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5 things you (probably) didn't know about baseball in Vancouver

The 'boys of summer' may be an American icon, but Vancouver has had its fair share of baseball history on local diamonds.
Clockwise from left to right: Babe Ruth posing with Mayor L.D. Taylor as catcher and Chief of Police Long as umpire at Pantages Theatre; the Asahi Baseball Club circa 1929, Hank Aaron at bat in an episode of MacGyver and Marge Callaghan sliding into home.

The 'boys of summer' may be an American icon, but Vancouver has had its fair share of baseball history on local diamonds.

And while names like Larry Walker and the Canadians are the most common things people associate with the city's baseball community, the game's history stretches back much further.

So while you may know a few things about the ol' ball game, here are a few things you probably don't.

1. The Vancouver Asahi

The Vancouver Asahi have an amazing, tragic story

The team was founded in 1914 by Harry Miyasaki. A dry cleaner by trade, he was passionate about baseball and wanted to build a championship team. Fast forward 12 years, and the Asahi claim their first Terminal League title; not only that, they were voted the most popular team in the city.

That was in part to their style, called 'brain ball,' which included cunning plays involving stolen bases and well-timed bunts. A Vancouver Province story from the 90s relates how the team won a game 3-1 without a hit.

The team continued a successful run for years, with two more Terminal League Championships in the early 30s, four straight Pacific Northwest Championships from 1937 to 41 and a triple crown when they won three championships (Burrard, Commercial and the Pacific Northwest).

The championships alone are notable, but the team also had to overcome racist attitudes and prejudice common at the time.

Unfortunately, it all ended in 1941, not because of poor play or team problems, but because of racist government policy. After Pearl Harbour was bombed the Canadian government created internment camps for Japanese-Canadians.

While at the camps former players created teams and they played each other, but the team wasn't formed again.

Nowadays the Asahi Baseball Association operates in Vancouver, taking its name from the legendary team. There's also an excellent Heritage Minute video about them (which includes a lot of bunts).

2. Babe Ruth was a sports journalist for the Vancouver Sun for a day

Babe Ruth was one of the biggest names in sports when he came to Vancouver for the first time. The "Murders' Row" he led had just finished up the 1926 season making it to game seven of the world series (where Ruth got tossed out trying to steal second).

In November he came to the city, making a week's worth of appearances at Pantages Theatre, a vaudeville theatre that used to be in what is now the Downtown Eastside.

As part of his visit, he visited the Vancouver Sun's office, even penning an article titled "Ruth Not Hold-out He Says" which is more of an opinion piece about his contract negotiations with the Yankees. He was making $52,000 US per season, which was a massive contract by the standards of the time, but is around $850,000 in today's money. But the value of his fame was recognized; the 12-week tour of vaudeville theatres he was on grossed him $100,000 ($1.6 million today).

That wasn't his only big trip to Vancouver; in 1934 he played a promotional game here at Athletic Park (which was located near Granville Island) with the likes of Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. The group was part of a promotional tour headed to Japan on the second Empress of Japan, the famous ship travelling between Vancouver and Hong Kong with stops in Japan and mainland China.

3. Hank Aaron filmed a scene of MacGyver at BC Place

For three seasons MacGyver was shot in Vancouver, and it was during this time in the mid-80s that they hired a certain legend of baseball to make a cameo.

Hank Aaron, at the time the all-time home run record holder (and still the all-time RBI record holder), is called upon to take a couple of pitches (and knock a dinger into the seats) at BC Place, where the 'Bluebirds' are practicing.

Oddly enough, it wasn't the first time Hank Aaron played baseball at BC Place; he was part of an old-timers game in 1983 that also featured Roger Maris. It took place on Aug. 12, 1983, just a month after the stadium opened and was the precursor to a Vancouver Canadians game. While the average Canadians game these days is around 6,200, the game had almost 42,000 fans, likely because guys like Aaron and Maris were the opening act.

4. A League of their Own was inspired by Vancouver sisters

To say the 1992 film is based on the Callaghan sisters isn't totally accurate, but it definitely wouldn't have been made if it weren't for them.

The pair, Marge and Helen, were legends of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the only professional women's baseball league ever. Having grown up in Vancouver, the two were multi-sport athletes who were part of a softball team that represented Canada at a world softball tournament in Detroit in the early 1940s.

From there they were scouted by the women's league, which formed as WWII sent many professional male players to war.

Helen was signed first, joining the Minneapolis Milleretters in 1944 and ripping up the league (she holds the record for most bases stolen with 354, almost one a game). In her second season she led the league in batting average, hits, home runs, bases and doubles, earning the nickname "the Ted Williams" of women's baseball.

Marge wasn't doing poorly, either, as a star defensive shortstop. Legend has it she also hit the longest home run in the league.

Both sisters ended up moving to the Fort Worth Daises when the team moved and continued their success, and then other teams. Helen played five seasons while Marge played seven.

Their connection to the film is more than just their field time, though. Helen's son Kelly Candaele went on to make a documentary about the league for PBS; that documentary inspired the film.

Two further notes about the sisters Callaghan; both are a part of the Baseball Hall of Fame, as the league was added and a permanent display included. Also, another of Helen's sons went on to play ball for the Montreal Expos among others; Casey Candaele is maybe the only professional baseball player to follw in his mother's footsteps.

Unfortunately, both sisters have passed. Helen died of breast cancer in 1969. Marge died in 2019 at age 97.

5. The first night game in Canada was played here under the lights at Athletic Park, years before the MLB did it

Athletic Park was a legendary field in Vancouver back in the day; in fact, the reason it's last on this list is because it's part of so much of Vancouver's baseball history.

Its interesting history started before it was even a field; Vancouver's Bob Brown, a legend in his own right, cleared the area with a pickaxe and dynamite himself to create space for the field.

It's where Babe Ruth played that game in 1934, the Asahi played their often (though it wasn't their home field), and the Callaghan both spent plenty of time on the field.

However, it's another event where it really outshone every other baseball diamond, literally

In 1931 the field was lit up with electric lights. It was both the first time in Canada and the first time west of the Mississippi. The second time happened minutes later, as a double header took place. In the first game the Firemen beat the Arrows 5-3, while the second saw VAC beat BC Telephone 1-0.

"Mother Nature took one more on her calloused old chine last night when the darkness of night vanished in the light," wrote Sun sports reporter Andy Lytle, noting the achievement came thanks to "another of those human artifices that belong to our modernity."

He also wrote that the moon was startled and "almost persuaded to roll right back again when her eyes caught the startling sight of multi-power incandescents giving her the well-known works."

It wasn't until 1935 that the Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies would play a game under the lights, the first time any Major League game occurred at night.

Unfortunately, the field is gone. In 1946 the land was bought as the Granville Bridge was planned. The last game was played in 1951, the same year Nat Bailey Stadium opened.