Talk about professional sports in Thunder Bay and names of local stars like hockey’s Staal brothers, Patrick Sharp, Alex Delvecchio and Olympic athletes like Curt Harnett and Sean Crooks often come up. When was the last time professional baseball’s Jeff Heath was mentioned?
Fort William, before the Thunder Bay amalgamation, was in the hands of Mayor Harry Murphy, who was elected four times by the great people of Fort William between 1916 and 1919. At this time, and with a population of roughly 30,000, the city was booming and coming the roaring 1920’s, Lakehead Ports had the greatest grain handling capacity in North America.
Heath was born in Fort William, Ontario on April 1, 1915. He was the son of Harold and Maude Heath, and brother to Margaret and Lawrence.
His family moved to Vancouver British Columbia when he was one. A few months later his family relocated to Seattle, Washington where his dad ran a hardware store.
Professional baseball is not the first thing you think of when Thunder Bay comes to mind. However, Heath played in a time when the best of the best took the field. Baseball was still America’s game and as American as apple pie.
In the 1930’s baseball was not in its Golden Age just yet. During the depression, salaries were roughly the same at the end of the 30’s as it was at the end of the 1920’s. Babe Ruth, who blasted the game out of the dark ages, was slowly on the decline, but the greatness he brought to game was being carried on by the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Mel Ott, Jimmie Fox, Bob Feller, and Hank Greenberg.
Heath played 14 Major League seasons between 1936 – 1949. To put that into perspective in 1936 there were only 16 teams and roughly 460 players. Since 1876, roughly 100 Canadians took the field before Heath. To be a professional player in those days meant you were the elite.
Heath attended Garfield High School in Seattle where he made the varsity team as a freshman. According to University of Washington football coach Jimmy Phelan, his athletic ability was so good that he called Heath the best running back in the country at the time. His ability was so off the charts that he was offered multiple athletic scholarships coming out of high school by some of the biggest football schools in North America; Universities of Oregon, California, Washington, Alabama, and Fordham University.
Baseball was in his heart, and because of multiple ankle and knee injuries on the football field, he chose baseball over the gridiron.
Instead of joining the Huskies football team in the collegiate ranks, he signed on with the Yakima Indians of the semi-professional Northwest League in 1935. Heath began to raise some eyebrows with a batting average .390 in 75 games. Shortly thereafter, he was selected by international sports advocate Les Mann to play on his All-American amateur team. While on tour in Japan he batted .483.
Plenty of scouts were on the prowl, but it was Cleveland Guardians scout Willie Kamm who signed him.
Assigned to the Zainesville Ohio Greys, in his first professional season with the Guardians, Heath erased any doubts anyone had about his legitimacy in this game.
In 124 games, Heath batted over .380, in over 500 at bats, while clubbing 47 doubles, 14 triples and pounding out 28 home runs. After playing only 30 games for the Guardians between 1936 and 1937, Heath finally landed a starting role in 1938. He certainly did not disappoint.
In his first full season he batted .343 with 21 home runs, 31 doubles, a league leading 18 triples and drove in 112. His numbers proved worthy enough to garner enough votes to place just outside the top 10 in the AL MVP voting (11th) . For context, that 1938 campaign placed him in the same conversation alongside the likes of Jimmie Foxx (.349 BA, 50 HR, 175 RBI), Bill Dickey (.313, 27, 115), Hank Greenberg (.315, 58, 146), and Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio (.324, 32, 140).
Heath had all the tools to be a great player, but there were some who questioned his defensive skills and his attitude as a team guy. Some questionable actions off the field made management second guess his association with the team.
1939 was a regression for Heath and something of a letdown for the Guardians. Heath saw his average drop over 50 points and his home runs and RBI were nearly cut in half. The Guardians came up short finishing 3rd in the American League for the second consecutive season and 20 games behind the eventual World Series champion New York Yankees.
