July 1-7 is Canada History Week, and this year’s theme is Sport throughout History
Alberta had only been a province for a year before William “Deacon” White arrived in its capital city of Edmonton. As soon as he landed, though, the man who would become the “King of Sports” got to work on creating a legacy of sport in Alberta.
Born in Sheridan, Illinois, William Freeman White (nicknamed “Deacon” due to his preacher father) was a mathematics professor at the University of Chicago. In 1903 he moved to Iowa to teach and coach baseball, which quickly transitioned into managing, coaching and playing for various baseball teams in the United States full-time.
In 1906, White founded a youth baseball team in Anacortes, Washington and toured them through Western Canada, passing through Edmonton. Something about the city must have captured White’s imagination, because shortly thereafter, White returned with hopes of starting a professional baseball team.
That wasn’t as simple as rounding up a bunch of players, though; White had to create an entirely new league for them to play in! So he quickly became the driving force behind the Western Canada Baseball League which was founded in 1906. His 1907 team, the Legislators, were Edmonton’s first professional baseball team.
But by 1908, the professional league had fallen apart, so White created The Twilight League—a senior amateur baseball league made up of four teams that held early evening games, hence the league’s name. Not one to sit idly by on the sidelines, White managed and played first base for the Edmonton Young Liberals.
You might think starting two leagues would be enough for someone, but apparently not for White. Once he had established himself through his involvement with baseball, he turned his attention to hockey and football, playing an important role in the development of both sports in Edmonton.
He joined Edmonton’s rugby foot-ball club, nicknamed at the time the “Esquimaux” as a player and coach (a common theme for White). White insisted the team’s official name be the Edmonton Esquimaux, and the team was renamed in 1908, the same year White led them to an Alberta Rugby Football Championship. Although this team is not directly connected to the modern day Edmonton Eskimos, it was the predecessor and namesake of the club that still plays in Edmonton.
When winter blew into Edmonton, White set his sights on creating a hockey team, mainly out of the amateur Edmonton Hockey Club. Once again, White coached and managed the team, and called it – you guessed it – the Edmonton Eskimos hockey club. The team folded in 1927, but not before playing the Ottawa Senators for the Stanley Cup in 1923.
If you hadn’t noticed, White was quite fond of the team name ‘Eskimos.’ As Brant E. Ducey writes in his book The Rajah of Renfrew: The Life and Times of John E. Ducey, it was common for Calgary and Edmonton writers to slight each other’s cities and sports teams, as you would expect in any provincial rivalry. Calgary writers used the term ‘Esquimeaux’ (a reference to the Inuit people of northern Canada) to signify the citizens and sports teams in Edmonton, reflecting on the northern city’s cold winter weather. (Edmonton writers, for their part, used to call Calgary “the cow camp” and “horse country.” They probably could have been a little meaner, in retrospect).
But White thought that Edmonton should embrace this image. As Ducey writes, “White became fascinated with the name ‘Eskimos’ and his professional baseball teams of 1909-1911, and later his hockey and football clubs, were all called the Edmonton Eskimos.”
By the 1920’s, “Deacon” White had earned himself a new nickname: The “King of Sports” in Edmonton. He had been a central part of Edmonton sports for 15 years, as a coach, player, promoter and team founder. In his later years, he famously led the Eskimos football club to two Grey Cup finals, in 1921 and 1922. The Eskimos lost those two finals, but they were the first western team to play in the Grey Cup. White coached 11 seasons for the team.
“Deacon” White died in November 1939, a month before his 61st birthday. Called the founder of modern sport in Edmonton by many, White’s impact continues to be felt there today.
Thanks to the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame for their files