In the lost geography of Toronto’s sports history, there are notable sites that have disappeared from the city’s streets. On the east side of the Don River in particular, a group of sites representing three sports — baseball, cricket, and shooting — tell an intriguing tale of late 19th-century and 20th-century sporting in the city.
The Toronto Base Ball Club & Sunlight Park
Baseball in Toronto has a history dating back to at least 1859, when the “Canadian Pioneer Base Ball Club” was organized. The group practiced every Monday on the University of Toronto grounds. In the fall of 1885, the Toronto Baseball Club, previously playing out of the Jarvis Street Lacrosse Grounds on Wellesley Street, sought a wider and larger playing field. They settled on a site east of the Don River.
Despite the size and potential of the new field, The Globe questioned the idea:
“But there are surely other considerations besides merely preventing an occasional ball from going over the fence involved in the matter. Certainly if people living in the north-western and western parts of the city have to lose half a day two of three times a week in order to see baseball amtches, there were be a considerable dimuntion in the gate receipts next season.”The Globe, October 26, 1885
But sure enough, the newspaper reported the next month that:
“One of Mr. John Smith’s fields, between Queen Street and Eastern Avenue, has been leased to the East Toronto Cricket Club; and an eight acre field adjoining it has been leased to the Toronto Baseball Blub for a term of ten years. The trees are being taken down, and other preparations being made for next season’s work. This ground will have carriage entrance on Queen-street.”The Globe November 19, 1885
John Smith was a descendant of an original pioneer of the town of York, William Smith Sr. The Smiths owned 200-acres from the Don River to about today’s Broadview Avenue (Lot 15) and the adjacent 200-acre lot east of Broadview (Lot 14). Leslieville historian Joanne Doucette noted the southern end of the lot was ideal for the elder Smith as it “was an excellent location for his favourite sport, hunting, with easy access to Ashbridge’s Bay, a stop over point for many thousands of migrating waterfowl…” The Smiths also leased some land near the bay to Gooderham and Worts in 1866 for their cattle sheds.
On May 22, 1886, The Toronto Baseball Grounds hosted its Grand Opening – a 3 o’clock contest between Rochester and Toronto. A Grand Stand was located south of Queen Street and the grounds themselves were flanked on the west by Base Ball Place (originally Pioneer Avenue) and Scadding Avenue (named for another early pioneer, John Scadding, and later renamed Broadview Avenue) on the east.
Historian Adam Bunch writes the 1887 season was quite a successful one at the park: The Toronto Baseball Club, also known as the Toronto Canucks, playing out of the International League (a minor league that exists today), won the pennant that year. The team was renamed the Toronto Maple Leafs (before the existence of the famed ice hockey club of today) and played in the park until 1896, briefly transferring to Albany for part of the season before returning to play at Hanlan’s Point.
The Toronto Baseball Grounds were renamed Sunlight Park around the turn of the century. The event was precipitated by the construction of the Lever Bros Sunlight Soap Factory located just across Eastern Avenue. The park continued to host baseball matches, such as the Commercial League in 1901, a league seemingly for company teams. It hosted military bands and the circus also came to town! A large, five-foot snake was found following the exhibition and was killed by a resident. Sunlight finally closed in 1913, but still remains a storied part of baseball history in Toronto.
The East Toronto Cricket Club & Grounds
Cricket in Toronto has a history dating back to the early 19th century with troops at Fort York playing the sport and later in the 1820s with friendly matches at the Home District Grammar School (Jarvis Collegiate Institute is partly descended from the school).
In 1885, a Dominion Day match was played between the Guelph Cricket Club and the East Toronto Cricket Club (C.C.), on the “new” grounds of the latter on Eastern Avenue. The home team lost the contest and The Globe reported “the day was all that could be desired, and the wicket played well; but the outfield has not yet been got into shape”. It was a successful season despite the easterners not having a field to practice on to start it. They went 12-7-1.
The locations of these grounds are slightly unclear but most likely were on the south side of Eastern Avenue. The lands looked to have been part of the George Leslie property. The East Toronto C.C. began playing on their new Eastern Avenue field in July 1885, but the report in November of that year referenced above stated that John Smith leased fields to the cricket club and the Toronto Baseball Club. The City Directories first listed “Cricket Grounds” on Eastern in 1887 on its south side between the Grand Trunk Railway on the west and Vacant Lots and Blong Street (today’s Booth Avenue) on the east. “Base Ball Grounds, s e” also first appeared in the 1887 Directory on the north side of Eastern Avenue between the Don Bridge and Broadview Avenue. Moreover, the 1893 Bird’s Eye View in the header of this article seems to depict some sporting activity, perhaps baseball or cricket. It is possible that the club used both locales as athletic fields of the day did not seem to be purpose built to one sport.
