Mr. Hockey at the Bat
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
“I played against him, of course, but one day in the summer, we were playing golf in Halifax. We were the first ones out, just after dawn, nice course, no practice balls, just get up and hit it. He shoots 68. And [former Major League manager] Lou Boudreau told me in Chicago he watched Gordie hit baseballs in Tiger Stadium and tried to sign him to a contract with the [Cleveland] Indians. “So I said: ‘Gordie, you’re the greatest hockey player of all time, you just shot 68 and you could have played major league baseball. It doesn’t seem fair.’ He said, ‘You should see me bowl.”