Historian Bill Humber has permanent place in baseball history
By Kevin Glew
Canadian Baseball Network
He’s a historian who now has his official, rightful and permanent place in Canadian baseball history.
On Saturday, Bill Humber, our country’s premier baseball historian, was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont. With this honour, he becomes the first academic to be elected into either the Canadian ball hall or the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
“It’s kind of the equivalent to Hollywood’s lifetime achievement award,” said Humber at a press conference prior to the ceremony. “It’s a recognition of everything you have done rather than something specific. It’s a larger honour in some respects in the way that it’s acknowledging that what you’ve done has had merit and had value . . . It’s a great feeling . . . And I really hope that as a builder that this opens the door for other historians because I’m not alone.”
But for those of us in the Canadian baseball history community, Humber already had legendary status well before Saturday’s ceremony.
In fact, it’s thanks in large part to his tireless and trailblazing research efforts that many of the stories shared in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame have been brought to light.
At previous ceremonies, Humber had often served as the presenter for deceased inductees. And prior to his inspiring and heartfelt speech delivered to a near capacity audience that included his wife Cathie, children Bradley, Darryl and Karen, his grandchildren and his brother, Larry, as well as a large contingent from Seneca College where he teaches, Humber joked that it felt a little surreal to be giving his own induction speech.
“You know that in the past I’ve been giving speeches for inductees that are no longer with us and so this is a change for me, I’m actually speaking for someone who is alive,” he joked. “And that just happens to be me.”
And though the humble historian’s resume boasts unparalleled academic achievements, that doesn’t mean he isn’t excited that one of the perks of his induction is that he now has his own baseball card.
“It’s my rookie card!” said Humber, who collects the iconic 1952 Topps Baseball set as a hobby. “And I keep telling people not to ask me to autograph it because it will go down in value.”
Born in Toronto, Ont., in 1949, Humber acquired a love for baseball at a young age.
“I grew up in the sandlot days of baseball when you just went out and you found a place to play and it could even be a concrete parking lot where there were no cars in it,” shared Humber in March 2018 interview.
As a child, he cheered for the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs.
“My dad came to Canada after the war. He was in the British army. He’d never seen a baseball game in his life when he got here, but one of the first things he did with my brother and I was take us to a game at the old Maple Leaf Stadium in Toronto,” reflected Humber. “I can remember from my earliest days, when I was seven or eight, going to those games in Toronto and just falling in love with the game and the whole atmosphere when I was walking into the stadium.”
Two of his favourite Maple Leafs players were Steve Demeter and Rocky Nelson. Humber still has a photo of Nelson on his office wall. A Portsmouth, Ohio native, Nelson captured a Triple Crown for the Maple Leafs in 1958 when he topped the International League with a .326 batting average, 43 home runs and 120 RBI. Nelson was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987, so when the new museum opens next spring, Humber will have a plaque alongside his boyhood hero’s.
Humber’s interest in baseball history also began at a young age.
“I can recall handing in an 80-page project on the history of baseball in Grade 3 and I wish I still had it,” said Humber. “It was probably pretty primitive but it would be really fun to look at it today.”
For his post-secondary education, Humber completed an undergraduate degree in Arts & Science at the University of Toronto and a master’s in Environmental Studies at York University. In the spring of 1973, towards the end of his work on his master’s, he wanted to read a book strictly for pleasure and he chose Roger Kahn’s classic The Boys of Summer. He thoroughly enjoyed it and it sparked a greater interest in baseball history for him.
After graduation, Humber’s first job required him to ride a bus from Bowmanville, Ont., to downtown Toronto in the spring of 1974. During that commute, he would peruse baseball books. One of the books that had the greatest impact on him was Irving A. Leitner’s Baseball: Diamond in the Rough.
This inspired him to research the origins of baseball in Canada – something that virtually no one else was doing at the time. Armed with his passion for his baseball history, he became one of the first Canadians to join the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) in 1978 and the following year, he founded a course called “Baseball Spring Training for Fans” at Seneca College which continues to this day. He has taught the course since its inception. Many of its “graduates” were in attendance at Saturday’s ceremony.
