Donkey baseball was popular in mid-20th century

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Donkey baseball was a popular attraction at civic gatherings a half century and more ago in the towns and villages of Wellington County.

It has been mentioned several times in this column over the years.

Though the idea is probably much older, donkey baseball achieved popularity in the Depression years of the 1930s. There were several variants to the game, but in its most common version, two teams played baseball with all players except the pitcher, catcher, and batter mounted on donkeys. When the batter made a hit, he had to mount a live donkey and make his way around the bases. Or at least try to. The promoters liked to have donkeys with minds of their own.

Several entrepreneurs set up businesses that toured the country in the 1930s, with a truckload of trained donkeys, staging games for a fee. Service clubs, churches and civic groups would hire the companies and offer the public a chance to see local notables attempt to play baseball mounted on the quadrupeds. The profits from the show would go to their charitable and civic projects.

Typically, the game would be a contest between the members of a service club or a church group against a sports team or another civic group. Invariably, the players were well known in the community, and often some of its leaders. The public found great amusement in watching the players’ inept attempts to guide the donkeys. They were often tossed head over heels to the ground, or otherwise outsmarted by their stubborn mounts.

A batter, on making a hit, had to jump on his mount and head to first base. Members of the opposing team, in rare cases, might catch a fly ball while mounted. Much more often, they needed to dismount and pick up the ball from the ground, while holding on to the reins of their donkey.

Players frequently sustained scrapes and bruises, and occasionally more serious injuries. The operator required that participants be over 18, and they were required to sign a release absolving the touring company of any responsibility in the event of a major mishap.

Organizers of Victoria Day, Dominion Day and fall fair activities often included a donkey baseball game as one of the feature attractions. In the 1930s the games were frequently lengthy, sometimes running to 13 innings, but in later years a six-inning match became more common, taking perhaps 90 minutes, with another attraction at half time.

A good example of a successful game of donkey baseball took place in Elora on the evening of July 22, 1950, a Saturday. It was a fundraiser for the Elora Lions Club, which had been chartered only a couple of years before, and whose members were bubbling with energy and enthusiasm. The first game of donkey baseball in Elora since before the Second World War, it attracted much interest, even with a 50-cent admission, a rather high price for that time.

The game was billed as a match between the Lions Club and a select group of farmers from the area. Saturday was then the traditional night for farmers to come to town to shop. That helped ensure a good crowd.

There was much advance promotion, and a parade up the main street preceded the match. The game, with the independent-minded and uncooperative donkeys, was a slow one.

Umpires for the game were Bill Duncan and Art Badley, both of whom were prominent as council members and managers with the J.C. Mundell Company. They were dressed, incongruously, in evening clothes, and Badley emphasized his authority by brandishing a shotgun.

The Lions collected almost 1,200 admissions. Even though many of them were half-price children’s tickets, the event provided a gratifying surplus for the various civic projects of the club.

The Lions team added to the fun by dressing in women’s clothing, some ragged, and some fancy evening dress. Dick Oakes, the Lions’ pitcher, stood out, resplendent in black velvet. The farmers also dressed for the game, most arriving as hillbillies and hicks. Corley Drimmie donned a cowboy outfit. For most of the game it was not clear whether he was playing for the Lions or the farmers.

The match delighted the crowd. The Lions had worked out some stunts in advance to add to the fun, and had a few tricks to outsmart the farmers. Lion Jim Fasken spent much of the game keeping an infant donkey out of the way of the players.

The attempts of the Lions to tilt the game in their favour were unsuccessful, because the farmers showed that they knew how to handle the donkeys. The Lions lost the game 2-1, despite some agile pitching and footwork by pitcher Dick Oakes. Managers of the company owning the donkeys kept things interesting by changing the rules as the game progressed. In the end, the rules became so complicated that the match descended into mayhem.

Despite the success of that game, it appears that the Elora Lions did not repeat it in later years. The Lions may have concluded that promotional efforts and volunteer time were better directed to other activities. Scheduling a travelling donkey entourage may also have been a problem after 1950.

Games of donkey baseball continued to be played locally through the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in smaller places where the crowds knew most of the players personally. But tastes were changing and many people found the kind of humour brought out by donkey baseball to be inane and hokey.

In later years donkey baseball games were played from time to time in Drayton and other centres in the north of Wellington. Those games, though, were much less frequent than they had been in the 1930s and 1940s. Another factor may have been the cost: it was becoming increasingly expensive to care for and transport a truckload of donkeys with their handlers.

It appears that donkey baseball, and its indoor cousin, donkey basketball, continued to enjoy more popularity in the midwestern United States than in Canada.

Nevertheless, games are still played on the Canadian prairies and in the Maritimes, usually in connection with fall fairs. This past summer I noticed a donkey baseball game advertised northwest of Wellington County, in Lucknow, as I recall.

Dwindling demand, rising costs and the potential of lawsuits due to injuries are not the only challenges facing the travelling donkey entourages. Animal rights advocates have, for the past 20 years or so, targeted donkey baseball as a cruel activity. A few months ago the militant PETA group specially targeted donkey baseball and donkey basketball, with the intent of consigning both activities to the history books. The activities of that organization have caused outrage among promoters of donkey baseball, who claim that the game is a far greater hazard to the human players than to the donkeys.

Today, it is likely that far more people have seen the game played in an old 1930s documentary film than live on a baseball diamond. That film can be seen from time to time on one of the American cable networks, and it still has the ability to elicit laughter, especially from older viewers. Many younger people, no doubt, roll their eyes before switching to another channel.

Time will tell whether donkey baseball will survive the various challenges to its existence, and whether there will be more games played in Wellington County.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Nov. 26, 2010.

Thorning Revisited