Trailblazing historian Bill Humber set to be inducted into Canadian ball hall
By Kevin Glew
Canadian Baseball Network
A strong argument could be made that without Bill Humber there would be no Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
It’s thanks in large part to his tireless and trailblazing research efforts that many of the stories shared in the St. Marys, Ont.-based shrine have been brought to light. So it’s fitting that Humber will now be honoured permanently in the museum.
The 68-year-old historian will be part of its 2018 induction class, along with former Montreal Expos superstar Pedro Martinez and longtime Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Lloyd Moseby that will be celebrated in a ceremony on Saturday. Humber will become the first historian/academic researcher to be inducted.
“Researching the roots of Canadian baseball, sharing those stories, and celebrating long lost heroes, has been a lifelong passion for me, so to join them in this special place is both an honour and a humbling experience,” said Humber.
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.
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.
“I always liked to think I was a third baseman,” said Humber. “I don’t think I was a very good third baseman, but that was the position I kind of caught on to and it may have been because Steve Demeter played third base for the Maple Leafs and he was a particular favourite of mine.”
And 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 Humber will soon 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 the book 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.
“It’s not a great book and it had lots of mistakes in it, and a lot of the mistakes had to do with the date and the full report of the Beachville game, but it was the first time that I had seen an account of the game in Beachville in 1838,” recalled Humber.
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.
“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.
“The great regret is that they didn’t essentially flood the country with the book because nobody had ever done a book on baseball in Canada before,” said Humber. “So it was a bit of a lost opportunity. I mean, I don’t regret it, but it could’ve been more.”
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. He has served as a strong voice for Canadian baseball history on SABR’s 19th Century Research Committee and was a keynote speaker at the Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Baseball Conference in 2016.
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 unparalleled and he has introduced fans and fellow historians to fascinating Canadian baseball pioneers like William Shuttleworth and Robert Addy. He’s particularly proud of the research he did on the first international baseball game that took place in August 1860 between a team from Hamilton, Ont., and Buffalo, N.Y. He was able to establish that that contest took place in Clifton, which is now known as Niagara Falls, Ont.
Fortunately for Canadians, Humber’s love of baseball has never waned. For more than four decades, the veteran Seneca College professor has conducted unprecedented research on Canadian baseball history and is now widely recognized as Canada’s premier baseball historian.
For his contributions, Humber, who’s the director of Eco Initiatives at Seneca College, was named an honourary Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame inductee in 2004 and is a recipient of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal, which is awarded to Canadians who have made outstanding and exemplary contributions to their communities or to Canada as a whole. He continues to be a regular contributor on baseball matters to radio and TV shows throughout Canada and the U.S.
“I like to think I’ve helped popularize the study of baseball and helped people look back on the history of the game in Canada,” said Humber.
There’s no question that he has, and his permanent plaque at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame will ensure that he’s acknowledged as an important part of that history.