Vancouver’s Favourite Umpire
BC Black pioneer was lumberworker, athlete, soldier, storyteller and Hall of Famer
Researched and written by Donna Sacuta
On September 2, 1965, 75-year old Abe Mortimer bellowed “Pla-a-a-y B-a-a-w-w-l” before an audience of more than 2,500 at Capilano Stadium in Vancouver to kick off a two-inning Old-Timers’ baseball game. Abe had broken his leg in three places the previous December and was not working as many games as he used to. The Master of Ceremonies was none other than Nat Bailey whose name graces the stadium to this day. The crowd roared their approval as Abe’s famous voice echoed off the grandstands in Little Mountain Park.
The life of Abe Mortimer, “everyone’s favourite umpire”, was remarkable, paralleling North American and British Columbia’s Black history. A descendent of BC’s original Black settlers, Mortimer served as a Second World War soldier, played in the semi-pro “Negro” baseball leagues in the United States, won championships in Canada, and dabbled in lacrosse and horse racing. His time as an umpire was the final chapter in a long working and playing life.
Descendent of BC’s First Black Settlers
Ebenezer Alexander Mortimer was born in New Westminster in 1889 to a working-class family. His father was born in Trinidad and worked as a cook. His mother, Lucretia, was the daughter of Charles and Nancy Alexander, one of the first Black families to leave the United States for Victoria BC in 1858 at the invitation of Colonial Governor Sir James Douglas. When the Mortimer family moved to Vancouver in the 1890s and they were only the second Black family in what would become the Black Strathcona neighbourhood.
Lucretia Mortimer became a widow in the early 1900s. With 7 children to feed (Abe being the eldest) it would have been a tough time. In the 1911 Canadian Census, Lucretia was enumerated as head of the household. The family home near 3rd and Main Street sheltered 15 people: adults, children, grandchildren, and lodgers. Those who listed a profession were cooks, domestics, and laundresses.
Sport was an escape from crowded home
Mortimer began his lifelong baseball career in 1906 at 17-years of age, playing mainly on the Hanbury Lumber Mill’s ball team of the Vancouver Terminal League, where he led the league in hitting for five years straight. Organized sport provided an escape from Mortimer’s crowded homelife and he excelled as an athlete, but he was not the only sibling to follow the sporting life. His brother, Oscar, was a professional heavyweight boxer. Abe left Vancouver to play semi-pro baseball in Modesto California, returning in 1911.
Abe Mortimer was a member of the International Longshore Association (ILA) baseball team that won the City-Wide Championship in 1920. He also played for the ILA Squamish Indians field lacrosse team at the Cambie Street Grounds (Cambie and Dunsmuir Ave) under the tutelage of Andy Paull. “I guess some people thought I was a pretty black lookin’ Indian”, Mortimer laughed.
A ‘smart-Alec Canadian’ in semi-pro “Negro” Baseball Leagues
Abe worked as a teamster and millwright for several lumber companies in Vancouver between 1911 and 1923, the year he headed over the border to play first-base in the semi-professional segregated “Negro” baseball leagues as they were called at the time. He stayed for eight years mostly with the Kansas City Monarchs. There he met rookie Black pitcher Satchel Paige who went on to become one of baseball’s great names. Mortimer said Paige was a “cocky” fellow who called ‘Big Abe’ “that smart-Alec Canadian”.
Following a stint in Alberta and a championship in Edmonton, Mortimer returned to BC in the mid-1930s, to find endless breadlines of the unemployed ringing his beloved Powell Street baseball diamond. He found work at the Sterling Lumberyard, and found time to train racehorses at Lansdowne Park in Richmond.
Mistaken for dead in Scotland
Mortimer was the first Black person in Vancouver to enlist in the army during the Second World War. He joined the Canadian Forestry Corps in 1940 “by lying a little” about his age on the application. Before leaving Canada for Europe, Mortimer organized a baseball team in his unit so he could continue to play the game he loved while overseas.
When he returned to Canada in 1943, friends and family had given him up for dead. His ID had been found after a bombing raid in Scotland. “It was all a mistake,” he assured everyone. “Put it in the paper that I’m alive, will you?” a smiling Mortimer told a Vancouver Sun reporter.
The bustling wartime industrial economy in Vancouver produced a strong union movement. The game of baseball was a popular sport among the working-class and many unions fielded teams. The Boilermakers, Machinists, Longshoremen and Firefighters played in the Vancouver Industrial League into the 1950s. Even the Communist Party newspaper, The Pacific Tribune, entered the league briefly in 1951.
Coach and Manager of IWA Ball Team
In the post-war years, Mortimer coached and managed the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) Vancouver Local 1-217 senior men’s softball team. He may have “thrown a few uncomplimentary remarks at the opposing pitcher” mused the IWA’s photo caption in the union newspaper. One of the players was the first Black IWA member in the local and civil rights activist Emmitt Holmes.
Umpiring was “New Kind of Combat”
In 1949, while supporting himself working in a scrap metal shop on Prior Street, Mortimer signed up for a “new kind of combat” as a baseball umpire. There he endeared himself to fans and sportswriters alike and was happy to reminisce about his lifelong love of baseball. At 73-years of age he stood 6 feet-2 inches and weighed 215 pounds. ‘Old Abe’ was a “big, carefree man who exudes health and goodwill” observed The Province sportswriter Alf Cottrell.
Abe Mortimer endured taunts from the grandstands in his career as a player and an umpire. Bottles, a blueberry pie, and a watermelon were some of the items thrown at him from the grandstands, but he made light of the racist behaviour of some fans. “I always met the situation with humor,” he said. “And maybe that is the reason I have never once been the victim of any discrimination”.
‘Big Abe’ with a booming voice that carried to the remotest reaches of the stadium, was voted “the most popular umpire in the Kingsway Baseball League” in 1950. “Today, everybody remotely interested in local baseball has a place in their hearts for that umpiring man Mortimer,” wrote Doug McPhail in The Province newspaper. “Fans and players know him by name. They know him by sight. And they know him by sound.”
Hall of Fame
In 1967, Abe Mortimer was inducted into the Vancouver Baseball Hall of Fame at a ceremony at Capilano Stadium. He died in 1969 after a life of hard work, good humour, and athleticism. He was 80 years old.
Corporal Ebenezer Mortimer is buried at Mountainview Cemetery in the Field of Honour.
“Ab’s ‘Dead,’ but he won’t believe it”. The Vancouver Sun. 28 Oct 1943. 17.
“Baseball’s Mortimer dead at 82.” The Vancouver Sun. 30 Jul 1969. 28.
Cottrell, Alf. “Abe’s baseball memories stretch over 57 years.” The Province. 19 Jan 1963. 11.
Cottrell, Harry. “Ab’s been around a spell.” The Province. 28 Aug 1953. 16.
Lee, Jack. “Ball Old-Timers have a real ball.” The Vancouver Sun. 2 Sep 1965. 25.
McDonald, Archie. “At 76 Abe is still full of good humor.” The Vancouver Sun. 15 Sept 1965. 17.
McPhail, Doug. “Nobody ever shouts ‘Kill THIS Umpire’”. The Province. 9 Aug 1951. 10.
Fifth Census of Canada, 1911.
Squamish Nation: Old School Lacrosse. Retrieved from https://oldschoollacrosse.wordpress.com/category/squamish-nation/
Vancouver Public Library. British Columbia City Directories 1860-1955. Retrieved from https://bccd.vpl.ca/