FITZGERALD, WILLIAM JAMES, lacrosse player, coach, and carpenter; b. 20 Feb. 1888 in St Catharines, Ont., son of Thomas Fitzgerald, a baker, and Rose Ann Killeen (Kileen); m. there 5 Nov. 1913 Adele (Della) Sheehan, and they had two sons; d. there 30 June 1926.
In St Catharines at the turn of the century, field-lacrosse games were huge summertime attractions. When Billy Fitzgerald, a Roman Catholic, likely of Irish background, took up organized lacrosse in 1904, the game was played with 12 men per side. Small and agile, he occupied an offensive position called “first home”; he often carried the ball, and was an excellent passer and shooter. In 1907, at age 19, he joined the St Catharines Athletics, a senior amateur team and defending champions of Ontario; during Fitzgerald’s two years with this powerful squad they never lost.
In 1909 Fitzgerald turned professional with the Toronto Lacrosse Club. For two seasons he commuted from his parents’ home in St Catharines, even though his salary barely exceeded his expenses. Lacrosse was approaching the height of its popularity, however, and his reputation quickly grew. Fitz, as he became known, was a crowd-pleasing standout in a league that included the TLC and six other teams from Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Cornwall, Ont. In July 1909 the Toronto World described his performance in scoring a game-winning goal on sodden turf: “Running half the length of the field with the ball, passing several Montreal players on the way, negotiating the defence and finally slashing it past the goal-tender into the net, he carried out a stunt which made him the hero of the day.” “The Toronto rooters simply threw a series of fits in their seats and then burst forth in one prolonged spontaneous roar.”
Club owner Robert John Fleming was determined to field a winning team that would attract paying customers. The TLC played its home games in the stadium that had opened in 1909 at the Scarboro Beach Amusement Park. It had a seating capacity of 8,000 and professional lacrosse was a drawing card. Fleming was manager of the Toronto Railway Company, and its Queen Street East line terminated at Scarboro Beach. Fleming allowed anyone carrying a lacrosse stick to ride the line free of charge.
Fitzgerald’s fame spread to British Columbia, another hotbed of lacrosse, where an often violent rivalry existed between Vancouver and New Westminster. New Westminster had won the Minto Cup (the senior lacrosse championship of Canada) in 1908, 1909, and 1910. Con Jones, owner of the Vancouver Lacrosse Club, set out to assemble a team that could beat New Westminster, and any other team. He fixed his sights on two players: Édouard (Newsy) Lalonde*, the lacrosse and hockey sensation from Cornwall, and Fitzgerald.
Jones started, and won, a bidding war with Fleming, who also wanted to sign Lalonde. At a time when $1,000 was a good annual salary, Lalonde received $6,500 to play 16 games with the VLC; Fitzgerald got $5,000. (By comparison, the highest-paid athlete in any team sport at the time was Detroit baseball player Ty Cobb, who earned $4,500 for a 154-game season.) A bookmaker in his native Australia, Jones owned a number of cigar shops in Vancouver and a saloon, the Brunswick, which featured billiards and gambling. There, on Saturday nights, Fitzgerald, Lalonde, and other players would join fans around the pool tables or serve customers at the bar. Jones’s efforts paid off when the VLC beat New Westminster and the Toronto Tecumsehs to win the Minto Cup in 1911.
Following this victory Fitzgerald moved back to St Catharines. Fleming promised to top Jones’s highest offer for 1912 by $500, and Fitzgerald signed with the TLC for $4,000. A skilled carpenter, he also began building houses in St Catharines. In 1913 Jones wanted Fitzgerald back and offered the Toronto club $1,000 for the right to sign him. The demand for houses was so great, however, that Fitzgerald took the year off to concentrate on his business.
He played with the TLC in 1914, but World War I effectively ended lacrosse competition in Canada. Over 2,000 top-level players enlisted, making it nearly impossible for any community to field a team. At the end of the 1914 season, Fitzgerald returned to St Catharines, where, after the birth of his first son that year, he and his family moved into a house he had built. In 1915 he accepted an offer to coach men’s lacrosse at Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y.; he was rehired for 1916 but an immigration official in Niagara Falls, N.Y., refused him entry. The college, determined to have the man still widely considered Canada’s finest lacrosse player, successfully appealed the decision.
At the conclusion of the war Fitzgerald helped organize a St Catharines team in a new, semi-professional league. In 1919, his last year of competition as a player, he was with Cornwall in a professional league. At 31 he was older than many of his team-mates. It was difficult for him to maintain the pace over an entire game and nagging injuries slowed him down, but he still showed flashes of brilliance. Knowledgeable and respected, he remained in demand in St Catharines as a coach and referee. He also worked with teams at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa, and the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
Fitzgerald became ill in December 1925 and the following June he underwent surgery for gallstones. He developed peritonitis and died; he was 38. His death shocked many Canadians. In September former players from Toronto and St Catharines faced off in a memorial game in St Catharines. One-time boxing champion Gentleman Jim Corbett and Canadian sports legend Lionel Pretoria Conacher* were among the thousands in attendance. Conacher was persuaded to don a St Catharines uniform and take part as a tribute to Billy Fitzgerald, one of the greatest lacrosse players of all time. Fitzgerald was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (Toronto) in 1961 and the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame (New Westminster) in 1965.
[The author would like to thank Margaret Fitzgerald of St Catharines, Ont., the subject’s daughter-in-law, for granting access to materials in her possession. s.c.]
AO, RG 22-235, no.5845; RG 80-2-0-291, no.19957; RG 80-5-0-633, no.8717. St Catharines Hist. Museum, Undated clippings from the Daily Mail and Empire, Ottawa Citizen, St Catharines Standard, and Toronto Evening Telegram. Globe, 23 Feb. 1915. St Catharines Standard, 17 April 1916; 30 June, 20 Sept. 1926. World (Toronto), 26 July, 9 Aug. 1909. Christina Burr, “The process of evolution of competitive sport: a study of senior lacrosse in Canada, 1844 to 1914” (ma thesis, Univ. of Western Ont., London, 1986). Cleve Dheensaw, Lacrosse 100: one hundred years of lacrosse in B.C. (Victoria, 1990). Directory, St Catharines, 1898–1926.