Background and Origins
Up until the late-1940s, Black baseball players across Canada and the United States were banned from playing in the major leagues (see also Jackie Robinson and the Montreal Royals). If they did get the opportunity to play on all-White teams at the community or even amateur level, the environment was hostile and unwelcoming. Baseball was a popular sport in the 1930s and was particularly popular in Black communities. The Black community of Chatham’s east end neighbourhood was no different.
The Chatham Colored All-Stars consisted of a group of friends who played baseball in Stirling Park in Chatham’s east end. The All-Stars would often travel to other towns in Ontario and play exhibition games against all-White teams, which enabled them to earn a bit of money. In 1933, Archie Stirling, a Chatham business owner and the local representative for the OBAA, noticed the skills and talent of the Chatham Colored All-Stars. He was able to get them into the city’s baseball league, where they had the opportunity to compete against White teams.
The All-Stars rapidly gained popularity and the attention of local newspaper reporters, who found the team to be highly skilled, dedicated and thrilling to watch. In 1934, during the All-Stars’ second year in the league, they won the provincial championship in the Intermediate B division. They played the Penetang Shipbuilders, from Penetanguishene, Ontario, in the final series and beat them 13–7, becoming the first all-Black team to win an OBAA title.
The players that made up the Chatham Colored All-Stars were talented and proficient athletes. The Hardings, a very athletic family, supplied the All-Stars with four players: Len, Andy, Carl and Wilfred (a.k.a. “Boomer”). Len Harding played centre field and later went on to manage the team. Andy joined the team in 1935, after the OBAA win, and also played in the outfield. Older brother Carl Harding played a few games with the All-Stars but moved to other towns in Ontario and played baseball and hockey there.
Most famous of the Harding family was Wilfred “Boomer” Harding (1915–91), who played first base. In 1946, he became the first Black player to play in the International Hockey League. Boomer’s amazing sports career lasted more than five decades and included an Olympic gold achievement (a recognition award that was given out during an Olympic year) in 1988. Boomer also became Chatham’s first Black letter carrier, while his brother Andy became Chatham’s first Black police officer. Boomer was posthumously inducted into the Chatham Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.
Other players on the All-Stars included Earl “Flat” Chase (1910–54), who was from Buxton, Ontario, and grew up in Windsor. A pitcher and one of the team’s most powerful hitters, Chase set records for home runs across southern Ontario. Wellington “Willie” Shaugnosh (1914–82), a pitcher, was a First Nations man from Walpole Island in southwestern Ontario. He joined the All-Stars in 1935, a year after their OBAA win. Ferguson Jenkins Sr. (1909–96), who was from Windsor and joined the All-Stars in 1935, played centre field. He was the father of Canadian baseball legend Ferguson “Fergie” Jenkins Jr., who was born in Chatham and was the first Canadian player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
There were also players from Detroit on the All-Stars: Don Washington and Don Tabron played catcher and shortstop, respectively. The remaining All-Stars were brothers Stanton and Hyle Robbins, Cliff Olbey, Gouy Ladd, Ross Talbot, Sagasta Harding and King Terrell. The coaching staff included Louis Pryor, Percy Parker and the team’s manager, Joe “Happy” Parker.
At a time when Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation were common practice in the United States, Black Canadians had to face racial discrimination, barriers, challenges and even segregation on a daily basis (see also Viola Desmond). The Chatham Colored All-Stars faced many racial barriers and challenges on and off the field, in contrast to their White counterparts in the league. Some players faced racial taunts from the crowd during games, questionable officiating calls by umpires, and were barred from restaurants and hotels when travelling for away games. Players on other teams would deliberately try to injure them. In at least one instance, opposing fans threw stones at them after they won a game. Despite the racial barriers and challenges the All-Stars faced, they managed to rise above them, set records, gain the love and popularity of their town and make a lasting impact on baseball in Ontario.
Other Championship Series
The Chatham Colored All-Stars played throughout the 1930s. After their OBAA win in 1934, they reached a championship series twice more. In 1935, they won the Western Counties Baseball Association championship, Intermediate A division, defeating a team from Strathroy, Ontario. In 1939, they played against the team from Meaford in the all-Ontario finals. Due to a location issue for the final game, neither of the teams was awarded the championship.
With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, some of the All-Stars stopped playing to serve for Canada in the war, including Andy Harding, his brother Wilfred “Boomer” Harding and team coach Louis Pryor. In the 1940s and 1950s, many former All-Stars played on other community teams. In 1946, Boomer Harding managed a new team, the Taylor ACs, which comprised some of his former teammates, including his brother Andy, King Terrell, Earl “Flat” Chase and Gouy Ladd. The Taylor ACs became known as the Taylor AC Panthers by the early 1950s and changed their name once more to the Kent Panthers. Several sons of former All-Stars, such as Earl “Flat” Chase and Coach Louis Pryor, played on the Kent Panthers.
Legacy and Significance
Although they only played as a team for seven years, the Chatham Colored All-Stars managed to make a lasting impression during a difficult and hostile time for Black Canadians. They forged ahead despite the barriers they faced and left a legacy of hope, perseverance and strength. In 1984, on the 50th anniversary of their 1934 OBAA championship, the City of Chatham presented commemorative plaques to the surviving members of the team: Sagasta Harding, Don Washington, Don Tabron, Hyle Robbins, Cliff Olbey and Wilfred “Boomer” Harding.
In a special tribute to the Negro leagues and their contribution to baseball in April 2001, the Toronto Blue Jays wore Chatham All-Stars replica jerseys in a game at Shea Stadium against the New York Mets, who wore the jerseys of the New York Cubans. In 2002, the Blue Jays paid tribute to the All-Stars by wearing their replica jerseys in a home game. Descendants of some of the All-Stars were featured at the game, with the last two surviving members, Sagasta Harding and Don Tabron, throwing the opening pitch, along with Earl “Flat” Chase’s son, Horace.