May 23, 2024

By Kevin Glew

Cooperstowners in Canada

John Upham, who rose from the Windsor, Ont., minor ball ranks to become a two-way player with the Chicago Cubs, passed away on Wednesday at the age of 83.

The Windsor/Essex County Sports Hall of Fame shared the news of his passing last night.

Born on December 29, 1940, Upham was a multi-sport star – excelling in basketball, hockey and baseball – when growing up in Windsor, Ont.

At age 12, the young left-hander began pitching for legendary coach and Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Father Ronald Cullen at Windsor’s Assumption High School.

“My dad, who was an umpire, told me that if I was really serious, that he (Father Cullen) was the only man to play for [in Windsor],” Upham once said.

Cullen coached Upham for several seasons and helped him blossom into one of the best baseball prospects in the region.

In 1959, Upham turned down scholarship offers from the University of Michigan and Michigan State to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies as an outfielder.

The 6-foot,180-pound Canadian would play six seasons in the Phillies’ organization, rising as high as triple-A. His finest campaign came with class-C Bakersfield in 1961 when he batted .356 with 175 hits – including 12 triples – in 129 games.

It wasn’t until 1964, however, that he started to pitch professionally. He’d make one relief appearance for the double-A Chatanooga Lookouts that season and five more for the Phillies’ class-A Eugene Emeralds in 1965.

On November 29, 1965, he was selected by the Cubs from the Phillies in the minor league draft. And the Cubs began to employ Upham as a two-way player. With the Cubs’ double-A Dallas-Fort Worth Spurs in 1966, the outfielder/left-handed pitcher batted .284 with 119 hits in 124 games while also posting a 2.96 ERA in 11 starts.

That performance helped him crack the Cubs’ Opening Day roster the following spring. Upham made his major league debut on April 16, 1967. He entered a game started by fellow Canadian Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, Ont.). Jenkins would pitch 6 1/3 innings and leave with a 5-2 lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Upham was the second reliever for the Cubs and he allowed a single to Manny Mota in the ninth inning. Mota was the only batter he’d face before being replaced by right-hander Joe Niekro. The Pirates rallied for a 6-5 win.

“He had a chance to come into some ball games that were quite crucial throwing against the left-handed hitters because he had a pretty good slider, a good fastball,” Jenkins recalled of Upham during an interview with the Canadian Baseball Network’s Melissa Verge in 2023. “And the times that he pitched at Wrigley Field he did a great job.”

On May 19, 1967, in his first major league at bat with the Cubs, Upham hit a pinch-hit single off Dodgers Hall of Fame right-hander Don Drysdale in the eighth inning. It was one of just six hits Drysdale permitted that day while hurling a shutout in a Dodgers’ 8-0 win.

During 1967 and 1968, Upham continued to be a two-way player in the Cubs’ minors and for a combined 21 games in the majors. With the Cubs during that stretch, he posted a 5.40 ERA in seven mound appearances and went 4-for-13 (.308 batting average) and played in four games as an outfielder.

In total, Upham suited up for nine seasons in the affiliated minor league ranks and batted .293 in 789 games, while also registering a 3.05 ERA in 43 appearances as a pitcher.

After hanging up his professional playing spikes after the 1968 season, Upham returned to Windsor and became a popular high school teacher and helped Cullen coach a number of teams that won local championships. In 1982, Upham managed the Windsor Chiefs, a local senior men’s team to a Canadian championship in Newfoundland.

Upham also served as the pitching coach for Team Ontario when they captured gold medals at the Canada Summer Games in 1981 and 1985 and was also the pitching coach for Canada at three consecutive World Junior Championships.

“It gave me the opportunity to work with kids, make them better ball players but more importantly better people,” Upham told Verge about his love for coaching in 2023.

Other prominent coaching assignments included coaching third base for Canada at the 1988 Olympics, managing the Junior National Team in 1989 and 1990 and the senior national team in 1992.

For his efforts, Upham was elected to the Windsor/Essex County Sports Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Baseball Ontario Hall of Fame in 2021.

“John’s dedication to sportsmanship and his passion for education will be deeply missed,” reads part of a statement issued by the Windsor/Essex County Sports Hall of Fame. “Our thoughts are with his family and friends during this difficult time.

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