George Sleeman, the Guelph Maple Leafs and the Americanization of Canadian baseball

Guelph Maple Leafs

As one of the first Canadian baseball presidents to hire American players, George Sleeman was credited (…or discredited) as being responsible for the Americanization of the Canadian game.

In 1999, George Sleeman was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in recognition of his contributions to Canadian baseball. His accomplishments included forming the first professional Canadian baseball league in 1876 and helping establish the International Association (the first serious rival to the National League). He was dubbed the father of professional Canadian baseball. He was also credited for the Americanization of the Canadian game.

In addition to being a successful businessman, Sleeman was a player and great lover of baseball, and a booster for Guelph. He believed baseball was the perfect conduit for putting Guelph on the map. (And, as a brilliant marketer, he saw it as a great opportunity to make a name for his brewery). Sleeman recognized the best way to accomplish all of this was to have a winning team. The local ball club, the Guelph Maple Leafs, had to win as many competitions as possible.

After becoming a leading ball club in Canada during the early 1870s, the Guelph Maple Leafs hosted an exhibition game against the Boston Red Stockings, who were the National Association champions at the time. The Red Stockings soundly defeated the Maple Leafs, and it became clear to Sleeman that while the Maple Leafs were a leading club in Canada, the team was not as competitive on the North American stage. Although he sincerely believed that baseball was the game of destiny for Canada, Sleeman ironically went on to hire a number of professional players from the United States in an effort create a North American winning team. His strategy seemed to work (…momentarily) as his club went on to win the semiprofessional baseball championship in Watertown, NY in 1874.

By the late 1870s, the majority of Sleeman’s club was filled with American professionals. In 1876, Sleeman’s decision to hire U.S. players  had caught on across Canadian baseball. That year, the London Tecumsehs (with a team consisting of a few newly acquired American players) defeated the Guelph Maple Leafs becoming the new dominant Canadian club. Whether seen as brilliant, winning strategy or unpatriotic conduct, that is how George Sleeman was responsible for the Americanization of the Canadian game.

For more information about this and other interesting stories, visit Sports Guelph Played at Guelph Civic Museum until April 17, 2016. This exhibition explores the rich sporting history of Guelph, from famous teams and players to the occasional scandal. With so many stories to be told, Guelph Museums invites you to share your sports stories using #GuelphStories.

Posted by Dawn Owen on December 1, 2015

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