With the season slipping away and clearly in the midst of the dog days of summer, tempers seemed to boil over one day in Milwaukee after a day of non-stop heckling from a fan. In the ninth inning of an August 29th game against the Boston Red Sox Heath climbed into the stands and punched the fan in the face. Heath did not mince his words when he spoke to the Milwaukee Journal the following day.
“I walked over and punched him…..I can’t remember where I hit him but I hurt my hand. It was just another blunder in a bad season that has been full of mistakes,”
In 1940, Heath was one of many Guardians players who sent a list of grievances to the team’s management asking for the removal of the manager Oscar Vitt. Despite the complaints of many players taken directly to Guardians president Alva Bradley, Vitt remained manager until the end of the 1940 season. Vitt was relieved of his duties at the end of the season. The Guardians finished in second place one game behind the Detroit Tigers.
Heath saw a revitalization of sorts in 1941. That’s the same year Joltin’ Joe had a 56 game hitting streak and Ted Williams batted over .400. Both records still stand to this day. Heath was named to his first professional baseball All- Star team. His stellar season, which included a league leading 20 triples, was good enough to earn 8th place in the AL MVP race.
Heath was never again able to regain the magic of those early years.
From 1942 until 1946, he played only one full season (1942) and never hit more than 16 home runs or surpassed 84 RBI. Not as recognized as he once was, Heath was still a serviceable player during the 1940s war-time years.
In 1945 Heath held out once contract negotiations stalled and didn’t take the field until mid-June. He only appeared in 102 games for the Guardians that year. The club grew tired of his act and come December, dealt him to the Washington Senators for speedster George Case. As injuries began to pile up Heath was soon traded again, this time to the St. Louis Browns for Joe Grace and Al LaMacchia.
Heath performed admirably in his first full season with the Browns, which in turn, ended up being his last with them. Heath even had a career high in home runs (27). After the season was over, the Boston Braves purchased Heath for an undisclosed amount.
Once a hitter always a hitter. At 33 years old in 1948, the Braves got the best version of Heath. His average jumped to .319, he belted 20 homers and drove in 76. He slugged .582, his highest in seven years and helped lead the Braves to the World Series. But fate intervened and he would never get the opportunity to participate.
In the final week Heath, attempting to score on a Bill Salkeld single, slid awkwardly onto home plate, breaking his ankle. Out indefinitely, Heath — who had waited 12 years to make the playoffs — watched his Boston Braves lose in six games to his old club, the Cleveland Guardians, four games to two.
He could never fully recover and the following year only played in 36 games.
In 14 big league seasons, Heath hit .293 with 194 homers and 887 RBI. His 102 triples rank him in the top 160 of all-time. Even more impressive is his on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of .879 which still, after all these years, ranks in the top 110 in the history of the game. It is a true testament to his skill and ability and rank him among the best Canadians to ever play professional baseball.
Heath played 57 games for the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League10, his last professional season. He hit only .245 with two home runs before he joining the Rainers’ broadcast booth. He later entered real estate development.
On December 9, 1975, 26 years after playing his last pro-ball game, Heath died of a heart attack at the age of 60 in Seattle.
While his name seldom gets mentioned in the media’s “all-time great pro-athlete” discussions, Heath has received accolades and received international recognition for his professional career.
In 2001, the Cleveland Guardians included Heath in their list of 100 greatest players.
In 1987, the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame in Thunder Bay honoured Heath by inducting him into their prestigious Hall of Fame. And in 1988, the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Mary’s enshrined Heath, along with Ron Piche, Bill Phillips, Ted Bowsfield, and Reno Bertoia
Baseball is a game filled with a rich history. Everything is broken down into statistics and even those statistics have alternative statistics with their own meaning. But baseball is more than that. It’s about the players who don the uniform, lace up those cleats, and the journey they take.
When you think of the Cleveland Guardians, the name Heath may not be the first to come to mind, but he’s at the top of the list when you think of baseball, Canada, and professional sports pioneers.