Softball, specifically men’s fastpitch, also known as fastball, was very popular in Toronto, Ontario during the 1940’s and early 1950’s. Kew Gardens, located on the shores of Lake Ontario in Toronto’s east end area referred to as ‘The Beaches’, became a baseball destination for the thousands who turned out to cheer on their favourite teams.
Like in most sports, fastball teams were hit hard by World War 2 and the loss of most of the league’s best players. In 1946, however, the men were back from the war and eager once again to don their gloves and swing their bats. Sam Shefsky, the manager of the Tip Top Tailors team, was ready to greet them and sign them up to play for his team. Sam said his line-up would look a lot like it did in 1940. “They were tops then, nothing has come along to replace them since and their places are open if they wish to play for Tip Tops,” Sam was quoted in the Toronto Star newspaper as saying.
Sam signed shortstop Ed Geraldi and outfielder Art Upper, both fresh from stints in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Lenny Gaull (pictured below in September 1949 in the Toronto Star newspaper), my first cousin, twice removed, was signed as the catcher following his time in the Canadian Army.
In 1949, the Toronto Tip Top Tailors team won the right to represent Canada at the Amateur Softball Association Championship, at the time considered the world championship of men’s fastpitch. They had defeated a team sponsored by Peoples Credit Jewelers two games to none in a best two-out-of-three match in the annual Canadian National Exhibition tournament. They were off to Little Rock, Arkansas, the scene of the world championship tournament for 1949.
It was a culture shock for the team in Little Rock from the time they arrived. According to Bill ‘Babe’ Gresko, a Toronto resident and team member quoted in a 2009 Toronto Sun newspaper story, at the airport, there was sign to the left that said ‘Whites’ and a sign to the right that said ‘Blacks.’ The team decided to stay together and walk right down the middle. At the hotel, the three black members of the team were told to leave immediately. In response, the whole team left and stayed in the black section of town along with three or four other teams who had faced the same problem.
The Toronto Tip Top Tailors went through the world championship tournament undefeated, setting up an exciting climatic championship game against a team from Clearwater, Florida for the world title.
On September 23rd, 1949, the Toronto team faced legendary softball Hall of Fame pitcher Herb Dudley, known for his strikeout ability. With Toronto down by a run in the final inning, Lenny Gaull, who had earlier in the game broken Dudley’s bid for a no-hitter, again reached base and scored the tying run on a hit by his battery mate, pitcher Charlie Justice who was one of the three black players not welcomed at the hotel. The game went into the 18th inning before Lenny Gaull again reached base and scored on a two run single delivered by Art Upper. The final score: Toronto 3, Clearwater 1.
The team was celebrated on their return to Toronto with a civic reception and in 2009, they got their due by being inducted into the Canadian Softball Hall of Fame. Sadly, when the team was inducted only three of its members were still alive.
The list of surviving team members became shorter on February 2nd of this year when my cousin, Lenny Gaull (formally George Leonard Gaull) passed away at the age of 93.
My thanks to Lenny’s daughter, Margaret who informed me of her father’s death. May he rest in peace!