Skip to content

George Sleeman loved his beer and his baseball

The beer baron has been called 'the father of professional Canadian baseball'

“What a rustic, motley crowd massed about, in and on that ball ground. There must have been 10,000 … The audience was strange to us. The Indians, the French Canadians; the huge, hulking farmers or traders or trappers, whatever they were, were new to our baseball experience.”

This passage describing an American baseball team’s visit to Guelph in 1873 is from a book titled The Red Headed Outfield and Other Stories, published in 1912.

The author was Zane Grey, a writer better known for his novels about the wild west. He based the story on his brother Romer Grey’s experiences when he was a member of the Boston Red Stockings, a team that actually played a game in Guelph.

In Zane Grey’s fictional account, the Guelph team won. In fact, Boston won. It was one of only three games Guelph lost that year.

The novelist’s description of the Guelph audience was typical of American misconceptions of Canadians. Also way off base was his narrator’s dismissal of the Canadian teams as “rube baseball teams.” Baseball had become all the rage in Canada, and the Guelph Maple Leafs were the country’s elite.

At that time, baseball was still in its developmental stage. It was played without gloves and there were various sets of rules. According to Massachusetts rules (also known as the Old Game) there were five bases, 10 to 14 players on the field, and only one player had to be retired before the teams switched places.

In Canadian rules baseball, there were 11 men on a team and they all had to be retired before the teams switched. Some rules stated the batter could tell the pitcher where he wanted the ball thrown.

Modern baseball is played according to New York rules.

Sometimes even the umpire wasn’t sure of the rules, and there could be heated disputes on the field. If a game was tied at the end of nine innings, not all umpires agreed that extra innings should be played until there was a winner. If hometown fans strongly disagreed with an umpire’s interpretation of a rule, players might have to provide an escort to get him safely out of the park. Die-hard fans would accompany their team to out of town games and it wasn’t uncommon for fights to break out in the stands.

In one game, Guelph defeated Elora 129-8, not only because it was by far the more skilled team, but because its players were more familiar with the rules.

The person most responsible for promoting baseball in Guelph and making the Royal City a baseball power was brewery owner George Sleeman. He has in fact been called the father of professional Canadian baseball.

Sleeman loved baseball. He also thought it would be a splendid way of marketing his beer. In 1872 he organized a factory team called the Silvercreeks. Sleeman was not only the team owner; for a while he was also the pitcher.

Meanwhile, a team called the Guelph Maple Leafs, formerly based in Hamilton, won three consecutive Canadian Silver Ball championships. Sleeman purchased the Maple Leafs and merged the team with the Silvercreeks, keeping the Maple Leaf name. He then broke new ground by signing up professional American players such as Scott Hastings, Pete Gillespie and William Smith.

Sleeman also tried to add a Black player, Bud Fowler, to the roster. The story of how that failed due to bigotry is told in a previous Then and Now article.

The ball players were semi-professional in that they usually held down regular jobs and were not paid salaries to play baseball. Instead, they shared in the ball park gate receipts and in tournament prize money. Local players on the Guelph team included a butcher, machinists, a tinsmith, a miller, a jeweller and a Methodist minister.

The clergyman, Ephraim Stephenson, once missed an important game because his mother, who did not think baseball was an appropriate activity for a man of the cloth, took him for a drive in the country and didn’t bring him back in time. Another player had to stand in for him.

Even though other Ontario teams followed Sleeman’s lead in importing American talent, Canadian players showed that, in the words of one American observer, “the Canucks are not to be trifled with and … the laurels may pass from the American boys to them.” Some of Guelph’s Canadian players were offered places on professional American teams but preferred to remain in Guelph.

The Maple Leafs took on teams from other Ontario communities as well as visitors from American cities like Cleveland and Baltimore, and won. They travelled to the United States to play teams in Philadelphia and New York City. They lost, but the contests were close. The boys of Guelph certainly did better than a Toronto team that lost to Boston 83-0.

In 1874, Sleeman took the Maple Leafs to a semi-pro championship tournament being held in Watertown, New York. Among the competition was a Ku Klux Klan team from Oneida, New York. Guelph swept the tournament, defeating the KKK team as well as a much-favoured team from Easton, Pennsylvania.

The Maple Leafs took home the prize of $450, the equivalent of more than $10,000 in today’s funds. Then they won Canadian championships again that year and in 1875.

Then in 1876, the Guelph Maple Leafs lost the Canadian title to the London Tecumsehs by a score of 8-6. Ironically, Guelph’s success as a powerhouse team contributed to its undoing. Fans would turn out by the thousands to watch them play a strong team like London, but few would pay to watch them routinely blow lesser teams out of the park.

The inclusion of Americans on the roster led to some Canadian baseball enthusiasts derisively calling the team “the Foreign Legion.” Moreover, George
Sleeman became less involved with the team after turning his business assets over to his son.

Over the next few decades the Maple Leafs’ fortunes rose and fell. They won a semi-pro Canadian championship in 1894, and the Ontario Baseball Association senior title in 1932.

The Maple Leafs eventually gave way to the Biltmores and became a Guelph legend.