By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 2, 2009
Don Tabron lived most of his life in obscurity as an ordinary electrician. He opened a business, raised a family, enjoyed such pastimes as bridge and bowling.
He was 86 when the Toronto Blue Jays baseball club ended his quietude by honouring him for a nearly forgotten achievement.
Back in 1934, Mr. Tabron pitched and played shortstop for the Chatham Colored All-Stars, a team based in the southwestern Ontario town that had been a haven for refugees from slavery. The All-Stars' semiprofessional roster consisted of local talent with the addition of a few ringers from nearby Detroit, among them Mr. Tabron, then just 18.
Only the most ardent of fans remembered the Chatham team, celebrated in its day for winning an intermediate provincial title in an era of segregated baseball.
A newfound interest in the history of black baseball brought honours to Mr. Tabron for his trailblazing role. He was delighted by the attention and somewhat amazed to have been rediscovered after so many years.
The youngest of 10 children born to Henry and Luella Tabron, Don spent his early years in his birthplace of Princeton, Ind. His mother died shortly after his birth. On March 18, 1925, when he was 9, a tornado roared through southern Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, destroying farms and devastating towns unlucky enough to be in its path. A school and a pickle factory, among other buildings, were levelled at Princeton and more than two dozen people were killed - most of them children. Later named the Great Tri-State Tornado, the 625 fatalities make it the deadliest tornado in U.S. history.
That same year, Don was sent north to live with his sister Myrtle on Detroit's East Side. They raised rent money by playing host to card parties with the boy serving as dealer. This apprenticeship as a card sharp did not delay graduation from Northeastern High School at age 16 in 1932. Unable to afford the rental fee for a cap and gown, he skipped the formal ceremony and picked up his diploma the following morning.
A fine athlete at several disciplines, the one he rejected outright was ice hockey. Because he could not skate, Mr. Tabron was cajoled into a stint as netminder in the days before goalkeepers wore masks. After a puck whizzed past his bare face, he quit.
On the baseball diamond, he flashed a sure glove in fielding the ball at shortstop. He threw curveballs and the occasional knuckleball from the mound, relying on guile rather than speed to bamboozle batters.
The Chatham team formed in 1932 to play exhibition games in barnstorming tours of the region. They provided inexpensive entertainment during the Depression, the players' payment coming in the form of regular meals and a nightly bed, as well as the occasional dollar. Part of the ballyhoo associated with the club was the development of humorous routines, known as "playing pepper," involving tricks in handling a baseball. Local businessmen sponsored the team, providing automobiles for road trips.
The All-Stars entered the Chatham city league for the 1934 season. Manager Joe (Happy) Parker extended an invitation to young Mr. Tabron, who shared pitching duties with Earl (Flat) Chase. One of the hitting stars was 19-year-old Wilfred (Boomer) Harding, a superb athlete who excelled at baseball, softball, basketball, hockey, and soccer, as well as track and field as a sprinter and pole vaulter.
Dressed in matching pinstriped uniforms, with a letter C surrounding a star on their left breast, the Chatham players cruised to the city championship before beginning playoffs to determine the Ontario title.
In the finals, the Stars travelled to Penetanguishene to face the Spencer Foundry Rangers, a team build around slick shortstop Harold Crippin and star pitcher Phil (Babe) Marchildon. The hurler had only taken up baseball two years earlier in high school, but soon proved to be one of the greatest pitchers ever produced in Canada. Mr. Marchildon later spent parts of nine seasons in the major leagues with the Philadelphia Athletics, including a comeback after many arduous months in a German prisoner-of-war camp.
The visiting Stars won the opening game, played on a diamond that had been, just a few years earlier, a cow pasture, 8-4. The Penetanguishene nine staved off elimination by winning the return game, 3-1, at Chatham. A deciding third game was scheduled to be played in Guelph as a neutral site with Penetanguishene acting as home team.
The score was tied 2-2 after 10 innings in a pitcher's duel. Mr. Marchildon struck out 18 Chatham batters, while Mr. Chase fanned 12. In the 11th, Chatham pushed across a go-ahead run on squeeze play.
In the bottom of the inning, with the championship on the line, Mr. Chase struck out the first batter he faced, leaving Chatham two outs from claiming the title. It was then the umpires declared the fading sunlight a danger, calling the game because of darkness. The decision nullified Chatham's final run. The Stars protested the unfairness of the ruling even as the time spent in debate rendered their argument moot.
The deciding game was replayed the following day with Mr. Tabron getting the starting nod for Chatham. He did not last, as the first three batters reached base. He was replaced by Mr. Chase, the Big Flatfoot who was returning to the mound less than 24 hours after pitching more than 10 innings.
Mr. Marchildon also returned to the mound, but his arm was sore from the previous day's exertions. Chatham won the game, 13-7, and with it the championship.
The Stars returned to Chatham to be greeted by a band and thousands of happy citizens, who lined a downtown street to greet their heroes. The players were saluted by the mayor before being feted at a hotel banquet.
Mr. Tabron returned to the team the following season, during which he roomed with Pops Jenkins. (A half-century later, Ferguson Jenkins Sr. would watch from a wheelchair in the audience at Cooperstown, N.Y., as his namesake son, a terrific pitcher for the Chicago Cubs and other teams, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.) Life on the road was not always easy for the Stars. The players were barred from a hotel in Penetanguishene during their 1934 playoff, instead staying at an inn in nearby Midland, Ont.
The racial segregation of his playing days prevented Mr. Tabron from trying out for a spot on a minor-league roster. While a competent athlete, it is unlikely he played at a calibre to have taken him to the major leagues.
In 1984, on the 50th anniversary of their championship, the All-Stars were inducted into Chatham's sports hall of fame.
According to baseball researcher Wayne Stivers, Mr. Tabron played on occasion with such teams as the Detroit Stars, the Brown Bombers, and the Zulu Cannibal Giants, whose comedy routine included playing barefoot in grass skirts.
In 1940, by then married and having started a family, Mr. Tabron became an apprentice electrician at Ford's Rouge factory. His family believes he was one of the first blacks to be admitted to the program. He soon after opened Don's Radio, a repair shop, and, in 1944, launched Tabron Electric, an electrical contracting company.
A second marriage to Theresa McTyre Howell introduced Mr. Tabron to the restaurant business. His wife was the celebrated proprietor of Theresa's Barbecue, as well as a golfer.
After that union ended, he married Velma Cooper, a nurse whom he had met at the Lucky Strike Lanes bowling alley in Detroit. They joined a bridge club, returning Mr. Tabron to the card table. "I spent 20 years playing baseball, 20 years bowling, and 20 years golfing," he liked to say.
In a game held in 2002, the Toronto Blue Jays honoured baseball's black pioneers by wearing replicas of the Chatham uniforms. The championship team's last two surviving members, Mr. Tabron and Sagasta Harding, were invited to throw a ceremonial opening pitch. A similar honour was extended to Mr. Tabron by the Detroit Tigers the following season.
The death of Mr. Harding at 94 in 2002 left Mr. Tabron as the final surviving member of the Chatham Colored All-Stars.
Donald William Tabron was born Oct. 3, 1915, at Princeton, Ind. He died Dec. 19, 2008, at a hospice in Detroit. He was 93, and suffered dementia, prostate cancer and congestive heart failure. He is survived by his wife, the former Velma Cooper, whom he married in 1970. He also leaves a daughter and two sons.