The East Toronto Cricket Club, headquartered at 272 Sherbourne Street, was quite a successful endeavour. It was described in the 1894 season as “the most enterprising of the city cricketing organizations”. That year, it was reported 190 wickets for 615 runs at an average of 3.39. The City Directories cease to list cricket grounds on Eastern Avenue by 1890, although the East Toronto Cricket Club played into at least the first decade of the 20th century.
Stark’s Athletic and Shooting Grounds & Toronto’s Gun Clubs
Beginning in the late 1870s, Charles Stark operated a shop on Church Street near King Street which sold watches and firearms. Stark made quite a healthy living from it too — he was a major salesperson of guns who operated a catalogue that pre-dated and even dwarfed Eaton’s efforts in the early going. Stark also changed the use of and attitudes towards guns, particularly in urging men “to buy firearms for activities like recreational sport hunting or competitive target shooting.”
By the late 1880s, references to Stark’s Athletic and Shooting Grounds began to appear in city directories and news stories. As the name suggests, the site served a multiple purposes: general sport and the sport of firearms. In 1888, several amateur baseball teams received on offer to play at Stark’s Grounds. The Toronto Amateur League seemed to play at least some of its games on the grounds: in 1890, it was reported that a day’s games were to be played on the Toronto Base Ball grounds instead of Stark’s.
The latter shooting purpose is summarized well with a competition in February 1889:
“Tomorrow will be an interesting day to sportsmen. At Stark’s shooting grounds, Eastern Avenue, will be held two big sweepstake matches at blackbirds. Starting at eleven o’clock there will be a sweepstake shoot. Entrance fee, $5, in which $1000 is guaranteed in prizes by Mr. Stark.”The Globe, February 1, 1889
Stark’s Athletic Grounds also hosted other shooting events in the 1890s, such as the McDowell gun competition and shoots by the Toronto Gun Club. The space also was called the “Charles Stark Company Grounds” and the “Eastern Avenue Shooting Grounds”.
Stark’s Grounds were partly described in an odd episode in February 1891. The Globe reported that mounted policeman was shot by someone on the grounds. The report turned out to be false as:
“…The shooting lodge, they point out, is placed at the lower part of a twelve acre field and the shooting is done over the marsh. Even if the shot had been fired directly towards the street, the distance of 500 yards would have to be covered, and no shot gun will carry shot beyond 150 yards, and even that is only a rare occurrence.”The Globe, February 24, 1891
This description likely confirms the location of the Stark grounds on the south side of Eastern Avenue facing Ashbridge’s Marsh, which was, as noted above, a place where migratory and native birds could be found. The City Directories begin to list “Stark’s Athletic and Shooting Grounds” in 1890 and place it on the south side of the street between the Grand Trunk Railway and Blong Avenue (today’s Booth Avenue). It replaced the entry for the East Toronto Cricket Grounds. In November 1900, the Stanley Gun Club held their annual pigeon match on the “old Stark Athletic Grounds” at Booth Avenue and Eastern Avenue (the club also had a nearby clubhouse and Morse and Eastern, possibly at Ayre’s Hotel).
Charles Stark died in 1899 and related on not, references to Stark’s Athletic Grounds ceased in the early 1900s, but other clubs and grounds seemed to occupy a similar locale. in November 1901, the Stanley Gun Club held a shoot at the “Gooderham athletic field” at Booth and Eastern. As noted, the Gooderham Cattle Sheds were adjacent. In 1907, the club had a shoot at the ‘Stanley grounds’ at the corner of the Grand Trunk crossing and Eastern Avenue. In the 1910s, the club was playing at the foot of Saulter Street on Ashbridges Bay. In 1920, the Past time Gun Club had a shoot at the foot of Booth Avenue.
The 1920s were the last hurrah for bird shooting in Toronto. The Globe reported in May 1929 that a by-law was set to be introduced preventing the firing of guns within the city, except at gun clubs and license shooting galleries. By this time Ashbridge’s Bay had been filled in and the area had become a “thriving industrial area”. The area of Eastern Avenue and Booth Avenue in particular had been occupied by the Consumers Gas Co.’s “B” complex beginning in 1904.
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