From an unpublished memoir about counterculture baseball in Vancouver during the 1970s.
In 1970 I got a job writing a column for the Georgia Straight, the underground weekly paper in Vancouver. The column was called Let It Breed, and I was called Engledink Birdhumper. My boss and friend Dan McLeod thought it up, so what was a poor boy to do? The pay was fifty dollars a week and a free room at the Georgia Straight house.
It was a great job despite the goatherd’s stipend. All I had to do was roam around town picking up gossip and news about local hippie- underground culture. I had a free hand and people knew who I was. The perks included lots of free tickets, invitations to gallery openings and parties and, best of all, free beers at the Cecil, the Alcazar and other bars of distinction where poets and painters hung out.
Spring came in early that year, seeming to declare a long season of sun and uplifting warmth. One of my regular stops in the gossip- wandering routine was an afternoon cup of coffee at Glen Toppings’s place under the Granville Street Bridge. Glen was an artist who worked with fibreglass and died much too young from working and living unprotected in a toxic environment and smoking about a dozen too many Gauloises every day. Another regular drop-by was George Bowering, who even then was known as one of Canada’s most famous baseball enthusiasts. Glen had played competitive fastball in loggers’ leagues during the years he worked in the bush, and I had a love for the game despite my rotten ball career when I was a kid.
And daily the sun appeared, warm and embracing, until George could stand it no longer and showed up one day with a ball and glove. “Look, there’s an island with some grass at the top of the street. Why don’t we go up there and throw the ball around?” In a flash, Glen dug out his old first baseman’s trapper, and I offered up my bare hands.
Minutes later we were up on the island amid light traffic, tossing the ball around with sun warming our souls—the perfect thing to do on a spring afternoon. After half an hour or so, our arms finally refused to do our bidding and our breathing hinted at darker things, and we threw ourselves to the grass, lit our various nicotine devices and gazed at the sky while George declared, “Now that’s it! That’s spring. That is spring training!”
Little did anyone know that the Kosmic League was being born at that moment.
For the next week or so, the three of us spent every day up on the island throwing the ball around and yakking away, oblivious to all else as the sun beat down on us. Our arms got stronger, our throws became harder and snappier, we were actually bending over and gobbling up grounders. I had bought a glove, and to my surprise I made it work with reasonable efficiency and my ball playing seemed less dismal than I had remembered.
One early evening after a glorious day, I went to Glen’s studio (by now named the Granville Grange by George, who nicknamed everything) to meet them for a beer before heading down to the Cecil Hotel for a full evening of drinking and talk, and George burst in with a wild look in his eye. “Hey guys, I just saw a bunch of freaks up at McBride Park at 4th and Collingwood practising ball. They want to play a game with us! They already got a name—Flex Morgan and the Mock Heroics. And they got four rules: no spikes, no uniforms, nine innings and only fun is allowed. Whaddya think?”
“We don’t have a team, George. That’s what.”
“Dah! Not a problem. I know lots of guys that’ll play.”
“Can they play ball?”
“Can we? Don’t matter. C’mon, let’s go. We can talk about it at the bar.”
In a couple of hours, under the beer-like light of the Cecil, a team was concocted. With a Rolodex memory of the poets and artists of Canada, George, assisted by Glen, pulled up name after name. We’d talk about each one, and George or Glen would go off and make a phone call and invariably come back with a happy smile. Another sucker.
We put together a pretty illustrious team. Glen Toppings, artist, would play first base; I, scribbler, would play second; George Bowering, well-known poet (later to be named poet laureate of Canada), at shortstop; Lionel Kearns, poet who once played beisball with Fidel Castro, at third base. Gordon Payne, artist, would be our starting pitcher, and Brian Fisher, artist, formed the other end of the battery. In the outfield Dennis “Dazzy” Vance, artist, was stationed in left and later became our starting chucker, Gary Lee-Nova, artist, was to patrol centre, and his brother-factotum Gerry Nairn became the right fielder.
We had a team! Out came the nicotine devices, in came another round of beer. We yakked away excitedly, making half-assed plans and laughing like Buddhist baseball saints atop a wobbly rock.
