Leaside baseball pioneer honoured

Howard Birnie. Photo by Susan Scandiffio.
Howard Birnie. Photo by Susan Scandiffio.

This makes me very happy. Last month the man whom I always consider to be Mr. Baseball in Leaside – and has been for more than a half-century – Howard Birnie, was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. No one is more worthy to hang in the hall than Howie Birnie. No one.

So, with that wonderful, breaking news on the record, let me step back in time for a little historical context. As some of you may recall, I grew up in a house on the northwest corner of Parkhurst and Donegall, just a short block down our street from Talbot Park. “The park,” as it was known in our household, was the scene of countless adventures and happy memories for my twin brother, Tim, and me. It was as near an idyllic childhood as one can imagine. I’ve written before about Talbot Park – in fact my column last month was about winter weekends spent playing hockey in the park – and I’ve written about baseball in this space, including about Howie Birnie. But entering the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame is heady stuff and warrants its own column!

Howie Birnie batting at Talbot Park. Courtesy the Canadian Baseball Network.
Howie Birnie batting at Talbot Park. Courtesy the Canadian Baseball Network.

Tim and I spent many weekends and weeknights at the ballpark down the street. Sometimes it was to watch the games, but we also played “running bases” with our friends right next to the field where the real game was being played. Or, if we could scrape together 10 cents, we’d hit the snack bar for a Lola. For the uninitiated, a Lola was a packaged block of flavoured ice the size of your average toaster. In the end, no part of our bodies or clothes was untouched by melting Lola – no big deal if it was lemon Lola; grape was a different story.

Hours before game time, Howie Birnie would often park his car on our street, wave to us as we played road hockey, and saunter down to the park. He’d supervise the field-prep, including laying down the white lines, accurately positioning the bases, and even (if I remember correctly) driving the tractor around the infield dragging the wire-meshy-thingy (it’s a technical term) behind him until the basepaths looked pristine. And he often did this every night there was a game.

When the first pitch was thrown, you could find Howie in one of four places: behind the plate umpiring, in the dugout coaching a Leaside team, staffing the snack bar, or sitting in a lawn chair surveying his domain. At some point in the game, Howie would often be the one to walk through the stands and among the spectators watching from the hill, shaking the old coffee pot collecting spare change to support the Leaside Baseball Association. He was (and remains) always smiling, always kind, and always ready to chat.

And his commitment to Leaside baseball was not just for a few years, or even a few decades. No, he started playing and coaching in the 1950s, though he still looks like he could slip into cleats and take to the field. Howie Birnie has been president of the Leaside Baseball Association since 1973 (and still is). No that’s not a typo – since 1973. I was still in Grade 8 at Bessborough Drive School when Howie took over the LBA. I’m now 64! He coached different Leaside teams to seven city championships, one Ontario championship, and one national championship.

But wait, there’s more. For 34 years, Howie was also a highly-regarded umpire, calling balls and strikes in two world championships, three international championships, and six national championships. He even umpired three Pearson Cup games between the Blue Jays and the Expos. But I imagine he enjoyed his countless games behind the plate at his home field, Talbot Park, just as much.

Howie’s induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame is just the latest in a series of well-deserved honours, including his membership in the Leaside Sports Hall of Fame, the Toronto Sport Hall of Honour, and the Ontario Baseball Hall of Fame.

I suspect Howie is uncomfortable with these honours. He’s just been doing what he loves for more than 60 years. And you can bet that when the umpires shout “play ball!” on the two diamonds in Talbot Park in early May, Howie Birnie will be there running the show as he has been for so long. Congrats, Howie, and thanks for more than six decades of service, and counting.

About Terry Fallis 88 Articles
A two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, Terry Fallis grew up in Leaside and is the award-winning writer of nine national bestsellers, all published by McClelland & Stewart. His most recent, A New Season, is now in bookstores. www.terryfallis.com.