Friday, August 28, 2009

Black baseball players in Canada


This is a foreword written for "Black Baseball Players in Canada," published this month by McFarland and Co., a publisher of scholarly and reference works, based in Jefferson, N.C. I was invited to write the foreword after writing a column in the Globe and Mail about the British Columbia authors, Barry Swanton, of Surrey, and Jay-Dell Mah, of Nakusp.



Baseball is a sport for storytelling. The game is famously played without a clock, which means the first pitch might be followed by two, or three, or four, or more hours of baseball. The game comes with natural pauses in the action after every three outs. Toss in batters stepping out of the box, pitchers talking to catchers, pitchers being sent to the showers, runners dusting off pants after a slide — why, there’s plenty of time to gab about the great summer game.


At some point, a batter steps towards home, taps dirt from his cleats, tightens his batting gloves, adjusts his helmet. Your neighbor in the stands asks, “Who’s this guy?” You can answer with statistics, but that’s only part of the story. A better question might be, “Where’s this guy from?” Is he a promising rookie on his way up to The Show, or is he a declining veteran hanging on in hopes of returning to the bigs? Who is he and how did he get here?


You appreciate the game more when you know the story behind the number on the uniform.


Many who have taken to the field in Canada were imports from the south — a left-handed college kid earning a few bucks under the table in summer, or a slugger seeking to put up big numbers in hopes a scout might sign him to a good contract. This steady trickle became a deluge after 1947, when the great Jackie Robinson broke the modern color barrier in the major leagues by taking to the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers.


This created a labour problem. Major league teams began to pluck the finest African-American talent from the Negro Leagues, the beginning of a steep decline and inglorious end to a circuit so rich in baseball lore. Lesser players faced a tough decision: Stay in black ball though the future looked bleak, or sign a contract to a minor-league team and face the possibility of having to play in the Jim Crow South.


Dozens of black athletes found well-paying and altogether more comfortable employment in Canada, where the pay was good and the reception, for the most part, welcoming.


Many headed north to find seasonal work on the wind-blown grass fields of Canada’s three Western provinces. They wore uniforms with such names as Oilers, Eskimos and Combines spilling across the chest in Coca-Cola script.


These men played in the cities, as well as in whistlestop prairie hamlets in which a semi-professional team was the community's claim to fame. From Vulcan, Alta., to Indian Head, Sask., to Carman, Man., the hard-working people of a hardscrabble land eagerly flocked to watch a superior brand of baseball than that to which they had become accustomed.


The new recruits had nicknames like Baldy and Buddy, Pappy and Pepper, Doc and Ducky. They had baseball names like Lefty and Fireball and Pee Wee and Home Run. Even the family names had poetry, as there was a Coffee and a Colas and even one unfortunate stuck with the tag of Harry Butts.


They came from Cuba, Panama and, of course, the United States. Some had been playing on such barnstorming clubs as the Indianapolis Clowns, New York Komeday Kings, and Ligon’s Colored All-Stars. Their resumes included stints with the Cuban Giants and the Elite Giants and the Colored Giants.


Three players who came north in the 1950s went on to bring integration to major-league clubs — Tom Alston with the St. Louis Cardinals, John Kennedy with the Philadelphia Phillies, and Pumpsie Green with the Red Sox, Boston being the last club to hire an African-American athlete, 12 full years after Jackie Robinson had been hired. Shoot, Robinson had been retired three years before Pumpsie joined the Scarlet Hose.


Earlier pioneers tried to earn a living in the sport they loved, only to be barred for the basest of reasons. By posing as a native Indian, Dick Brookins earned a spot at third base with the Regina Bone Pilers back in 1910. He would be kicked out of the game when other owners protested his ethnic ancestry.


The authors Barry Swanton and Jay-Dell Mah have compiled an informative, entertaining and, ultimately, inspiring series of thumbnail sketches of ball players who found a welcome home in Canada.


So, who are these guys?


