Most people are being cute when they talk about “a bun in the oven.”
But for Hazel Ferguson – born in the summer of 1911 – the saying rings unusually true.
Because she only weighed three pounds at birth, doctors told Hazel’s parents to swaddle her and set her in an oven – unheated, and with the door open – to keep her safe from draughts.
It seems the oven trick paid off.
At 102, Hazel Ferguson likes to walk the Beach and chat up new friends, just as she did when she first moved here with her husband Gordon back in 1935.
“She knows neighbours on our street that I’ve never met,” says her daughter Gail.
“It’s wonderful to be able to meet new friends at that age.”
When people ask the secret of her remarkably long and healthy life, Hazel likes to credit the bowl of oatmeal porridge she eats every morning.
The fresh food she ate as a girl growing up on her parents’ farm in Harrietsville, Ontario, didn’t hurt either, she said.
“My mother was a good cook,” she said. “Everybody raved.”
“Everybody” meant Hazel’s father, her three sisters, her six brothers and any men working the family’s dairy or horse farm.
Growing up with so many siblings and open fields in 1920s London, Ontario created one more contender for Hazel’s secret to long life: baseball.
Baseball has deep roots in London – Labatt Park, which opened in 1877, is said to be the world’s longest-running baseball stadium.
And just as Hazel was hitting her teens, several big London companies – Kellogg’s, Silverwood Dairy, the Labatt brewery, Gorman Eckerts – started sponsoring their own women’s softball teams.
Hazel was 15 when she got her lucky break at a friendly game near Harrietsville, where she was catching for pitcher Carrie Hunter.
The next day, two scouts made an unexpected visit to the girls’ class at school. They had seen the two play the night before, and asked could they play in London that night?
Hazel’s parents were both working late that day, but her older brother okayed the game because Carrie Hunter’s parents were letting her go.
“The next morning, I heard my dad saying to my mom, ‘Maggie, come here!’” Hazel said.
There, on the sports page of the London Free Press, was a photo of Hazel in a baseball uniform, complete with a caption announcing her two home runs.
Hazel went on to work and play ball for four years at Silverwood Dairy and two years at Gorman Eckerts.
With the Eckerts’ Rideau Halls – named for a coffee blend served at the Governor General’s residence – Hazel won the Manufacturer Girls’ Softball League championship in 1928. She won the title again with Silverwood in 1930.
“Nobody else could play third base but me,” she said, smiling. “Nobody else could get the ball to first like I did – it’s got to be near the ground, and people can slide and knock it out of your hand.”
Carly Adams, a University of Lethbridge scholar, interviewed Hazel in 2006 for a study of London’s women’s softball leagues.
To Adams’ surprise, sports reporters at the time covered the women’s games with real gusto, detailing big hits and injuries, even boasting about the strong arms of London’s “twirlers.”
But for all the good, Hazel did see another side to the story.
On one trip to Toronto, the Silverwood’s star pitcher Lillian Horlick was briefly abducted into a brothel after a woman on the team bus offered her a ride.
When Horlick told her story to the first man who met her, he recognized who she was and managed to help her escape back to her parents in Tillsonburg.
“We all learned from that,” Hazel said.
By 1935, the Depression had finally grounded women’s industrial softball in London. According to Carly Adams, some players did try to keep the teams going, but the sponsorships were gone.
By then, Hazel had married Gordon Ferguson – her coach on the Silverwood’s team – and was making a move to the Beach to start a family.
The young couple lucked into a home – even a free sewing machine – on Munro Park Avenue, thanks to some kind neighbours that sold to them just as they were being kicked out of an apartment on Silver Birch for using too much hot water.
Hazel remembers quickly sewing 14 pairs of pajamas for friends and family.
“I got better at it all the time,” she said, laughing.
While Hazel did retire her ball glove, she put her throwing arm to good use at the Kew Beach Lawn Bowling Club, winning many trophies after her three children were all in school.
Over the years Hazel has made many friends in the Beach through Kew Gardens, St. Aidan’s and Kingston Road United churches, the Balmy Beach Club, and her volunteer work with the Children’s Aid Society and the Norm Houghton seniors’ residence – something that shows in the dozens of partygoers in the snapshots of her 100th birthday party.
As she rounded her 102nd year last month on Aug. 6, Hazel showed no signs of slowing down.
Four TV and three radio stations were in attendance when Hazel helped open the Canadian National Exhibition this year on her 95th visit – a tradition she started at age seven, when she scooped up the prize for Best Apple Pie.
“I was thunderstruck when I got there – all the shaking hands and interviews and everything,” she said, laughing.
“I couldn’t believe it.”