I always looked forward to the Calder and District Board of Trade Sports day which usually occurred in the early part of June. It was a day filled with excitement and it was a day away from the usual routine of the farm.
The Sports Day was held south of the CNR tracks on the Calder Sports Grounds, a field which was fenced off from the surrounding area. The grounds had 3 ball diamonds on it. Two were for baseball, or hardball, and one was for fastball, or softball, as they were respectively called back then. Baseball was played by the men and softball was reserved for the women because “it was a gentler sport for the gentler and fairer sex”.
Entry to the grounds was by general admission. For youths it was a quarter and for adults it was half a buck. You received a ribbon which was pinned onto your shirt or jacket to show that you had paid and had not sneaked in over or under the woven wire fence. You could leave the grounds but you needed to have your hand stamped for readmission so that ribbons were not handed off to other people for using to gain admission by those who were leaving.
The calibre of the baseball teams that paid an entrance fee depended on the size of the prizes. The larger the winnings, the better the teams that were attracted. At the larger centres’ Sports Days, purses were often in the amount of a $1000 for first. Calder’s prizes for the baseball portion back then were more in the line of $100 to $200 for first, $75 for second, $50 for third, and $25 for fourth. Teams were guaranteed at least two games. In the softball portion, the prizes, like wages for women were also considerably less. Most of the women’s teams were pickup teams from the area and from surrounding towns. Their entry fee was about $5 a team and first prize was about $25. They were usually guaranteed only one game.
The men’s games were played on the two baseball diamonds. The main baseball diamond was carefully manicured in the days before the tournament. It also had small grandstand that stretched from first base, around home to third base. The stands had bench seating and were about 8 rows high. Games in front of the grandstand were usually between the higher seeded teams. As well, the semi-finals and finals were played here. When the grandstand was filled, as it often was at sports days, fans would also sit on the grass along the foul lines. Every inning or so the base umpires would move the fans back about 2 metres from the line so that they wouldn’t interfere in a ball’s progress. As well fans had to scatter when a fall ball was hit sharply along the ground or when a player came in search of a foul pop-up.
Cars were parked along the fences or in an area away from the field if they didn’t want their cars to be hit by stray foul balls. Many a person who chose close-to-the-field parking ended up with a dent in the roof of the car from pop fouls that cleared the high wire mesh fences that surrounded the infield area. Occasionally an unlucky family would come back to their car to find that the windshield had been shattered by a direct hit from a foul ball. Foul balls provide a source of income for groups of teens wearing baseball gloves who competed with each other to retrieve the foul balls and turn them in for a ten cent reward. This was good money in the days when soda pop, or soft drinks as they were called then, were only a dime, hot dogs were fifteen cents, and an ice cream cone was ten cents. These prices were from the 50’s and they had inflated by a 100% from the 40’s.
The previously mentioned foods were bought at a booth from town residents who were volunteering their labor for the day. Salted sunflower seeds were in big demand and one could always tell the size of the crowd the next day by the amount of sunflower seed shells lying on the ground. Chocolate bars cost a dime, and, if you were lucky and Texas watermelons were available, you could buy a nice thick slice of ice-cold watermelon for a dime. There was many a war waged between young boys with pieces of watermelon rind.
People would sit and watch the games and cheer on their favorite teams. Everyone especially liked to cheer against the teams from larger centres who often came in with a superior attitude. They thought they would show these “hayseeds” or “bumpkins’ how baseball was really played in the city. More often than not, they ran into some very talented “farmboys” who sent them home on the short end of the score at the end of the game.
For the children and for those adults who weren’t embarrassed at being seen in taking part, there were races and contests of many types. Prizes were usually monetary – fifteen cents for first, a dime for second, and a nickel for a third place finish. There were tug-of-war contests and horseshoe pitching competitions. Calder’s Sports Day was too small to qualify, but the larger towns and small cities hosting a Sports Day would often have a midway show as well.
As at games played in front of large crowds today, there were the ever present “hecklers” who would shout out their “witty sayings” at ball players they had selected for whatever reason to be their targets. If these hecklers were truly funny, they were fun to listen to. However some were just mean-spirited, and even though the targets of their barbs were players of the “hated” opposing team, most home-town fans knew when the rules of proper conduct had been broken and would not encourage these baiters. Occasionally after a player had been the target of their barbs all game and could take it no more, there would be a confrontation and punches would be exchanged. Usually though, the players on opposing teams knew this was their fate as the visiting team and good-naturedly took the ribbing. The odd player gave back as good as he got and this was often enough to shut a heckler up. Occasionally the banter between the hecklers and the heckled was better than even the ball game being played.
The calibre of the baseball that was played at this sports day and others like it was very good. In the days before television, young men played baseball as a form of entertainment from the time they were old enough to understand the game. As they got older, they got better at it and smarter. There was much baseball savvy out there as well as excellent physical skills. Each town had their hometown heroes.
In the United States, Afro-Americans were not allowed to play in the American or National Baseball Leagues because of a color barrier. So they formed teams of their own and leagues of their own, the Negro American League and the Negro National League. The National League folded in 1948. The Negro American league folded at the end of 1951, when full integration of black players into the previously white American and National Leagues took place. First a trickle and then a flood of players signed with Major League Baseball teams. Most signed minor league contracts and many languished, shuttled from one bush league team to another, despite their success at previous high levels. Those that were either too old or had become disenchanted with their failure to rise from the minor leagues headed to Canada. Here they were signed by teams who played in the larger centres. They received a salary for the season and many of them held jobs. As well, most were integrated into the white communities and many did not go back to the States when their playing days were over.
Our young men often played against these teams with their stacked rosters and they held their own. Their calibre of play stood the test. Some of these farm boys were good enough to play in the majors but they did not have any scouts to notice them. Occasionally some went to tryout camps on the States and signed minor league contracts. Yes, the calibre of baseball at these Sports Days was good.
After the games were over, most adults attended a dance at the local hall where a notable band had been hired by the local Board of Trade to provide the music. Admission often include a lunch provided by the Board of Trade who had sponsored the Sports Day. The hotel in town did a booming business as did the stores which stayed open late for the crowds of visitors. If the Sports Day was well-run, had a good supply of volunteers, and the weather co-operated, then the Board of Trade would be able to add a substantial amount of money into the general income which was to the benefit of the town and its citizens and to those people from the surrounding farms who did their shopping in the town.
Sports Days are a thing of the past. There are still tournaments that occur, but in almost all cases the game being played for cash prizes is fastball, what the old-timers in their day referred to as softball, or in some extreme cases, “baseball for sissies”!