History: A look back at NB’s long-forgotten National League baseball team

History: A look back at NB’s long-forgotten National League baseball team

With the Blue Jays making it to the World Series for the first time in 22 years, baseball — a game that seldom dominates the world of Canadian sports — has been on the minds of many, if not most in the country. That’s why The Manatee has decided to take a look back at the short run of New Brunswick’s oft-forgotten first and only National League baseball team.

Saint John — The year was 1903, Pope Pius X succeeded Pope Leo XIII as the 257th pope; the first transatlantic radio broadcast was made from the United States to England; and to the delight and amazement of crowds in Coney Island, N.Y., Thomas Edison demonstrated the wonders of modern science by electrocuting a baby elephant.

In Southern New Brunswick — in areas largely centred just outside Saint John — the Higgins & Mortimer Company was running one of the most profitable asbestos mining operations in the country. So much asbestos was being pulled from the ground at that time many referred to it as “the great itchy gold rush of 1903.”

However, despite Higgins & Mortimer Co.’s success, much of their profits were not being passed on to their workers and conditions in the mines were considered deplorable.

“With public opinion of the company becoming increasingly negative, and rumours that their workers were starting talk of forming a union, owners Samuel Q. Higgins and Joseph Hewett Mortimer were desperate to find an inexpensive way to both improve the company’s public image and strengthen employee morale without having to change their business practices whatsoever,” said historian David Morris.

“So in the spring of 1903 Higgins and Mortimer formed The Maritime Buccaneers, Saint John’s first competitive baseball team.”

The effort proved to be an overwhelming success. Getting their start in the Atlantic minors, The Maritime Buccaneers played teams as far east as Moncton and as far west as Woodstock. “Most people in the those days never travelled more than 2 miles from their homes,” said Morris. “So it was it very exciting for both the players and the crowds to see peoples from such faraway lands.”

Moreover, though it was only their first season in the league, the team proved practically unbeatable.

“The players of course were mostly Higgins & Mortimer Co. asbestos miners and when they weren’t in the mines or coughing uncontrollably most of the workers spent their leisure hours practising baseball,” said Morris. “So despite having no prior experience in a league, in many ways they were already seasoned players.”

Indeed to the astonishment of everyone in the region, the team lost only 2 exhibition games and went home Atlantic champions after defeating the Moncton Mud Schooners in a 4-0 final series blow-out.

“There was a huge amount of talent on that team,” said Morris. “Basil Quincy, Otis Hornbeller,  Clancy Washington. But among the best was pitcher Tad T. Schushler, first basemen Mordecai Brigsby, shortstop Booker Hobart and outfielder Curly Delbert Cleveland. However, the player that really came to take the spotlight was heavy-hitter Frankie ‘Mitts’ Gordon.”

Astonishingly, Gordon hit a whopping 48 home-runs in his first season as a competitive ball player.

The nickname “Mitts,” Morris explained, was said to come from Gordon’s unusual habit of wearing gloves outdoors when temperatures were exceedingly cold. “It was a very odd thing for a man to do back then,” he said. And despite his undisputable record for being the best hitter in the league, he also had a reputation for being a bit of a prima donna. “It was rumoured that Gordon would bathe obsessively,” added Morris. “Some said as much as 2 times a month.”

News of the miracle team from the bustling Port City soon spread throughout the county and eventually caught the ear of then president of the National League, Harry Pulliam. Pulliam was already looking to expand the league into Canada and when he heard about the Buccaneers and their near flawless season, it’s said he took a carriage out of New York to Saint John the very next day.

When Pulliam arrived in Saint John 2 months later, he met with Higgins and Mortimer and the 3 quickly came to an agreement: the Maritime Buccaneers would be accepted into the National League provided a regulation-sized stadium could be constructed.

The billionaire business partners wasted little time and were able to successfully lobby the city to cover the cost of the stadium in exchange for reasonably priced asbestos. On Christmas Day, 1903 work began on the massive building project and in 4 short months the stadium was completed with only 87 casualties during its construction.

On 2 May, 1904 The Maritime Buccaneers played their first National League game against the Boston Beaneaters to a capacity crowd at the newly built Higgins & Mortimer Co. Asbestos Dome in Saint John. And for the first time in Canadian history, baseball became talk of the land.

“Aside from the horse flu pandemic and the great Ottawa air-balloon disaster, there was little else Canadians were talking about than National League baseball and the exploits of the Maritime Buccaneers therein,” said Morris. “The team even began to catch the attention of Americans.”

Following a 12:3 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, where Frankie “Mitts” Gordon hit 7 home-runs, a New York Times columnist said of the star player: “For a member of the Lutheran church, this 5’4″ giant of the British King’s northern colony has got a lot of moxie.”

Although the Buccaneers didn’t go on to the playoffs that year, they came very close, finishing just 5th in the league. “For a team so new to professional baseball it was an incredible feat,” said Morris.

However, as quickly as the Buccaneers’ fortunes rose, tragedy after tragedy befell the team in the spring of 1905 and the franchise would never recover. First, several players fell ill with bloody mouth and eyes disease and star pitcher Tad T. Schushler lost 8 fingers in a horribly botched whale hunt — after which he was never able to pitch the same again. Then Booker Hobart and Curly Delbert Cleveland were crushed beneath several tonnes of asbestos following a massive mine explosion and assumed to be dead. Finally, and most devastating of all, was the loss of Frankie “Mitts” Gordon in a farming accident.

“Details were vague,” said Morris. “But consensus at the time was that Gordon had died as a result of complications stemming from several mule-related injuries.”

Although the Buccaneers went on to play that year, it was a sad and short-lived affair. Crowds dwindled as the team suffered loss after loss; making matters worse, owners Higgins and Mortimer were no longer willing to adequately fund the organization due to falling asbestos prices in an increasingly saturated market.

“The Buccaneers couldn’t even afford to lose a ball anymore,” said Morris. “If one was hit into the stands, players would plead with the crowd to throw it back. Sadly one such incident was ultimately the cause for team’s untimely demise.”

“On June 2nd, 1905, during a home game against the Chicago Cubs, a ball was knocked into the stands and the man who caught it refused to throw it back,” continued Morris. “So frustrated was the fingerless pitcher Schushler that he climbed into the stands and attempted to get the ball back by force. A brawl ensued and one angry fan removed his shoe and bludgeoned Schushler to death with a wood-heeled loafer.”

Shortly after the tragic incident Higgins and Morris, fed up with the failing team, attempted to sell the franchise but couldn’t find any buyers. The organization was declared bankrupt and the Buccaneers never played another game.

And so was the end of a very short-lived era. Canadians were now so disgusted with baseball it wouldn’t be until 1969, with the formation of the Montreal Expos, that the country could stomach the sport again.

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