Opinion: Nearly 90 years ago, an all-black baseball team became Ontario champions. Today, they demand a redefinition of sporting excellence
Ian Kennedy is a sports journalist and educator whose book, Because of Darkness: Shining Light on Race and Sport will be released in May.
On the eve of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s announcement of this year’s class of inductees, it seemed as if the town of Chatham, Ont., was full of anticipation. Black History Month had just begun, which seemed like a good omen: it would, many believed, be the year the Chatham Colored All-Stars entered the hall. The Toronto Blue Jays had even teamed up with Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins to release a moving video in support of the team’s bid.
But when the announcement was made on the morning of Feb. 2, the only inductee of the year was former MLB pitcher Jeff Francis. For the fifth year in a row, the black community in Chatham has experienced more pain, grief and confusion. Once again, the legendary all-black baseball team was outside and looking inside – a sentiment all too familiar to people of color in Canada.
In 1934 – more than a decade before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball – the Chatham Colored All-Stars overcame segregation, discrimination, violence and grossly biased officiating to become the first all-black team in Canadian history to win a provincial baseball championship. . But while the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame apparently deems the performance unworthy of recognition, its assessment ignores the systemic barriers overcome by the All-Stars – as well as the team’s lasting influence on the sport, in Canada and beyond.
Initially banned from league play, the Chatham Colored All-Stars had to rely on the barn across cities across Ontario to find competition. White spectators regularly hurled insults, spit, and rocks; if the All-Stars won, players often had to fight their way out of town. But in 1934, Archie Stirling, a white sponsor, helped the team enter the local Chatham City League, and when the All-Stars won there, he entered them into the Ontario Baseball Amateur Association playoffs. , removing the word “Colored” from the team. name to ensure they would not be disqualified.
After winning the first rounds, the renowned Chatham All-Stars faced the Penetanguishene Spencer Foundry Rangers in the final. When they played the first of the three-game series in this small Ontario town, they were denied accommodations in local hotels, forcing them to find housing in another community that required them to leave before the dawn to go to the field. Then, with the series tied at one win apiece, the teams met in Guelph, Ont., for the third and deciding game. There, according to Chatham star first baseman Wilfred (Boomer) Harding, the All-Stars “moved into the same hotel [the Foundrymen] were, and they moved out as soon as they found out we had moved in.
After nine innings, the game was tied 2-2. But after the All-Stars took a one-run lead in the top of the 11th inning, the umpires abruptly called off the game due to darkness, even though it was only around 4:30 p.m. With Chatham just two outs from winning the series, the Game 3 score was tied and the team was forced to play again the following day.
Fortunately, for the rematch, Archie Stirling found referees from another city. The All-Stars won a decisive victory, 13-7, and won the Baseball Association of Ontario championship.
The All-Stars’ best player, Earl (Flat) Chase, edged his opponent, Phil Marchildon, who would spend a decade playing in the majors and be inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983. Meanwhile, M Chase – widely recognized as a quality Major League talent – returned to driving a garbage truck and playing as an amateur; he had become the first black player in team history to win a Canadian title with the famous London Majors.
The history of the 1934 Chatham All-Stars is remarkable, and the team’s failure to enter the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame underscores its failure thus far to realize its vision of creating “a culture that upholds education, respect, diversity and healthy lifestyles across generations. Indeed, of more than 110 athletes in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame team category, less than 5% are black.
The Hall is not alone in this failure. In 2015, the #OscarsSoWhite movement pointed out that less than 10% of Oscar nominees over the previous decade were black. More recently, Canadian musician The Weeknd pointed out that in the 63-year history of the Grammy Awards, only 10 black artists have won album of the year.
To truly recognize excellence, institutions like these cannot focus solely on results. While success is important, impact and legacy must also be considered. Failure to do so entrenches privilege and continues to disadvantage those facing racial and social barriers.
As the Chatham Colored All-Stars won an Ontario title, they embodied hope and change. White Chatham residents rallied around the team, many looking beyond skin color for the first time. Upon returning, players would parade down the main street and pass restaurants and businesses they couldn’t enter as customers. Although such recognition was short-lived, black players and teams were no longer excluded from league competition. All-Stars captain Don Washington, for example, was drafted to play in Strathroy, Ont., and quickly became a fan favorite.
Other players initially took up the odd jobs they were allowed, but success on the pitch eventually translated into modest economic and social gains. “Boomer” Harding, who shined shoes and cleaned spittoons at the local hotel, became the town’s first black mailman. His brother Andy, another All-Star, became Chatham’s first black policeman.
Legacy takes longer to assess, but it is perhaps the most important criterion of all. Ferguson Jenkins Sr., a key All-Stars player who worked as a cook and driver for a local white family, taught his son Fergie how to play baseball on the All-Stars field. Fergie would win the Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s top athlete and become the first Canadian inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991. He is a member of the Order of Canada and his image is immortalized on a postage stamp.
The All-Stars’ post-war successors, the Kent Panthers, included some members of the original team as well as younger players they had inspired. Panthers bat boy Eddie Wright won five Ontario baseball titles alongside Fergie Jenkins before accepting a hockey scholarship to Boston University, eventually becoming the first black hockey coach in the league. history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Dr. Lorne Foster, son of a former Panthers star of the same name, is now a professor at York University, serving as director of the Institute for Social Research and research chair in studies and human rights. the person of black Canadians. The success of the All-Stars and Panthers encouraged him and many other members of the black community to set ambitious goals beyond sports.
And in 2001 and 2002, the Toronto Blue Jays wore replica Chatham Colored All-Stars jerseys at Major League games. It was a statement to the tens of thousands of fans in attendance and the many black players on the pitch.
The All-Stars were a team of builders whose cultural influence is still felt today, and should be recognized as such. Indeed, in 2018, former Boston Bruins winger Willie O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder for being the first black man to play in the National Hockey League and inspiring the future generations. The All-Stars should also be recognized for their influence on sport and society. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, meanwhile, has inducted 16 builders, all of them white – though one of them, Doug Melvin, a Chatham native and former Major League Baseball general manager, quotes Fergie Jenkins as his inspiration.
Now is the time to make meaningful changes in the way the sport views racing and society defines excellence. Wins and losses are not enough, especially considering the historical context. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame cites inclusivity as a core value and proclaims its commitment to preserving the legacy of Canadian baseball “by commemorating “the great players, teams and achievements of baseball in Canada.” For that to be true, the Chatham Colored All-Stars must take their rightful place in this room as the champions and builders that they are.
Keep your opinions sharp and informed. Receive the Opinion newsletter. register today.