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In 1934, the Chatham Coloured All-Stars became the first all-Black team in Canadian history to win a provincial baseball championship.Chatham Daily News/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Ian Kennedy is a sports journalist and educator whose book, On Account of Darkness: Shining Light on Race and Sport will be published this May.

On the eve of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s announcement of this year’s class of inductees, it felt like the city of Chatham, Ont., was alive with anticipation. Black History Month had just begun, which seemed auspicious: this, many believed, would be the year that the Chatham Coloured All-Stars would be enshrined in the hall. The Toronto Blue Jays had even teamed up with Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins to release a stirring video in support of the team’s candidacy.

But when the announcement came on the morning of Feb. 2, the year’s lone inductee was former MLB pitcher Jeff Francis. For the fifth straight year, Chatham’s Black community was dealt more pain, sorrow and confusion. Once again, the legendary all-Black baseball team was on the outside looking in – a feeling all too familiar to people of colour in Canada.

In 1934 – more than a decade before Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in baseball – the Chatham Coloured All-Stars overcame segregation, discrimination, violence and blatantly 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 sees this performance as 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 barred from league play, the Chatham Coloured All-Stars had to rely on barnstorming through towns across Ontario to find competition. White spectators regularly hurled slurs, spit and rocks; if the All-Stars won, the players often needed 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 “Coloured” from the team name to make sure they would not be disqualified.

After winning the opening rounds, the renamed Chatham All-Stars faced the Penetanguishene Spencer Foundry Rangers in the finals. When they played the first of the three-game series in that small Ontario town, they were denied accommodation in local hotels, forcing them to find lodging in another community that required them to leave before dawn to get 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’s 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 moved in.”

After nine innings, the game was tied 2-2. But after the All-Stars took a one-run lead at the top of the 11th inning, the umpires abruptly called the game on account of darkness, even though it was only about 4:30 p.m. With Chatham just two outs away from winning the series, the third game’s score was reverted to a tie, and the team was forced to play again the following day.

Fortunately, for the rematch, Archie Stirling found umpires from a different city. The All-Stars went on to win decisively, 13-7, and claim the Ontario Baseball Association Championship.

The All-Stars’ best player, Earl (Flat) Chase, out-pitched his opponent, Phil Marchildon, who would go on to spend a decade playing in the majors and be inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983. Meanwhile, Mr. Chase – widely recognized as a Major League-quality talent – went back to driving a garbage truck and playing as an amateur; he’d become the first Black player in team history to win a Canadian title with the renowned London Majors.

The story of the 1934 Chatham All-Stars is remarkable, and the fact that the team is not enshrined in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame highlights its failure thus far to achieve its vision of creating “a culture which champions education, respect, diversity and healthy lifestyles across generations.” Indeed, of the more than 110 athletes in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s team category, less than 5 per cent are Black.

The Hall is not alone in this failure. In 2015, the #OscarsSoWhite movement highlighted that less than 10 per cent of Oscar nominees in 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 outcome. While success is important, impact and legacy should factor in as well. Failure to do so entrenches privilege and continues to disadvantage individuals facing racial and social barriers.

The moment the Chatham Coloured All-Stars won an Ontario title, they embodied hope and change. Chatham’s white residents rallied around the team, with many looking beyond skin colour for the first time. Upon their return, players were paraded down the main street, and past restaurants and businesses they could not enter as customers. While such recognition was short-lived, Black players and teams were no longer barred from league competition. All-Stars captain Don Washington, for instance, was recruited to play in nearby Strathroy, Ont., quickly becoming a fan favourite.

Other players initially returned to the menial jobs allowed to them, but success on the field eventually translated into modest economic and social gains. “Boomer” Harding, who shined shoes and cleaned spittoons at the local hotel, became the city’s first Black mail carrier. His brother Andy, another All-Star, became Chatham’s first Black police officer.

Legacy takes longer to assess, but it is perhaps the most important criterion of all. Ferguson Jenkins Sr., a key player for the All-Stars who worked as a cook and chauffeur for a local white family, taught his son Fergie to play baseball on the All-Stars’ home field. Fergie would go on to 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 has his image immortalized on a postage stamp.

The All-Stars’ postwar successors, the Kent Panthers, included some members of the original team along with younger players they had inspired. The Panthers’ bat boy, Eddie Wright, went on to win five Ontario baseball titles alongside Fergie Jenkins before accepting a hockey scholarship to Boston University, eventually becoming the first Black hockey coach in National Collegiate Athletic Association history. Dr. Lorne Foster, the son of a former Panthers star of the same name, is now a professor at York University, serving as the school’s Director for the Institute for Social Research, and Research Chair in Black Canadian Studies and Human Rights. The success of the All-Stars and the Panthers encouraged him, and many other members of the Black community, to set ambitious goals beyond sport.

And in 2001 and 2002, the Toronto Blue Jays wore Chatham Coloured All-Stars replica jerseys in Major League action. It was a statement to the tens of thousands of fans in attendance, and to the many Black players on the field.

The All-Stars were a team of builders whose cultural influence is still being 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 future generations. The All-Stars should be similarly recognized for their influence on sport and society. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, meanwhile, has inducted 16 builders, all of them white – even though one of them, Chatham native and former Major League Baseball general manager Doug Melvin, cites Fergie Jenkins as his inspiration.

The time has come to make meaningful change in the way sport views race, and society defines excellence. Wins and losses are not enough, especially when considering historical context. The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame lists inclusivity as a core value and proclaims its dedication to preserving Canada’s baseball heritage” by commemorating “great players, teams, and accomplishments of baseball in Canada.” For this to be true, the Chatham Coloured All-Stars need to take their rightful place in that hall as the champions and builders that they are.

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