Howie Birnie, The Legend of Leaside
* Howie Birnie will be honoured for his 50 years as a Leaside volunteer, his 75th birthday and winning the 2012 Queen’s Diamond Jubilee award on Monday July 9, at 7 p.m. at Talbot Park, where former major leaguer Ron Taylor got his start ….
By Bob Elliott
It was supposed to be a surprise.
The secret didn’t last long.
Turns out Howie Birnie is as plugged in to the goings on in the local sandlot community today as he was 50 years ago.
So his legion ex-Leaside players, umpires he worked with, Baseball Ontario executives, pals, transplanted Leaside grads and even coaches he ejected will gather at Talbot Park to honour him Monday July 9 at 7 p.m.
No one will yell “surrrr-PRISE!”
A recipient of the 2012 Queen’s Diamond Jubilee award, Birnie will be honoured for his 50th year volunteering in ball and his 75th birthday.
Like any good arbiter, Birnie sets the record straight.
“We’re going a little early, my birthday isn’t until July 17,” Birnie said on another typical night at the corner of Eglington and Bayview, a place he refers to as “The Shrine.”
On the larger diamond, Taylor-Roncetti Field, named after former major-leaguer Ron Taylor and scout Ron Roncetti players are arriving for a junior game.
And on the smaller diamond, Bush-Hibbert Field, named after Carmen Bush and Leith Hibbert, named after two long-time Leaside stalwarts a bantam house league game is underway.
Bush was tough and no nonsense. Birnie still quotes Bush in OBA board meetings.
“I’ve said sometimes wonder about all the fuss is about guys playing for different teams,” Birnie said. “I remember East York had two kids from Peterborough playing with East York addresses. Other teams claimed that they weren’t living there. Carmen said ‘well if someone wants to follow them home, go right ahead.’ No one did a thing.
“Those two guys turned out OK, Greg Hamilton went on to Princeton, now puts all the Team Canada teams together and does a great job. Rick Johnston was a great competitor for Team Canada, coached Team Canada and now makes his living running a hitting facility (The Baseball Zone) in Mississauga.”
On this night a few miles down the road in Oshawa they were re-naming a ball field after Jim Lutton, one of Birnie’s umpiring pals and OBA executive.
Lutton (left) and Birnie have been in the game about the same length of time, share the same needle for each other and the same respect for the late Dick Willis (right) before working a game at Exhibition Stadium in 1987.
Birnie compares Lutton’s post-game email dispatches on how the Oshawa Legionaires fare to the media as showing a similar style to the legendary Hall of Fame scribe Ted Reeve.
Birnie knows the rules front and back and while he has a deep love of the game, he has a deep dislike for bad umpiring.
“As a player I used to yell at the umpires all the time — until I became an ump,” Birnie said once in front of Lutton and I. He then winked and said “Especially when we went to Oshawa … Lutton’s umps were the worst. I seldom lasted the whole game in that park.”
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“The thing about Howie is that he’s still in this for all the right reasons — the kids,” said High Park’s Jim Wynnyk, who is a lifer himself, in his 27th year coaching.
Lefty Marlon C. Bass, 16, walked by and was asked how well he knows Birnie?
“He taught me how to separate the hoses properly (after watering down the infield) and how to groom the mound — well, he ordered me to groom the mound,” said Bass. “What does he know about the game? What doesn’t he know is a better question.”
He knows the rules. He knows when to fight.
In February, youth and children’s leagues — exempt from paying permit fees for the city’s outdoor fields — decried the $5-$10 introduction of the fee as hasty and unfair as many leagues pay for field maintenance and upkeep the city doesn’t do.
With Birnie leading the opposition, council agreed to waive the fee for a year and establish a consultation process to address both fee structure and objections from sports organizations about the poor quality of many of the fields.
On June 12, the mayor’s executive approved a parks’ plan to charge youth and children’s sports organizations an hourly rate of $2–6 for field use for next year.
* * * *
“He still combs his hair like Elvis
“Pays cash for everything, he’ll only drive a Chevy and thinks Alan Jackson’s king
“He knows everyone by name at the local store
“They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”
— County singer Jason Blaine, “They Don’t Make ’Em Like That Anymore”
* * * *
Up to the canteen steps a bantam player, anchoring the bench, who rhymes off his order … a combination of Jumbo Red Berries, Big Foot, Grape, Watermelon and Peach Slices … nickle candy.
Birnie serves the youngster quickly.
“That’s $1.35 … 27 right?” Birnie asks.
The bantam nods.
“You figured that out yourself?” asks Birnie with a wink.
He turns from dropping the change in the drawer and asks:
“So my Honda man is doing OK?”
You bought a new car.
“No, Andrew Tinnish, the Blue Jays scouting director, he was Baseball Ontario’s Honda Hit-Run-Rhrow Co-ordinator as a summer student in 2000,” said Birnie.
Being grounds keeper — dragging the fields with his tractor, raking the mound, anchoring the bases — opening the ump’s room, selling nickle candy (where else does one find nickle candy?), these are a few of Birnie’s nightly chores.
Oh, he’s also president of Leaside Baseball Association, as well as treasurer and registrar.
“That guy there … his father played here too, his son is better, I tell the father all the time,” Birnie says softly. “We have age groups from rookie ball to senior for the first time in years. Eric Stickney has done a great job running the younger age groups.”
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Birnie has seen 1,000s of games unfold in his 50 years — two per night, 14 to 16 on tournament weekends.
His most memorable?
Coaching the Richardson’s against Windsor WKO in the 1971 best-of-three OBA junior final.