“Well,” said Glen, “what are we going to call ourselves?”
In the time it takes a synapse to synapse, I said, “The Granville Grange Zephyrs!”
We had a team, a name and a season of baseball ahead of us.
Because every school in the city has a baseball diamond in the playground, we quickly found our own home park, Connaught Park at 12 th and Vine in Kitsilano, renamed Cricket Chatter Park by Bowering because some cricket players practised there, and that is where we had our first and only practice. To say we were godawful does a disservice to the words God and awful. But Glen, Gordon and George, who had played some baseball, instructed us in the intricacies of the game—e.g., when it came to hitting, we should swing the bat. We had an infield practice. The outfielders threw long balls to each other. Gordon and Brian “Cat” Fisher worked at pitching and catching. We ran around a bit. And then it was off to the Cecil.
It is forty years since the Granville Grange Zephyrs fielded McBride Park to play the first of many games with Flex Morgan and the Mock Heroics. Who won that game? I don’t remember. Who cares? What I do remember is a lovely late April evening descending on the park, and us watching the Flexers tumble out of two decrepit cars and a pickup truck, a happy crew full of laughter, a case of beer slipped discreetly into their dugout. We made our introductions: Byron Nelson, Kelly Kiley, Alexi Humballski, Murray the K, Cousin Brucie—names that would become famous in the Kosmic League in the seasons to come. Cousin Brucie offered himself up as umpire and cried out, “Okay, let’s play ball!”
Whatever we played that evening, it probably wasn’t baseball. There were so many errors, wildly swung bats, bone-headed plays, flat-out slapstick moments that the real feat was to get in nine innings before darkness fell. What was played out in that inaugural Kosmic League game was “play” itself. We were a bunch of young guys with no real athletic talent but a residue of heroic baseball imagery in our minds, and the Kosmic League gave us the blessed opportunity to play out these images with abandon. Another skin of boyhood and adolescence shifting away. When the game ended, we roared off to the Cecil for huge quantities of beer and laughter and a glow of good feeling until closing time.
Over the next week, Flex and the Zephyrs began to get phone calls. “Do you want to play a game?” “Do you want to play a game?” We weren’t the only ones who were ready to play ball, have some fun and celebrate over a few beers.
Vancouver was a vibrant city, rent was cheap, we could live on Trudeau’s make-work grants, the weather was glorious, people wanted to be outdoors. Spring grew into summer and the league grew quietly as a summertime companion. In the early evening, in Kitsilano and nearby neighbourhoods, the ball parks filled with happy, crazily dressed hippie- folkie types, members of teams with names like Moose Valley Farms, the Friendly Club and Eight & A Juice, hacking away at a baseball, with a case of beer tucked away and a joint never too far from hand. Residents out for an evening stroll would stop and watch the fun, and a small fan base grew up.
Bit by bit, game by game, our skills improved. I was a singles hitter because I couldn’t run fast enough to make them into doubles. Dwight Gardiner, poet, showed up in mid-season to take over centre field and he was our long-ball hitter. Rick Gomez, artist, took over from Lionel Kearns at third base. George and I became a hotshot double-play duo. Once we even executed a triple play—rare even in the major leagues. We were playing Moose Valley, I think, and there was a man on third and a man on first, no one out. The ball flew out to George and he snapped it over to me. One down. I zipped the ball over to Glen. Two down. Glen casually tossed the ball to our pitcher, Dazzy Vance. Suddenly the guy at third made a dash for home plate. We all saw it and yelled at Dazzy, who woke up and pegged the ball to Cat Fisher, and we nailed him! Triple play. From Bowering to Birdhumper to Toppings to Vance to Fisher—it was my greatest Kosmic League high.
By the end of the season—glorious season!— there were about sixteen teams in the league. We played them all, and from the start, throughout the summer and to the end of the spectacular Kosmic League First World Serious, there was never an instant of antagonism or conflict. Without anybody planning it, we’d fashioned a spirit of revolutionary non-competitiveness —which is quite an idea when you think about it.