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Rob Thomson joins storied history of Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame

The Phillies’ bench coach is headed to St. Marys, Ontario with Ryan Dempster, Jason Bay, and Gord Ash.

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MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball in Canada! You probably thought it was played by men in parkas underhanding snowballs to batters full of seal meat who race to first base, limbs flailing, in a pair of snowshoes.

But, no. Turns out they play it there pretty much how we play it here. And a lot of them play it here, too.

The Canadian National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum! You probably thought it was an ancient castle built into the side of North Twin Peak, guarded by polar bears wearing catchers masks, with a massive PA system on top that plays ballpark melodies to trigger an avalanche in the event of an invasion.

But, no. It turns out it’s a building in St. Marys, Ontario.

In that building are Phillies you recognize, like Roy Halladay and Matt Stairs and Pat Gillick. Joe Carter’s in there, too. You can probably guess why. Pete Rose was nominated in 2003, but he couldn’t get the votes to gain entry. A litany of Expos and Blue Jays line the halls, along with generations of inductees since the first class in 1983.

It’s here because 30 minutes south is Beachville, Ontario, where the first recorded game of baseball in North America was apparently played. Author William Humber tells us in Diamonds of the North that while Upper Canada was in the midst of rebellion in 1837-38, a couple of sporting types rounded up a game of baseball and played a few innings a full year before Abner Doubleday, who didn’t invent baseball, got his act together in Cooperstown.

It is a shining point of pride for the Canadians to be able to brag of baseball’s beginnings, but it is also a dirty, mucky one, as Humber learned while filming a documentary on the subject in 1985:

“When I went to Beachville in 1985 to film a documentary for the CBC, the producer asked me where the field was, exactly, and I said it was probably somewhere around, but let’s just go out to a grassy place and take the shots there. These local kids were watching. They asked what we were doing. We said, ‘We’re filming a documentary about the first baseball game.’ They said, ‘Oh, it’s not here, it’s down there in that farm field.’ There were these rolling fields and farm fences to crawl over and huge muddy patches. I said, ‘Let’s forget about that and do it here.’”

As told to the SABR Pictorial History Committee

Add to that lore that the St. Marys Wood Specialty Company—where in early 1900s you could get 16 different types of hockey sticks and buy a dozen for less than half a dollar—started pumping out baseball bats around the turn of the century. It was quite a shift in production for a factory that made so many hockey sticks that it was given the nickname, “the hockey stick.”

The plant helped baseball survive in the north, weathering a devastating fire, the death of its founder from pneumonia, and the financial craters of the 1930s. They still make 16 different types of hockey sticks, but now they have 27 types of baseball bats, too.

This year, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame adds Sarnia, Ontario native Rob Thomson, the Phillies bench coach, though he is likely more recognized for his time as Joe Girardi’s bench coach in New York. He will enter the Hall alongside Ryan Dempster, Jason Bay, and Gord Ash.

On April 4, 2008, Thomson became the first Canadian MLB manager since 1934, and all it took was Girardi contracting a respiratory infection and handing his bench coach the clip board. The Yankees lost, 13-4. Thomson got to manage the next night’s game as well, a testament to how Girardi considered him within his inner coaching circle, Thomson having used guile and organization skills to coach his way up through the Yankees’ farm system starting in 1990. Thomson was there when the Phillies lost the 2009 World Series, though he likely viewed far more along the lines of the Yankees winning it.

It is a huge achievement for a man whose presence may be at times overlooked, but whose role has been crucial in dugout after dugout. And it’s refreshing to hear that a deserving candidate has entered a hall of fame with very few, if any, visible debates between pompous, under-stimulated baseball writers. Congrats to Rob.