The Chatham Coloured All-Stars' story is still being told long after its brief run
The all-Black team has been honoured with a hall of fame induction, video game appearance and a new book
Originally published on June 8, 2023.
The Chatham Coloured All-Stars may have only been an amateur baseball team for seven years in the 1930s, but its legacy lives on decades later.
"It was more than a game. It was a passion for the team and it was a passion for the people of colour in the community," said Blake Harding, whose dad Wilfred "Boomer" Harding played first base for the team.
"It's given kids in the east end something to shoot for all these years later," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.
The Chatham Coloured All-Stars was formed in 1932 by a group of friends in Chatham, Ont., making it the first all-Black organized baseball team in the province.
They initially toured parts of Ontario, often playing against all-white teams in exhibition games. But in 1933, they were noticed by local business owner Archie Stirling. He was a representative for the Ontario Baseball Amateur Association, and brought them into the city league.
The following year, they became the first all-Black team to win a provincial OBAA championship with a victory in the Intermediate B Division.
"I think my father's fondest memories of those games was actually after the games had been played and they returned back to Chatham," said Don Tabron, whose dad, also named Don, played for the All-Stars.
"He always spoke so finely about how the citizens of Chatham were waiting on the team to come back and they carried them through the downtown area on their shoulders, celebrating the victory."
The story of the team's title-winning season is being told by Heidi L.M. Jacobs in the new book, 1934: The Chatham Coloured All-Stars' Barrier-Breaking Year. It was released on June 6.
Jacobs said the All-Stars' victory was huge for Chatham, which saw itself as a baseball town. But for the Black community in the east end, this was greater than a trophy.
"This was their sons and brothers and cousins and husbands and boyfriends going onto a provincial stage and doing really, really well," said Jacobs.
"This is a community that is still incredibly proud of this team, and it's really inspiring to see the legacy of this team live on."
Racism in baseball
When the Coloured All-Stars were founded in 1932, Black people faced severe segregation in the United States, and teams were either banned from signing Black players, or avoided signing them on their own accord.
That was also the case in Canada, according to Tabron.
"Depending on where they travelled and the teams they played against, they would face a bit of adversity from the crowd, the umpires [and] the opposing teams," said Tabron.
Harding recalls one experience his father told him about, after the Coloured All-Stars beat a team from a community not too far from Chatham.
"As they were leaving, there [were] five and six-year-old kids spitting and throwing stones at them, calling him the N-word, and their parents were standing behind them, egging them on," he said.
In the deciding third game of the team's 1934 championship, the Coloured All-Stars were leading 3-2 against the Penetang Shipbuilders in the 11th inning.
But in the middle of the inning, the umpire called the game off due to darkness. The result was recorded as a 2-2 draw, meaning another game was needed to decide the championship.
According to Harding's father and the rest of the Coloured All-Stars, the umpire's decision had nothing to do with the visibility on the field.
"His quote was 'They called the game on account of darkness, but the only darkness was the nine players on the field,'" Harding said.
The umpire's call didn't matter in the end. The Coloured All-Stars won the rematch in Guelph 13-7, securing their place in history.
But Jacobs says the racism didn't go away after the championship.
"Indeed the team did break some barriers, but ... a barrier broken isn't a barrier dismantled," she said.
"So when the team came back in 1935, they were definitely the team to beat on a range of levels, but they still encountered some of the racist incidents that plagued them in the first year."
'Doing what they loved'
The Coloured All-Stars won another trophy following their 1934 victory: the 1935 Western Counties Baseball Association Intermediate A Division championship. They also reached the 1939 All-Ontario final, but a location dispute meant no one won.
That was be the last year for the team, as several players went to serve for Canada overseas in the Second World War.
Although none of the players ever got the opportunity to play in the major leagues, Harding said some of the players got breaks later in life.
"My uncles, my father and some other gentlemen in Chatham got jobs that were quite significant," he said. "My dad was the first Black letter carrier. My uncle Andy, his brother, was the first [Black] police officer in town."
And while the team's legendary status may have been confined to their city's borders at first, as the years went on, their stories reached more Canadians and baseball enthusiasts.
In 2001, the Coloured All-Stars were honoured at a Toronto Blue Jays game; and in 2016, the Ontario Trillium Foundation awarded a grant to the University of Windsor to develop an oral history on the Coloured All-Stars.
Then in 2022, they were inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, and recreated in the baseball video game MLB The Show '22.
Tabron, whose dad was at the 2001 Blue Jays game, said his father was really amazed by the admiration he and his former teammates got all of those decades later.
"He never really thought about it from that perspective, while he was playing, that it would materialize into any of what it has at this point," he said.
"It was very emotional for him because at the time, they were just doing what they loved."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
Produced by Howard Goldenthal.