By Danny Gallagher
Canadian Baseball Network
The 45th anniversary of Roberto Clemente's death on New Year's Eve was another opportunity for David Gourlay to reflect and admire his hero, not just the baseball player he was, but the humanitarian.
It was also a chance for Gourlay to reminisce about Clemente's time playing in Ottawa in 1954, a rarely known nugget.
Clemente was playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers' farm team, the Montreal Royals, against the Ottawa Athletics during the summer of 1954 and it's a piece of history Gourlay likes to imprint on Ottawa's baseball fabric.
"The storyline was that Clemente was not a known commodity then,'' Gourlay said. "Today in baseball, when a player is drafted, it's so transparent and so open but back then, it was not as transparent. The Dodgers and Royals tried to hide Clemente because he had such huge potential. Any bio of him talks all too briefly of his time with the Royals.''
Clemente never did play a game for the Dodgers. Instead, his entire big-league career of 18 seasons was spent with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Gourlay took it upon himself to research Clemente's time playing at Ottawa's Lansdowne Park and found two boxscores published in the Sporting News, which showed Clemente as having appeared in each game. Gourlay couldn't find any photos or visuals of Clemente in Ottawa. The local newspapers, of course, didn't realize Clemente was a budding phenom so there was no story on him.
Gourlay is making every attempt to publicize this important part of Ottawa's baseball history. For a few years, he has operated the online site clementecardsproject.org, which documents his love of collecting Clemente cards. He has 80 in his collection, including a 1955 Topps graded rookie card.
Gourlay also boasts a significant collection of memorabilia of the late Expos catcher Gary Carter. Gourlay met Carter and Expos colour analyst Duke Snider at the Kanata Town Centre in an Ottawa suburb in the early 1980s.
"I have about 60 or so Gary Carter cards now and many autographs, including a postcard he sent me when I wrote him a letter in the late 1970s as a boy,'' Gourlay said. "Those memories are so precious from a true ambassador of the game in those days.''
Gourlay may be best known as co-owner and president of the Ottawa Champions, a minor-league independent team in the Can-Am league and he is part of the organizing committee for the recently established Ottawa Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum which will hold its first inauguration April 17 at RCGT Park.
Part of the ceremony will see Clemente's time in Ottawa played up a notch in a special case. The ceremony will be held on the 25th anniversary of the park playing host to its first game in 1993. The hall of fame is a joint project involving the Champions and the City of Ottawa and will comprise space in a refurbished spot on the third floor of the ballpark.
The first inductee will be former Ottawa mayor Jim Durrell, who played a big role in getting triple-A ball to Ottawa in the form of an Expos' farm team, the Lynx. Durrell was first presented with his plaque last July.
"My fascination with Clemente goes back about seven years now,'' Gourlay said. "He's truly a larger than life figure. He was not just a ballplayer. He was a humanitarian, a true, exemplary role model. We all look for mentors and idols.''
Gourlay's efforts are part of his mission to re-energize what he calls Ottawa's "complex relationship with baseball.'' Teams have come and gone. In the late 1800s, the Wanderers operated there. For a number of years, the Senators were the talk of the town. The Giants/Athletics lasted but a few seasons in the 1950s.
Ottawa's triple-A team that began operations in 1993 was transferred out of town following the 2007 season. The Ottawa Fat Cats played in the Intercounty Baseball League, a senior loop based in southern Ontario, from 2010-12 before folding. The Champions have operated since 2013.
"Despite all the teams we've had and the on and off interest, I saw the city as an untapped market for baseball,'' Gourlay said. "There are three layers to this narrative. The first is Clemente's playing time here and the second is the recognition of it in the hall of fame.
"And Hal Lanier, our manager with the Champions, is the third layer. He played against Clemente. In 1970, Hal ran into Clemente in the hallway at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Clemente gave Hal some hitting tips and gave him two bats. Then Hal said he went out and had a hitting streak of 14 games, his longest in the majors.''