CHATHAM — On a tense and chilly October day in 1934, the Chatham Coloured All-Stars beat the Penetang Shipbuilders 13 to 7 to become champions of the Ontario Baseball Amateur Association’s Intermediate B-1 class.
The win was especially emotional in more ways than one: Officials had mysteriously decided to cancel the previous game just as the All-Stars were headed for a win. In a sense, the Chatham players were forced to defeat the Shipbuilders in a whole extra game before they were named champions.
That’s often the way it was for the first all-Black team playing organized baseball in Ontario. Despite their talent, victory never came easily for the All-Stars, who faced discrimination — and even threats of violence — just for competing against white players. There was more at stake than a baseball championship that day 83 years ago. The All-Stars were playing for their right to compete on an equal playing field.
For years the win was remembered as a point of pride in the team’s southwestern Ontario home community. Yet by the turn of this century, as the team’s original players reached the end of their lives, knowledge of the All-Stars — which one sports columnist described as “one of the best road teams baseball in this province has known” — was in danger of disappearing.
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Today, however, the memory of the team will live on, thanks to the recent efforts of researchers and librarians at the University of Windsor, the Chatham Sports Hall of Fame, and relatives of an original All-Star. With the help of a $72,500 Ontario Trillium Foundation grant, they’ve created an online resource and other materials that commemorate the courageous story of these sporting pioneers.
The Chatham Coloured All-Stars formed at the height of the Great Depression. Players honed their skills at the diamond in Stirling Park, in Chatham’s downtrodden east side, where most of the city’s Black community lived.
In 1932, the team began competing in “barnstorming” exhibition games. By 1933, the players’ skill had caught the eye of Archie Stirling, a white city businessman and avid baseball fan who ran a variety store in the east end. As the provincial baseball association’s local convenor, Stirling helped All-Stars join the city’s league and, in 1934, the OBAA.
Getting there had been anything but easy. Players experienced taunts from the stands during games and, after a win in a nearby town, local children threw stones and chased the All-Stars with rakes and hoes. In the field, players of other teams sometimes deliberately tried to injure the Black players, or umpires made questionable calls on plays.
The new website tells the story of the All-Stars’ championship year, and includes an interactive timeline, indexed oral history interviews, and guidelines on how the material could be used in school curricula from Grades 1 through 12. The production team has also developed a travelling exhibit and an artifact display, commissioned a cartoon history of the team that’s used in the exhibit, and even made a set of baseball trading cards that features the players, their coaches, and three players who joined the next year. The website launched earlier this month in Windsor and in June in Chatham where some artifacts are on display at the Chatham Memorial Arena. The development of another website to feature Wilfred “Boomer” Harding (1915-1991), one of the team’s most famous players, is in the works.
The project owes its life to a chance meeting between a University of Windsor historian and Harding’s descendants. During that championship year, Harding played mostly on first base, although, like most of the All-Stars players, he ended up playing multiple positions and later on would be known as a catcher. Harding also found time during his life to become a hockey, soccer, and darts star, too.
After the multi-talented Boomer’s death, his daughter-in-law Pat Harding tried to organize and preserve news clippings and artifacts. Boomer’s mother, Sarah Holmes Harding, had started scrapbooks, but there were gaps. Pat combed through old newspapers to verify every detail of the senior Harding’s remarkable five-decade sports career that in 1988 earned him an Olympic gold achievement medal (regional awards that were distributed during an Olympic year) and in 2003 a posthumous induction into the Chatham Sports Hall of Fame. The more she found, the more she realized the need to preserve the information about his groundbreaking achievements — and those of the other All-Stars. She approached local libraries and museums to see if they might house the records only to be turned down.
“So I just let it go,” she says.
Then, in 2015, while attending a community history awards function, Pat Harding heard Miriam Wright, a history professor at the University of Windsor, speak about the role of the internet in preserving history. Afterwards, Harding approached Wright with a big request: Could the historian help her build a website?
Wright agreed, and for help, she contacted Heidi Jacobs and Dave Johnston, university librarians and co-directors of the university’s Leddy Library Centre for Digital Scholarship. The centre had been exploring ways to build unique local collections that support history and research around southwestern Ontario.
When first approached, the project team had thought digitizing the records would be a quick and straightforward task.
“Miriam said, ‘Oh, there’s three scrapbooks,’ and I thought, ‘Three scrapbooks, that’s not [bad],’ ” Jacobs recalls. “And then I had to carry one to my car, and they’re just massive — and the story is huge.”
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Indeed, the story of the All-Stars is bigger than baseball. It’s ultimately about what it was like to be Black in Ontario in the 1930s.
Blake Harding, Boomer’s son and Pat’s husband, says playing ball was about obtaining respect for Black baseball players. “Every one of those guys were demanding respect and was doing it through the sports venue because they couldn’t get it shining shoes,” he 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.”
As the team kept winning, community support grew. But outside of Chatham it was another story. For the first game in the playoffs against the Shipbuilders, the players stayed overnight in nearby Midland because no one in Penetanguishine, where the game was being held, would accommodate them.
After they lost the second game, played in Chatham, the All-Stars headed to Guelph for what was supposed to be the final matchup in a best-of-three series. It came to a sudden end during the 11th inning, when officials declared there wasn’t enough daylight for the Shipbuilders to complete their turn at bat — even though plenty of light remained, according to a 1977 University of Waterloo research paper on the team by Daniel J. Kelly. The Chatham team led 3-2, but for a reason not made clear in newspaper records, officials dropped the extra point, announced a tie and called for a new game to begin the next day.
As players took to the field for the do-over game on Oct. 23, there were hints of exhaustion. The Shipbuilders’ lead pitcher — Phil Marchildon, who would go on to pitch for the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Red Sox — had a sore arm, so another team member temporarily stepped in.
The Chatham team remained focused. Ace hurler Earl “Flat” Chase, known to hit balls out of the park, was on fire. The team pulled ahead in the early innings and maintained its lead.
A victory parade greeted the team on its return to Chatham.
Many of the team’s members would play together for several more years with the All-Stars and under teams of different names — the Chatham All-Stars, the Chatham Black Panthers. Their 1934 win opened doors in the community. Boomer Harding became the city’s first Black letter carrier; his brother Andy, who was also on the team, became the community’s first Black police officer.
Their accomplishments also inspired younger generations to be the best they could be. Blake Harding, for his part, was the first person of colour in the Essex Kent Scottish Second Battalion to become a regimental sergeant major, the most senior non-commissioned rank in the Canadian Army.
In one of the website’s oral history interviews, Ferguson “Fergie” Jenkins Jr. — a former major league pitcher who is the only Canadian to be inducted into the (U.S.) National Baseball Hall of Fame — says hearing stories about the team inspired him to play baseball. Jenkins’s own father began playing regularly on the All-Stars the year after the seminal 1934 win.
Wright, the historian, says remembering and promoting the All-Stars’ story is important for many reasons. “It’s a story of Chatham’s African-Canadian community being able to push back against endemic racism and celebrate something good that they had in their community,” she says.
It also “speaks to society today, and certainly over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed the way that sports becomes intertwined in racial issues,” she says, referring to U.S. pro athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism in their country.
Wright, who is also planning a symposium in 2018 on telling the story of race and sports in Canada, says the story of the All-Stars remains relevant because “there’s still racism in sports — whether it’s baseball or hockey — and this is a reminder about that larger story.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.
CORRECTION: Daniel J. Kelly’s 1977 research paper on the Chatham Coloured All-Star was published while he was at the University of Waterloo, not the University of Windsor as originally stated. TVO regrets the error.