As we head into another exciting summer baseball, fastball and slowpitch season, many of our Ponoka and district players of all ages look forward to invading the diamonds and taking part in league and tournament action in front of lots of appreciative fans.
So what and where were the humble beginnings of these great outdoor team games?
Baseball likely got started in the United States in the mid-1800s, then spread quickly to Canada and the throughout the world, where soldiers took time off from the heat of the battle to enjoy a friendly game of ball. The first professional baseball team in Canada was the London, Ontario Tecumsehs, who were instantly successful, and would defeat many of the top-ranked highly paid American clubs. In one early championship series London pitcher Frank Herbst pitched all three games, allowing only one run and six hits in 33 innings.
Rules of this newfound game were always quite informal, being modified many times to reflect the preferences of the regions and the players. Accordingly, the spin-off game of mush ball (softball) was born in 1897 to accommodate more players to join in on the fun, with many teams of youngsters, men, and women getting together in all areas of communities and rural districts.
Out here on the prairies, the games were organized and played at picnics, where rough diamonds were quickly thrown together on stubble fields and sand lots, with the early bases likely being flour sacks or dried cow pies, and very little equipment available. At first it was a jolly weekend gathering of family, friends, and neighbours, with everyone getting a chance to hit, run, and catch, many happy fans surrounding the ball park, and lots of food and refreshments shared when the game was over.
In the early 1920s district and community teams were formed with great enthusiasm, with prospective players working hard all day at their businesses or jobs, then rushing to the ballpark for a roaring game. As leagues and tournaments were formed locally and throughout the districts and province, these rugged teams and fans would get to the game in whatever transportation was available, often getting stuck in the mud, capsizing in the river, or camping out along the way.
The keen spirit of play and sportsmanship carried on through the Dirty 30s and war years, then through the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s grew to the point where close to 100 teams were competing in and around Ponoka at the minor and senior levels each season. Sponsors were always very generous in supporting all categories of teams at the baseball, softball and baseball levels, with new ball parks being constructed, and hundreds of avid fans following their favourites seven days a week. It was during this exciting era in sports that the longstanding Lacombe Lions Baseball Tournament became a summer tradition, while the Ponoka Kinsmen Club hosted their own baseball tournament at the Stampede grounds, which featured the likes of legendary Satchel Paige as a special guest.
Many generations of Ponoka and district teams of boys and girls, men and women have always had a great reputation of being fierce but fun-loving competitors, and over the years have brought many championships and honours back home. Ball teams came from all walks of life and facets of our community and districts, all formed to have a little fun and camaraderie. Very early teams included the infamous Fats and Leans, composed of businessmen, then later many local and district minor ball leagues for ages ’tweens to teens, as well as men’s and women’s teams from town and county, who played in local leagues, or throughout central Alberta.
Some of the early legends of the diamonds from this area were Charlie Lewis, Rufus Headley, Harry Dittberner, the Froman and Stephen’s boys, Frenchy De’Rosie, Big Dave Morgan, Dick Latiff, Don Moller, Jack McMillan, Cathy Galusha, Ola Olson, Kathy Akins. Another local lad, Ralph Vold, signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and pitched in their baseball organization from 1952-58.
Among my fondest memories will always be of having the marvellous opportunity of playing, coaching, umpiring, and cheering for fastball and baseball for more than 30 years, never forgetting the good times (win or lose), and all those super teammates and characters I was lucky enough to stir up the diamond dust with along the way.
Today the Ponoka Minor Baseball and Softball Association is still going great, and while only a few senior teams are playing fastball, the keen participation game of slow-pitch is going strong on all fronts for men, women, mixed teams and their families.
Whether you are a player, a coach, an umpire, a team volunteer, a sponsor, or an ardent fan, please enjoy and carry on the great spirit and traditions of the ‘old ball game’ and have a great season, all of you.