“The idea [for the course] was pretty simple. The players get to go to Florida – or today Arizona as well – to get ready for the season and I thought well, what do the poor fans get to do? They have to sit around until April rolls around for the start of the season. So 40 years ago, I just had an idea that why don’t we just do a course, a class (non-credit) just for fun in a college classroom?” recalled Humber.
The course was a tremendous success and it led to Humber having his first article about baseball published in The Globe and Mail in 1979 after Neil Campbell, one of the paper’s writers, attended a class in which Humber spoke about the London Tecumsehs who captured an International Association championship in 1877.
Humber was also instrumental in the formation of the Toronto Hanlan’s Point chapter of SABR and he played a central role in the organization of Toronto’s first SABR Convention in 1981, which represented the first time the conference was held outside of the U.S. Largely due to the success of that convention, Humber became the first – and still only – Canadian to have been appointed to the SABR board of directors. He served on the board in 1982 and 1983.
In 1983, Humber authored, Cheering for the Home Team, the first extensive book on Canadian baseball history. It was published by The Boston Mills Press, a small firm that specialized in railway books, and only 4,000 copies (2,000 hardcopies and 2,000 soft covers) were produced. Both versions sold out.
Over the years, Humber has penned several other groundbreaking Canadian baseball books, including Let’s Play Ball: Inside the Perfect Game (1989), The Baseball Book and Trophy (1993), Diamonds of the North: A Concise History of Baseball in Canada (1995) and All I Thought About was Baseball (with John St. James) (1996).
The Bowmanville, Ont., resident has also done countless presentations about Canadian baseball history across North America and he never misses an opportunity to wave the flag when he’s in the company of his American colleagues.
“For my part, I keep challenging my American friends and I’ll say to them, ‘It’s not just your game. It’s our game too,” said Humber during his induction speech.
It would be difficult to summarize all of Humber’s groundbreaking research. The depth of his work on the roots of baseball in Canada is unmatched and he has introduced fans and fellow historians to fascinating Canadian baseball pioneers like William Shuttleworth and Robert Addy.
Fortunately for Canadians, Humber’s love of baseball has never waned and we can look forward to more of his pioneering efforts in the future.
“Right now, I’m really intrigued by the 4th of June, the Beachville game [in 1838], but I want to go deeper into that rabbit hole, and in fact, I’ve found other accounts of games played on the fourth of June, like one played in Hamilton in 1819,” said Humber, who has just completed an essay on this topic. “To me, that’s an account that validates other accounts. That says this was a common practice to play baseball on the 4th of June. This wasn’t a one-off in 1838.”
Humber also serves as a board member (alongside historians Andrew North, Chip Martin and Bob Barney) for the new Centre for Canadian Baseball Research which will open on the Canadian ball hall grounds next year. This facility will house the most extensive collection of baseball research materials in the country.
“I think it’s going to be great,” said Humber. “It will be a great place to go and start a project and there will be some specialized collections there that they won’t have anywhere else.”
So even after more than four decades, the veteran historian and professor, who’s the director of Eco Initiatives at Seneca College, continues to conduct unprecedented and revolutionary research on Canadian baseball history.
In his moving speech on Saturday that inspired a standing ovation, he lauded Canadian baseball historians that preceded him, like William Bryce and Louis Cauz.
But while their efforts are strong and appreciated, their work has not had the national and international impact that Humber’s has had.
"I salute my fellow inductees Lloyd and Pedro," said Humber from the stage on Saturday. "It’s pretty neat to use their first names as teammates and not be making too big a jump of presumption, because here, whether it’s all of you in the crowd before me, or those of us being honoured, we’re truly baseball equals! All the best and thank you to everyone."
As a baseball writer and fledgling Canadian baseball historian, what an honour it is to be considered a "teammate" of Humber's, but I would respectfully say to him, there's a long way for any of us to go to be his "equal" in the field.