Barry Swanton remembers awaiting his father’s daily return home from his job as a postal clerk. “Go get the gloves,” his father would say, the boy fetching two baseball mitts. On some days, his father, Cecil, brought with him a special delivery —two tickets to a game at Osborne Stadium in Winnipeg. They would ride the streetcar south from the North End to the ball park opposite the Manitoba Legislative Building. The stadium was the home of the Winnipeg Buffaloes and the Elmwood Giants. For a boy, it was a field upon which trod giants in stature as well as name.


The father treated the son to a 25-cent scorecard on which he could record the outcome of each confrontation between batter and pitcher. After the game, the boy liked to hang around the clubhouse entrance to beg for autographs and coax playing tips from savvy veterans. The players were willing to entertain a star-struck lad.


“They weren’t in a hurry to get back to their rooming house, or the YMCA,” Swanton says.


The following day, the boy would clip a game report and boxscore from either the Winnipeg Tribune or Winnipeg Free Press. He then placed these inside the scorecard, which was tucked away for keeps.


Years passed and the boy became a man, following his father into the post office. He never left the baseball diamond, coaching boys as wide-eyed as he was once himself. While preparing to move to British Columbia almost 20 years ago, Barry came across the box holding his yellowing scorecard collection.


A forgotten box also held the boyhood mementoes of Jay-Dell Mah. The CBC’s Toronto city hall reporter was preparing to retire some years ago when he discovered a trove placed in safekeeping decades earlier — an autograph book, a signed baseball, assorted newspaper clippings, and two thick scrapbooks.


The two men, who both came to baseball through their fathers, each embarked on separate projects to revive interest in the baseball of their youth on the prairies. Mah built a comprehensive Web site — www.attheplate.com — about the history of baseball in Western Canada in the 1950s and 1960s. Swanton wrote a history of the ManDak (Manitoba-Dakotas) League profiling a circuit that provided work for Cubans, Canadians and American players while entertaining fans in prairie cities on both sides of the border.


The two men struck a long-distance friendship. They share a passion, but not an area code. Swanton lives in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, while Mah resides in Nakusp, a village in southeastern British Columbia. They have known each other for years, but have never met.


Mah grew up in Lloydminster, where he “slept in Saskatchewan and ate breakfast in Alberta.” The family home was on one side of the 4th Meridian, while the family restaurant was on the other. His father, Jimmy Mah, who had come to Canada from Canton in about 1911, when he was still known as Mah Do-wing, owned the Elite Cafe. The restaurant became a hangout for mercenary ballplayers and the cafe owner’s son, Harvey, became something of a mascot. (Harvey was nicknamed Jazz by his brothers, later shortened to Jay. When he launched his radio career, he called himself Jay Dell. The chosen name was later grafted onto his family name, becoming Jay-Dell Mah.) When he was old enough, Harvey became bat boy for the Lloydminster Meridians.


On the field, he fetched bats for the players and balls for the umpire. Off the field, he washed socks and shined shoes for tips. On one glorious day, when he was a bit older, a pitcher with speed but little accuracy asked the boy to catch his pitches. The first six stung his hand so much he could barely endure the pain. Then, his catching hand became so numb as to dull the pain. The next morning, he awoke with a left hand as swollen as catcher's glove. Though painful, it was a temporary souvenir he displayed with pride.


His favorite player was Benny Lott, a slick-fielding second baseman whose panache on the field was matched by his stylish wardrobe. Lott's swing was so elegant, so sweet, he was nicknamed Honey. The infielder presented his No. 1 fan with an autographed five-dollar bill — a small fortune at the time — with the inscription: “To the best bat boy in the world.” Somehow, the bill got mixed with the float in the restaurant till and was unceremoniously handed to a customer as change.


Lott came to the prairies after employment with the Indianapolis Clowns and New York Black Yankees. Only later as an adult would the bat boy realize the players he idolized had minor roles in a social revolution, ending segregation by playing sports in circumstances where the only color that mattered was that found on a uniform.


Both Mah and Swanton pursue forgotten players of the era with the same enthusiasm as a fielder chasing a hapless baserunner.



Tom Hawthorn

Victoria, B.C.

August, 2009

3 comments:

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