Inside the push to get Chatham Coloured All-Stars into Canadian HOF

September 21st, 2022

There were two Hall of Fame inductions in progress when Fergie Jenkins took the Cooperstown podium in 1991.

As Ferguson Jenkins Sr. sat on a wheelchair with tears in his eyes, his son paid tribute to the man who helped pave the way for people of color everywhere -- a process that started long before the Jackie Robinson era.

“This day belongs also to my father,” Jenkins Jr. said in his Cooperstown speech, when he became the first Canadian inducted into the Hall of Fame. “His opportunity to play professional ball was limited by history of that era. Fortunately, he outlived history and witnessed its change.”

Jenkins Sr., who passed away in 1996, didn’t just witness the change in history, but helped propel it.

An outfielder for the groundbreaking Chatham Coloured All-Stars -- an amateur team that played from 1932 to 1939 in an overwhelmingly white league in Southwest Ontario -- Jenkins Sr. barnstormed his way through prejudice on and off the field. Players hailed from Chatham, Windsor and their surrounding areas, led by great talents such as Earl “Flat” Chase and Wilfred “Boomer” Harding. They became the first all-Black team to win an Ontario Baseball Association Championship, in 1934.

Notability and intolerance went hand in hand, with threats of violence and questionable umpire calls becoming as much a part of their days as a routine fly ball.

But the Coloured All-Stars persevered, becoming one of the many displays of resilience across North America in that period that made it possible for Jenkins Jr. to sign a professional contract in 1962. After 19 years, 3,192 strikeouts and a Cy Young Award, the former pitcher saw it as both an honor and a duty to etch his father’s name into baseball history alongside his own.

“I just wanted to give him that recognition, that he was the inspiration for me to play the game,” Jenkins Jr. said over a phone call from his home in Texas. “And now we are both in the Hall of Fame.”

But that recognition hasn’t gone much further. The Chatham Coloured All-Stars are still held out of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and, even though many of the former players’ families still reside in the Chatham area, the memory of their sacrifices becomes more ethereal as time goes by.

Jenkins Jr. is actively working to change that. The Chatham native has partnered with Major League Baseball and the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation in a campaign to promote the team’s induction into the Canadian Hall of Fame.

“A lot of those men struggled to play the game well before the era of Jackie Robinson,” Jenkins Jr. said. “So I just think that [we must] let the country know that those men that lived in Chatham, Windsor and Dresden, they were an important part of baseball history.”

Locals of that area will have a chance to remember its groundbreaking club on Sept. 24, when Jenkins Jr. and other descendants of the All-Stars attend the Field of Honour Charity baseball game at Fergie Jenkins Field in Chatham, as part of the campaign to get the team voted into the Canadian Hall of Fame.

As for the young fans who may not know as much about the team, the partnership has found a creative way to educate. The Chatham Coloured All-Stars are a downloadable team on MLB The Show 2022, under the Vault section, giving everyone a chance to actually play as Jenkins Sr., “Flat” Chase and all the other heroes of that time.

“I’ve seen some of the footage of the players portrayed [in the game] and they actually look live to me,” said Jenkins Jr. “Their facial features, their antics playing the game, swinging the bat, catching balls. I think that's very important, because the concept that they got going is going to make the youngsters want to play the game.”

Just like the Coloured All-Stars needed time and effort to carve out their space in the 1930s, Jenkins Jr. now hopes to return their history to the forefront of Canadian baseball culture.

“What [my father] tried to portray was that all those young men that were in that Chatham area ... were trying to be accepted by proving that they were a ballclub that deserved to win -- which they did,” said Jenkins Jr. “I think he wanted me to understand that it was an important part of Canadian history.”