Thirteen years before Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in the MLB, the Chatham Coloured All-Stars became the first baseball team with Black players to compete in a championship in Ontario.
The team played the Penetang Shipbuilders in the Provincial Ontario Baseball Amateur Association championship in 1934 in its second year in the league.
The All-Stars won the game, in a historic victory that reverberated far off the field as well.
The All-Stars’ legacy is being commemorated Saturday with a charity baseball game in Chatham-Kent in southwestern Ontario at Fergie Jenkins Field, named after the Chatham-born all-star MLB pitcher who retired in 1983, and became the first Canadian inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Blake Harding is among team members’ descendants who will take to the field in an event called Field of Honour, part of continued efforts to get the team into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont.
Harding, 73, wasn’t born when his father, Wilfred (Boomer) Harding, was the centre-fielder and one of the team’s stars, but he grew up hearing the stories, including about the challenges the players faced because of the colour of their skin.
“He would talk about the things that they ran into, the adversity and the problems, but yet the camaraderie they shared on the field and off their field,” said Harding, who also had a few uncles on the team.
When the players went to Penetanguishene for the Ontario championship game, they couldn’t find a place to stay. They had to drive some 100 kilometres, almost to Meaford, Ont., where they found some cabins.
The owner allowed the team to stay, but told them they had to be gone before daylight.
“This was ’34, and it sounds like a long time ago, but that was right here, southern Ontario, southwestern Ontario,” Harding said. “And they played through it.”
It was fairly common that the team had to “fight their way out of town” if they won. If they lost, they were ridiculed out of town, Harding said.
He recalled hearing about one game in West Lorne, Ont., where five- and six-year-olds threw stones, spit, swore and hurled the N-word at the team after they left the field — all encouraged by their parents.
“They didn’t have to play the game, but they loved the game,” Harding said. “This is what I took from it.”
Some of the All-Stars could have played in the majors, said Harding.
Brock Greenhalgh, organizer of the game on Saturday, and who’s written a children’s book about the team, is also among those pushing for the team to be inducted.
The All-Stars story resonates to this day, Greenhalgh said. “You have a group of individuals, all they want to do is play baseball, and the sort of bigotry, and racism and obstacles that they had to overcome were amazing.”