The 1951 Sakatoon 55s. Gordie Howe is in the front row, far right. Photo via At The Plate

Amidst all the stories about Gordie Howe the hockey player that were shared today, following his death at age 88, I was pleased to see some mention of Gordie Howe the baseball player. Howe began his career with the Detroit Red Wings on October 16, 1946, scoring the first of his 801 career goals in his first NHL game. But Howe also enjoyed baseball, and spent his summers from 1947–1953 playing semi-pro ball in Saskatchewan.

1947–50: Saskatoon Legion, Saskatoon & District League
1951: Saskatoon 55s, Northern Saskatchewan League
1952–53: Saskatoon Gems, Saskatchewan League

Howe was not the only hockey player hitting the diamond during the summer. Many NHLers played baseball in western Canada during the offseason. Emile Francis, Bert Olmstead, Doug Bentley and Max Bentley are all members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and all of them played on baseball teams in Saskatchewan.

The 1949 Delisle Commodores. Back row (left to right): Bill Orchard, Max Bentley, Lloyd Mitchell, Bert Olmstead, Murray Coben, Bev Bentley, Jackie Woods, George Orchard. Front row : Emile Francis, John Maroniuk, Doug Bentley, Dick Butler, Roy Bentley, Reg Bentley. Photo via At The Plate

Howe played first base and outfield. Sadly, At The Plate only shows his stats for one season, 1950. The numbers aren’t great. 9 hits and 7 runs in 56 at-bats, for an average of .156. It also shows Howe pitching in 2 games, though there aren’t any other numbers attached. He certainly wasn’t as good as some of his NHL colleagues. Max and Doug Bentley were notoriously good athletes. Max batted .459 in 1948, for example, winning the batting championship in the Saskatoon and District League (he also led the league with 34 hits). But At The Plate is filled with game reports that showed Howe could play, and by all accounts he could mash the ball. In Gordie: A Hockey Legend, there’s a story about Howe hitting the longest homerun in the history of Cairns Field in Saskatoon. Howe hit the ball out of the park, and it then landed on a moving flatcar behind the right field fence. The ball kept moving until it reached the town of Unity, eighty miles west.

Following the 1953 season, Howe focused solely on hockey. Jack Adams and the Red Wings didn’t want him to get injured, and told him he could no longer play baseball. Howe would occasionally take batting practice with the Detroit Tigers, and became friends with Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline. Lou Boudreau of the Cleveland Indians was so impressed with Howe’s hitting that he tried to sign him to a contract.

Howe enjoying battle practice in a Detroit Tigers uniform

Last year, I had the privilege of interviewing Des O’Connor, who played in the Alberta Big Four Intercity League from 1946–1950. I had been introduced to Des by Keith Spencer and his son Christopher, husband of my good friend Karen Unland. Christopher had told me that Des played an exhibition game at Renfrew Park against Howe while a member of the Edmonton Oilers baseball team in 1951, so during the interview I asked Des about Howe. Des then told me a story about how good Howe was, not at baseball or hockey, but at driving a golf ball. Here is the transcript:

A — Christopher tells me you played against Gordie Howe.

D — Yeah. Or Gordie Howe played against me. Does that sound better?

A — (laughing) Yes, yes it does.

D — Gordie Howe was out golfing all day. Then he came down and [Henry] Martell gave a little demonstration out in the field. Hitting the ball. Guys would stand there, and he’d hit right in the pocket!

A — Oh, wow.

D — Well, it was just with an 8 iron or something like that. He could put in your hip pocket, if he wanted to! And he put on a little demonstration, and then he got up and drove a couple out of the ballpark. Gordie’s standing there, “I can do that! Give me that.” So he got the club and ZOOM. Now, it wasn’t quite as smooth, but it was just as powerful.

Howe signs autographs on a Saskatoon golf course in 1965. Photo via Saskatoon Library

The Oilers and 55s played a weekend series July 27–29, 1951, with the 55s taking two of three games. Henry Martell did indeed give a golfing demonstration as part of “Booster Night” on the Friday night. Howe won a long distance throwing competition that was also held that night. For the weekend series, Howe had 5 hits, 6 runs, and 4 RBI in 14 at-bats (Des stole the show in the Saturday game, going 4 for 4 with 2 walks, 1 run and a RBI in 6 at-bats).

Edmonton Journal, July 28,1951

A Cam Cole story in the National Post from 2013 confirms that Howe could do it all. The following is a quote from Dennis Hull, brother of Bobby and uncle to Brett:

King of Nightlandia

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