The history of black baseball players in Canada
The history of black baseball players in Canada
It’s mid-September and a championship is on the line. Through seventeen innings, game five of this best-of-seven series has offered high baseball drama for the shoulder-to-shoulder fans in attendance. On the mound, a jelly-armed Leon Day — the future Hall of Fame pitcher who started the game and is still going — just saw his team, an enviably skilled squadron of black players, take a tenuous 1-0 lead in the top of the inning. Leftfielder Robert Lomax “Butch” Davis scored on a hard single and now Day has his mind set on finishing things. He’s already worked out of a bases-loaded crisis in the eighth, then in the fourteenth inning, a sharp throw home from second base, nailing a speeding runner, bailed Day out. After all that, Day doesn’t want to let down his manager Willie Wells, who was ejected from the game in the tenth inning for relentlessly arguing a call at first base. Another future Hall-of-Famer, Wells departed the field with a police escort, and only after the chief umpire finally threatened him with forfeiture.
But in the bottom half of the seventeenth inning, Day notches three more outs to secure the championship. After jolly handshakes and hugs on the field, there’s a party at the team hotel a few hours later.
This all happened in 1950, three years after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. That landmark moment gave black ballplayers a chance to join the Majors, but it also meant the inevitable decline of the Negro Leagues in the United States. Founded in 1920, the Negro Leagues were an association of teams owned and managed by blacks. Rosters featured black players, as well as Latinos with skin complexions too dark for Major League team owners to tolerate. Once Robinson was ushered into the Majors, those same owners began plucking the Negro Leagues’ best talent for their own teams — though only a select few, top-notch black ballplayers were chosen, so as not to deny work to an excessive number of whites.
“The Negro Leagues were employing a lot of guys,” says Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, “but with the integration of our game, a lot of older players lost their jobs.”
Black fans followed their stars, attending an increasing number of Major League games. The Negro Leagues toiled, and though the last teams held out until the mid-1960s, many baseball historians and former players consider 1950 — when the Negro National League folded — to be the last year of high-quality play in the league’s proud history. However, that last great Negro Leagues season of 1950 did not include slick pitching from All-Star Leon Day or shrewd strategizing out of Willie Wells. Instead, the two celebrated a championship that mid-September evening with the Winnipeg Buffaloes of Manitoba, Canada.
“People don’t really think about what happened after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, beyond that the race barrier disappeared and the Negro Leagues started to decline,” says Leslie Heaphy, a history professor at Kent State University who has written and edited six books on baseball. “Well, what were all those players doing? They didn’t get a chance to play in the Majors, so many of them — way more than people think — went up to Canada.”
Most Americans know little about the rich baseball history of Canada. The first-ever recorded baseball game played on North American soil may have actually occurred in the small village of Beachville, Ontario in 1838 — one year before Abner Doubleday purportedly formalized baseball’s rules in Cooperstown, New York, and nearly forty years before the first organized indoor ice hockey game took place in Canada. Over the next few decades, amateur and professional baseball leagues popped up around Eastern Canada. (In 1914, a nineteen-year-old Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run while playing a road game in Toronto.)
Meanwhile, the western prairie region of Canada was gradually being settled, spurred on by the Dominion Lands Act, which, similarly to the United States’ Homestead Act, provided land to settlers for a small fee if they agreed to develop and improve upon it. U.S. citizens – both black and white — caught wind of the deal and flocked to the region. Jay-Dell Mah, who co-wrote a book with Barry Swanton titled “Black Baseball Players in Canada“, says, “Tons of baseball leagues started to form, just about everywhere you went, all through the prairies.”
Canada’s black population was still miniscule, but as Western Canadians became baseball-crazy over the next few decades, African American ballplayers went north during Negro League off-seasons to play in exhibition games and tournaments — a practice called “barnstorming” — usually against all-white local teams. Years before Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, Canadian team owners would pay extra to Negro League stars like Hall-of-Famer Satchel Paige, who pitched in Canada several times, to join their teams for high-stakes tournaments.
Mah, who remembers no black families in his hometown when he was growing up in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, says, “Canadians got used to integrated play pretty quickly.”