“They had a problem getting a field so we played the first two games here, if there a Game 3 was needed we’d go to Windsor,” Birnie said. Right-hander Tim Ampleford, who led the league in homers, pitched a Game 1 win and homered.
“We wake up the next day, it’s raining, the Windsor coach phones and says ‘guess we’re going home for the rest of the series.’ I go to the park and it was fine.”
Ron McNeill homered on to Eglington, while Peter Woods and Cec Kozloski pitched Leaside to the title. Cancel the drive to Windsor.
The Shrine, with dimensions of 270 feet to left and 500 to home plate on the other diamond in deep right centre, doesn’t get a lot of compliments from first-time viewers.
“The most common one is ‘this is a Mickey Mouse park!’” Birnie said. “One guy yelled that after his guy hit a ball off the centre-field fence and was thrown out at second by Brian Marks … a SECOND time.”
It might have been Mickey Mouse on the first double attempt, it was Mickey Mouse base running the second time.
“This place is like Fenway Park.”
The late NHL coach Roger Neilson, who always liked baseball better, and Birnie coached the 1964 Canadian champion juniors who won at Parc Jarry in Montreal with switch-hitting first baseman Rick Foley hitting one out from each side.
“Foley was a heck of a hitter, his father charged an ump and was banned from coming into the park, so his father would stand in centre and watch,” Birnie said. “Foley hit one off Bobby Smyth over his father’s head.”
Birnie says the best three shortstops to ever grace the infield were the late Alfie Payne, Dave Peyman and Davey Wallace, who now plays for the Leaside seniors.
“We used to carry 13 players, now you have to carry 20 with so many guys working,” Birnie said. “Back then these teams were the only team for a player. Now, with so many in college, it’s more of a fun thing — with the exception of the eliminations.
“Players are better and bigger now. In the old days you could only sign a pro contract. Now, there are more opportunities, you can go to school, play for the junior national team or sign.”
Dick Todd was a Leaside regular before heading to Peterborough the Petes with Neilson.
“One year he badly injured his shoulder,” Birnie said. “The next year he tried to pitch under handed, that’s how tough he was.”
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Born and raised in the Pape and Danforth community, Birnie started playing baseball at age 14.
In 1952, he began at the bantam level with the Pape Playground squad, which was part of the playgrounds league.
Howie (right), grew up two brothers, Peter and the late Jack.
When not playing or coaching he was umpiring.
“It helped when I worked Roger Neilson’s games, because he never changed the signs,” Birnie said. “I knew what was coming when he’s steal home or pull one of his trick plays.”
And when he wasn’t doing a peewee or bantam or senior game, he’d be the one of the guys the Toronto Blue Jays would call when the Pearson Cup would bring the Montreal Expos to town.
So there he was down on one knee getting a look as Tim Raines slid in head first as Barry Bonnell went tried to field the ball off the turf in the 1982 Pearson Cup at Exhibition Stadium and Expos third base coach Billy DeMars watching.
He worked international competition and learned to keep a straight face when an American ump would whisper about another ump early in the competition “ah I think we’ve found the guy to work the right field line in the gold medal game, Howie and it’s not you.”
And in 1991 he worked games at the SkyDome.
The Shrine’s squire wed Marjorie in 1967 (“a Centennial project” he jokes) and they have two sons, Steve, who works for CRA, and Brad, who works in sales.
Marjorie and Howie made piano day for grand children Kirsten and Hayden.
* * * *
Don (Cleats) Cowan, who was not given the nickname for selling baseball shoes, had a son, Jeff, who came up through the Leaside ranks played for Team Ontario, the Ontario Terriers, High Point University and indy ball. He tells the story of driving to work along Eglington, his usual route.
Cowan would look out in the morning sees Birnie watering or raking and honk his car horn.
And at the end of the day Cowan is in the other lane. He’d see Birnie putting in the bases and honks again.
Birnie is the OBA registrar, an honorary member, an OBA past president (1991-92) and current Leaside president.
A short list of his honours from the OBA: the President’s award in 2007, the provincial award in 1994, the Barrie Salt memorial award in 1993, an award named after Salt in 1999. He’s an Honorary Members given the title by the OBA Board of for their endless commitment and commendable service.
I’ve seen Birnie run into someone who said in a previous conversation he had played at Leaside 25 years ago before moving and Birnie will greet him with “in 1979 you used lived at 14 Oak Street (or where ever) apartment 15?”
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One pal who won’t be there is Joe Irvine, who managed the Leaside Leafs with Bill Weeden, Robbie Stevens, Buck Reed, Ed Jordan, Bob Booth, Bob Sullivan, Jim Willson, Bob (Flakey) Johnstone, John Winters, Art Thomerson, Payne and Birnie in 1968.
“Senior baseball was dead in the city, Joe brought it back,” said Birnie of the best fungo hitter we ever saw this side of Jimmy Reese.
Irvine is in a home now.
Good days and bad days.
Birnie makes the rounds: checks the field and visits Irvine, the Godfather to his Son Brad.
* * * *
Barry Samuel and Brad are organizing the event which will start at Shrine with Ken Dryden and others speaking.
“I’m pleasantly surprised at the amount of work that they’ve done,” Birnie says of the organizer.
And after the speeches and the ceremonies a game will be played and then it’s up the road to Originals on Bayview.
There might be a story or two once there …
And maybe a sentence that begins with “remember the night …”
* * * *
“Standin’ shoulder to shoulder with him now, I still feel small
“And I’m still lookin’ up to him like he’s 10 feet tall
“There’s somethin’ about that generation
“These days I think we need ’em, more than we ever did before
“But they don’t make ’em like that anymore.”
— Jason Blaine (Pembroke, Ont.), “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That Any More”