Labatt Memorial Park, the venerable ball field at the forks of the Thames in London, Ont., has been custodian of thousands of stories – of athletics exploits, Hall of Fame plays and players, floods, and real and mythical creatures.
Now historians from Western are telling some of those stories for the first time in guided public tours that will run throughout the summer.
One of tour guide Dryden Choban’s favourite tales recounts a mammoth blast from the 1970s: “London Majors first baseman Larry Haggitt hit a home run over the fence and the crowd was going wild. What they didn’t know at the time was that the ball hit his wife’s car and broke her windshield just as she was driving past the park. Of all the people in the city to hit, he just happened to hit his wife’s car.”
Western’s public history program was asked this spring to research details of the world’s oldest, continuously operating ballpark and lead tours this summer.
“We researched the content and gathered the information and then got some help paring down the script,” said professor Mike Dove, director of Western’s MA in public history program.
“We wanted to talk about the history of baseball, the history of baseball here specifically, and the history of this site,” Dove said.
Choban, a master’s student in history, and history PhD student Liam Clifford are guiding and narrating the 75-minute tours, which operate four times a day, Thursday through Saturday, until September. The tours are free for children ages 12 and younger, and $5 for everyone else.
Tour visitors who bring their ball gloves will also have a chance to play catch on the emerald-green outfield – channelling the talents, perhaps, of inaugural National Baseball Hall of Fame inductees Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Walter Johnson who all played here at one time.
Begun in 1877 as Tecumseh Park, the field has been home to football, steeplechase, lacrosse, rugby and cycling races.
It was host site to baseball teams called the Tigers, the Werewolves and the Eager Beavers.
Real-life creatures today include ospreys with their noisy nest on a platform high atop the left-field light standard, Canada geese that wander through the outfield on off days, and groundhogs that scurry through the brush beside the historic Roy McKay Clubhouse.
The site was renamed Labatt Memorial Park in 1936 when the famous London brewer family bought the field and gave it to the city under the condition it remain a public park in perpetuity. It is currently home field for the London Majors of the International Baseball League and of the Western Mustangs and Fanshawe Falcons baseball teams.
The field has been certified by Guinness World Records as the oldest, continuously operating ballpark in the world.
Even at the height of last year’s pandemic, the Majors played one exhibition game to keep the streak alive.
It has seen its share of floods, but even that did not deter its use for more than a handful of weeks. In 1905, for example, a torrent of murky water and muck consumed the field. “The whole of Tecumseh Park, fences, stands, horses together with Massies Boat House, all went down the river,” the London Advertiser wrote at the time.
Chronicling and telling Labatt Memorial Park’s history was a dream project for Dove, a southpaw pitcher back in the day and an avid fan of the London Majors today. “We had just a short time to get this ready but I didn’t want to see this opportunity go by. I’m thrilled that they asked us.”