Friday, August 28, 2009

Preserving the game's Canadian past

The Indian Head (Sask.) Rockets, a barnstorming team. Photo from Western Canada Baseball.

Two B.C. men are documenting baseball's coming of age on the Prairies

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 21, 2006

Barry Swanton remembers the days when he waited for his father to return home from his job as a postal clerk. “Go get the gloves,” his father would say, the boy fetching two baseball mitts.

Some days, his father brought with him a special delivery: two tickets to a game at Osborne Stadium in Winnipeg. Father and son would ride the streetcar to the ballpark opposite the Manitoba Legislature. 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 young Barry could record the outcome of each confrontation between batter and pitcher. After the game, he liked to hang around the clubhouse entrance to beg for autographs and coax tips from savvy players who were willing to entertain a star-struck lad.

“They weren't in a hurry to get back to their rooming house, or the YMCA,” recalls Mr. Swanton, now a 67-year-old resident of suburban Surrey.

The next day, the boy would clip a game report and box score from either the Winnipeg Tribune or Winnipeg Free Press, and tuck them away with the scorecard for safekeeping.

Years passed and the boy became a man, following his father into the post office. But Barry Swanton never left the baseball diamond, coaching boys as wide eyed as he was once himself. While preparing to move to British Columbia 17 years ago, he came across the box holding his yellowing scorecard collection.

A forgotten box also held the boyhood mementoes of Jay-Dell Mah, a 64-year-old former CBC reporter in Toronto who now lives in southeastern B.C. When he was preparing to retire some years ago, he discovered a trove set aside decades earlier — an autograph book, a signed baseball, assorted newspaper clippings and two thick scrapbooks.

Mr. Swanton and Mr. Mah, 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.

Mr. Swanton has written a book profiling the black players who came north after the collapse of the Negro Leagues. Mr. Mah, meanwhile, launched a comprehensive website about the history of baseball in Western Canada in the 1950s and 1960s.

The two men have struck up a long-distance friendship, though they have never met. They share a passion but not an area code. While Mr. Swanton makes his home in Cloverdale, Mr. Mah lives in the village of Nakusp, about two hours drive north of Castlegar.

Both men pursue the forgotten players of that long-gone era.

“I hunt them down,” says Mr. Swanton, who tracked about 140 former Negro League players in the Mandak League, a circuit that took its name from teams based in Manitoba and the Dakotas.

“When I find them, the old players don't want to let me off the phone,” he says. “Talking baseball — it's great.”

Mr. Swanton was inducted this month into the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame for his five decades of work as a coach, manager and administrator. Joining him in the ceremonies at Morden, Man., was Dirk (Bubblegum) Gibbons, a former Negro League pitcher who led Manitoba's Brandon Greys to a provincial title in 1949, with 19 wins and 5 losses.

Bubblegum's exploits are among the many tales told in Mr. Swanton's recent book, The Mandak League: Haven for Former Negro League Ballplayers, 1950-1957, published by McFarland and Co.

Baseball has a long history on the Prairies, a history transformed by social changes far afield. Jackie Robinson had ended a half-century of segregation by breaking baseball's unofficial colour bar, playing for the Montreal Royals in 1946 and the parent Brooklyn Dodgers the following season. Soon after, Negro League teams lost their best players — and many customers — to major-league clubs.

“The Negro Leagues were closing down,” Mr. Swanton explains. “A lot of players had no place to play. Organized baseball wasn't about to let all these black players take all these jobs in the minors. That's the way it was.”

Many of the players 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.

These men played in the cities, as well as in whistle-stop hamlets in which a semi-professional team was the community's claim to fame.

Mr. Mah grew up in Lloydminster, where he “slept in Saskatchewan and ate breakfast in Alberta.” The family home was on one side of the provincial dividing line, while the family restaurant, the Elite Cafe, was on the other.

His father, Jimmy Mah, had come to Canada from Canton in about 1911, when he was still known as Mah Do-wing. His restaurant became a hangout for mercenary ballplayers and his young 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, and he became 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. “Those were fun days,” he says.

His favourite player was Benny Lott, a slick-fielding second baseman whose panache on the field was matched by his stylish wardrobe. Mr. Lott's swing was so elegant, so sweet, he was nicknamed Honey. The infielder, who had come to the Prairies after stints with the Indianapolis Clowns and the New York Black Yankees, presented his young fan with an autographed five-dollar bill (a small fortune then) inscribed: “To the best bat boy in the world.” Somehow, the bill got mixed in with the restaurant till and was given to a customer as change.

Only later, as an adult, would the bat boy realize that the players he idolized had minor roles in a social revolution — ending segregation by playing sports in circumstances where the only colour that mattered was found on a uniform.

All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

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