On Tuesday of last week — the day after Labour Day and the final day of summer vacation for school teachers and students — the Town of Stellarton had a significant anniversary, though the media didn’t note the occasion.
I wonder if anyone else even thought about it. First prerequisite, you would have to be old, at least well into your 70s. Second requirement, you would have to be a baseball lifer with a pretty good memory.
Before you start racking your brain needlessly, I’m referring to Sept. 4, 1953. It was the Friday evening of the long weekend. Six and a half decades ago.
The excitement was at the ball field on Stellar Street, across from the rink. It may have been the most eventful sports attraction in the history of the old coal mining town.
It drew what might have been the biggest crowd ever assembled in Stellarton for anything.
If you’re old enough to recall watching the Stellarton Albions in the legendary Halifax and District Baseball League, you’ll remember there were two grandstands at that time. The main one up on the hill on the first base side of the diamond. The other one, a newer one, was behind the visitors’ dugout on the third base side.
By game time that evening, you couldn’t squeeze another person into either location. As well, many fans grabbed whatever seating could be found on the ground between the two grandstands. Others found viewing locations on the slopes out in right field.
How many people were there?
To my knowledge, there was never an official count. But one news source reported that the number of fans may have outnumbered the town’s official population. Another said there were enough spectators to fill both Stellarton Memorial Rink and New Glasgow Stadium.
Let’s just say it was a huge crowd — and a noisy one from the opening pitch to the final out.
I was 15 years old that summer and lucky enough to be in that crowd. I don’t think I missed more than two or three home games that summer. I loved the Albions and I can still picture being in an excellent seat in the bigger grandstand. I must have gotten to the field by mid-afternoon.
Okay, if you don’t yet collect government pensions, you may need a few more details of why so many Pictonians had gathered for the old ball game.
First, remember that in 1953 the Albions were attempting to win their third consecutive championship, a feat no other team achieved — before or after — in what is still regarded as the province’s very best baseball league. Stellarton had already demonstrated their strengths in the two previous seasons.
The Albions were truly a powerhouse in 1951 and ‘52 — just their second and third seasons in the highly-competitive circuit. They had great pitching, great hitting and great leadership.
Things were different in 1953.
Bill Brooks was in his third campaign as coach. He still didn’t know what it was like to not win the league. He had only experienced success.
But in ‘53, weaknesses were showing, especially on the mound. They had to battle in the early weeks without former stars Don Woodlief, Preacher Mustain, Joe Pazdan and Westville’s own Sid Roy.
The Halifax papers had been saying all summer that the Albions didn’t have the talent to win a third championship. They wouldn’t even come close, the reporters were saying.
They forgot Brooks was still in charge.
When things began unfolding, he turned once again to his contacts in the Carolinas. Soon he had new top-line hurlers in Monk Raines, George Carver, Tom Harkey, Vance Long and Ray Nesbit. A brand new staff.
Batters? No problems there. Two-time batting champ Joe Fulgham was still around. Home run-hitting sensation Billy Werber was doing his long-distance antics. Kent (Baby) Rogers was still a gem at second base, as was Stellarton native Harry Reekie in the outfield. Add guys like Jack Turney, Cecil Heath, Ed Morris and Bob Stewart and things weren’t as bad as reported in the media.
For the first half of the 60-game schedule, the writers looked like they knew the script. The Albions were where they had never been — in last place.
So what happened? After the new arrivals, they went on a tear, winding up in the fourth and final playoff berth. Their record was only 27-33.
At playoff time, they had to face the powerful first-place Liverpool Larrupers in the semi-finals. Liverpool was being compared to the ‘51 Albions.
The ‘53 Albions, nonetheless, shocked the South Shore club, with 3,600 people watching the final game in Stellarton.
Opponents in the best-of-seven finals were the second-place Kentville Wildcats. The Albions won three of the first four games, setting the stage for that memorable fifth contest.
Nobody was going to spoil Stellarton’s party.
The Albions won 5-4, the deciding run coming in the seventh inning by Werber, the guy who once slammed a mighty home run ball to the very top of the roof of Sharon St. John United Church across Acadia Avenue.
The crowd went wild and the Albions made history.
They became the only club to win three straight titles, a feat never matched before the league folded six years later.
Since that Friday night 65 years ago, I’ve witnessed a lot of Nova Scotia sports teams achieving big things – from baseball’s Stellarton Keiths to Halifax Pelham Electric and Dartmouth Moosehead Dry; from hockey’s New Glasgow Rangers to the Nova Scotia Voyageurs and Halifax Mooseheads; from softball’s Trenton Scotias to Brookfield Elks.
Maybe it’s because I was so young, but none of those championship teams thrilled me more than the 1951-52-53 Albions.
One final achievement in the Stellarton story: In 1980, those Albions were among the very first teams inducted into the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame.