “Father” of Labatt Park.
3 – London’s 1940’s teams are legendary.
Labatt Memorial Park has been home field to its share of remarkable players. In the 1940s, the London team won the Canadian Sandlot Congress title three times – once as the London Army team in 1943 (pictured here), and twice as the London Majors in 1947 and 1948. The 1948 team has gone down in history as one the best amateur men’s baseball teams of all time.
4 – The original London Majors Clubhouse is still standing.
Despite Thames River flooding in 1883 and 1937, the Park has remained in its original location and was given a historical designation under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1994. The Act was amended to include the Roy McKay Clubhouse in 1996.
The original 1937 house is one of the few structures with a tongue-and-groove clapboard siding left in London. The Clubhouse is named after Roy McKay, a former pitcher, manager and coach to the London Majors.
5 – London, and by extension Labatt Park, is home to the world’s most famous chicken.
The San Diego Chicken, that is. As a youngster, Ted Giannoulas would enjoy games at Labatt Park before moving to San Diego to study journalism. While there, he took on a job dressing up as a colourful chicken at a children’s Easter egg hunt.
He eventually made his way to San Diego Padres games and became hugely popular across North America for years to come. Although Giannoulas is now nearing retirement, he will be making an exclusive appearance at the first ever London Majors Alumni Day on July 22nd.
Labatt Memorial Park houses a unique supply of stories for Londoners and baseball fans alike. To celebrate these stories, the Roy McKay Clubhouse will open to the public and display historical memorabilia on the London Majors Alumni Day. To learn more, visit www.londonmajors.com.
And! A very special thanks goes out to Barry Wells, local historian and founder of Friends of Labatt Park .
Feature photo by Angela McInnes