Like many fans of Canadian baseball history, I expected the Chatham All Stars, a team of African-Canadian players who broke the colour barrier in 1934, a baker’s dozen years before MLB did (capturing a provincial title in the process), would be named to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022.
But to the surprise of many, the team was passed over. Only Vancouver native Jeff Francis, who won 72 games over an eleven-year big league career, was named for entry last month to the Hall in St Mary’s, ON. Francis will join 2021 inductees Duane Ward, Justin Morneau, John Olerud, and Jacques Doucet in a ceremony this June (last year’s festivities were postponed due to the pandemic).
The disappointment in Chatham was considerable, understandably so given the fact that the committee to have the All Stars enshrined, having seen their nomination turned down the previous four years, had pulled out all the stops this time around.
I have spent the past three years researching the historic Ontario Baseball Amateur Association (now known as Baseball Ontario) 1934 final between Chatham and tiny Penetanguishene, led by future Major Leaguer Phil Marchildon. My book about that season, On Account of Darkness: The Season Ontario Broke the Colour Barrier (which will be published this spring) documents the events that led up to the dramatic and controversial final between the two teams. As someone intimately familiar with their story, I admit that I was initially shocked that the Stars were not admitted.
One writer suggested that racism may have been a factor in the Stars’ bid failing to gain the support of at least 18 of the 24 members of the selection committee, pointing out that in the team category, less than 5 per cent of the players enshrined are black. But that ignores the fact that the committee inducted 16 historic candidates last November, 6 of them BIPOC, and one woman, which represents at least a solid step in the direction of diversity.
There is no doubt that the Stars faced more adversity than possibly any other amateur championship club in the province. They faced hostility, some of it very open, from opposing fans, players, and sometimes even umpires. In one incident, children threw rocks and racist taunts at the team while their parents looked on bemused. They were refused dine-in service on the road, and were only granted accommodation at road side motels if they agreed to be out first thing in the morning, before the white guests were awake.
In the decades that have passed since the Ontario Baseball Amateur Association Intermediate ‘B’ Final between Chatham and Penetanguishene occurred, some distortions have developed around the details of that series, particularly the third game, which was called by darkness with one out in the bottom of the 11th, with Penetang batting after Chatham had taken a one-run lead in the top of the inning. I present much of what happened in much greater detail in my book, but the gist of the popular storyline is that the fix may have been in, that it was still daylight, and the umpires (and the OBAA) didn’t want the coloured team to win. Perhaps that was the case (given that the cast of characters who took part in the Series have all passed), but there are several inaccuracies with that assumption.
The game did not start until 2:15 on a gloomy late October day (in 1934, the OBAA playoffs did not begin until after Labour Day; now Baseball Ontario playoffs have finished by that date). Although the score was 2-2, there were a combined 30 strikeouts, nine walks, and 11 hits allowed by the two pitchers on the day. The two teams made nine errors between them. While baseball was played at a faster clip in those days, it’s hard to see a game with that many pitches and base runners taking less than 3 hours. If that was the case, that would put the finishing time of the game at somewhere between 5:15 and 5:30. In those days, Daylight Savings Time began at the end of September. Sunset time for October 23rd in Guelph (the neutral site of the game) was 5:25 DST. Was it too dark to play? Unfortunately, no one is around who could confirm this, but the facts would suggest that the game was called at 4:00 pm with the sun still brightly shining seems highly unlikely.
As for the allegation that the game was called and the score ruled a tie, that was the custom in the era before night baseball was common. If a game was called before an inning was complete, the score reverted to the last completed inning, which in this case was 2-2 after ten innings. A replay of the game was the rule of the time, an occurrence that had happened three times in the World Series in the previous thirty years. Some suggest that the Penetanguishene team was stalling in the hope that the game would be called, and that might have been true, but they likely realized that their ace, Marchildon, who had pitched almost 100 innings in 10 intense playoff games over the previous six weeks (all the while doing double duty playing football for St Michael’s College in Toronto), was out of gas. If a replay was ordered for the next day, the Penetang club had to know he was finished.
A replay was in fact ordered for the next day, and the Stars jumped on Marchildon for six runs over the first two innings en route to a convincing 13-7 triumph. The team had captured a first-ever provincial title for their city, becoming Chatham’s team in the process, and more importantly, opening to door to wider acceptance for people of colour in the community, and across the province.
So, given the historic nature of their accomplishment, and the trials and tribulations they had undergone to capture a provincial title, why were the Stars not included in the team category in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame? One reason might be that the Hall does seem to be stingy with the inductions of teams – only a handful have been included over the 30 years of the Hall’s existence. Last fall, the selection committee did include the 1877 London Tecumsehs – the first Canadian team to capture a professional championship, and the 52nd-ranked team of all time by Minor League Baseball.
If there is perhaps one sticking point, it might be the fact that the Chatham club managed to skirt the OBAA’s residency rules of the day. In order to keep larger centres from raiding smaller ones for their stars, player movement could only be facilitated by release or application to the OBAA by a March deadline. Chatham was able to get around this regulation by bringing in three players (who were to play important roles on the team) from Detroit – the players involved did not have to ask for a release. This might seem trivial today, but judging from the sports sections of the day, the issue of player movement was a controversial one. When Marchildon was lured away by the Nickel Belt League in 1936, Penetanguishene failed to ever again win the local right to enter the OBAA playdowns. There is no doubt about the talent on the Chatham roster; the addition of those three players likely put them over the top. This is not to take away from the weight of their achievement, but the residency rule is still important enough to merit a section in Baseball Ontario’s current constitution.
Despite this year’s disappointment, the 1934 Chatham All Stars are still eligible for induction until 2026. After that, a Veteran’s Committee could approve their candidacy. Hopefully, it won’t come to that point.