Every February Canadians celebrate Black History Month by remembering black historical figures that have made an impact on Canadian society.
In the world of sports there is Willie O’Ree (Fredericton, NB) who became the first black NHL player in 1957; Jackie Robinson, who had one amazing season playing for the Montreal Royals before he broke MLB’s colour barrier in 1947; Donovan Bailey (Oakville, ON) who became the fastest man in the World at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics; and who could forget when Joe Carter “Touch(ed) em all” after his World Series walk-off home run in 1993?
As for baseball, the only Canadian inducted into the Hall of Fame is African-Canadian Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, ON). The legend of Jenkins Jr. is well documented, but the story of his father and the Chatham Coloured All-Stars is a less known part of black Canadian history.
The Chimczuk Museum at the University of Windsor’s currently has an exhibit called Breaking the Colour Barrier: Wilfred Boomer Harding and the Chatham Coloured All Stars 1932 – 1939 that is helping to honour this group of Canadian baseball pioneers.
Chatham Coloured All-Stars
Unlike integration in the MLB and NHL, the colour barrier in the Ontario Baseball Amateur Association (OBAA) was broken by a team rather than one man.
The All Stars started as a group of friends playing at Stirling Park in East Chatham in the early 1930s. By 1932, they had organized enough to start competing in “barnstorming” exhibition games. In 1933, a Chatham businessman and avid baseball enthusiast, Archie Stirling helped them join the Chatham city league, and by 1934 they were officially part of the OBAA.
Despite competing for less than a decade, the All-Stars had an impressive on-field resumé. The club won the Provincial Championship Intermediate B division in 1934, the Western Counties Baseball Association Intermediate A Division Championship in 1935, and went to the All Ontario Finals in 1939 (no winner was declared that year due to a dispute over the location of the Finals).
In Mary Baxter’s 2017 article on the team, she describes some of the blatant discrimination and intolerance this team faced. Much like Robinson would face throughout his career, the All-Stars were attacked by fans and opposing players and often faced questionable officiating on the field.
Blake Harding, the son of All-Stars first baseman Wilfred “Boomer” Harding spoke of the importance that winning had on this group of black-Canadian men.
“Every one of those guys were demanding respect and was doing it through the sports venue because they couldn’t get it shining shoes,” Harding says. “They couldn’t get it picking up garbage. They couldn’t get it as bellhops or elevator operators.
“So they got it through sport. They played it to a perfection, and they would go through a wall to win.”
The All Stars would continue to compete in the OBAA throughout the 1930s but eventually disbanded at the start of the Second World War (as many players were enlisted to serve).
One of the All-Star standouts was super utility-man Earl “Flat” Chase, who played a dominant role in the 1934 campaign. At 24, he was the star of the All-stars and he played as a pitcher, catcher, and infielder.
Although statistics from that era are not as detailed as today’s game, Chase was undeniably great. He hit .488 in 127 at-bats in 1934 and his pitches went up to 100 miles/per hour. The Windsor-native made his mark in the 1934 Championship, out pitching Canadian Hall of Famer Phil Marchildon (Penetanguishene, ON) in the Finals.
Marchildon played between 1940-50 for the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Red Sox. His best season came in 1949 when he went 19-9, had a 3.22 ERA, and struck out 128 for the Athletics and finished ninth in AL MVP voting.
Could Chase have been an MLB player if not for his race? Based on his diverse skill set and his ability to compete with a player of Marchildon’s calibre, it is easy to imagine he could have.
“Boomer” Harding spoke about one of Chase’s mammoth home runs that legend has landed in downtown Welland.
“Flat was the most gifted hitters I’ve ever seen”, Harding said. “There’s no question in anybody’s mind who ever say him that he would have been a major leaguer had it not been for the colour barrier.”
Fergie Jenkins Sr.
If you look at the names of the Chatham Coloured All-Stars, none jump off the page except for Fergie Jenkins. The Windsor-native played in the Negro Leagues in Detroit before returning to Ontario and joining the Chatham Coloured All-Stars.
Jenkins Sr. played centerfield for the All-Stars in 1935 and had a reputation as a defensive wizard. His teammate Kingsley Terrell spoke about Jenkins’ on-field abilities,
“Fergie was a good outfielder. I’ve seen him catch balls out in the outfield that you’d swear up and down that he would never even get close to,” Terrell said. “He would dive and catch balls and catch balls over his head and all kinds of things.
“And he was good. He could have been in the major leagues”
In 1942, Jenkins married Delores Jackson (Chatham, ON) and later that year she gave birth to future Baseball Hall of Famer – Fergie Jenkins Jr.
When Jenkins was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991, he made sure to pay homage to his father.
“My father was a semipro ballplayer and he played in the Negro leagues, but he didn’t make the major leagues because he was limited by history”, Jenkins told reporters in Cooperstown. “I always told him that anything I do in baseball, I do for the two of us, and so now I feel I’m being inducted into the Hall of Fame with my father.”
In 2001, the Toronto Blue Jays honoured the Chatham Coloured All-Stars at a Negro League Tribute at Shea Stadium. The Jays also celebrated the 1934 team in 2002 as two of the surviving members appeared in a pre-game ceremony.
It is easy to honour and commemorate Jackie Robinson and his extraordinary accomplishments on and off the field. But it is equally important to remember the thousands of men that faced similar discrimination and bigotry before and after the colour barrier was broken.
(Top Photo: Horace Chase/Breaking the Colour Barrier/uwindsor.ca )