YORKTON – Too rare are books highlighting sports in Canada outside of hockey.
Being a rather avid baseball fans for years, it’s always enjoyable to happen upon a story of the game in this country.
So it was great to happen upon 1934: The Chatham Coloured All-Stars’ Barrier-Breaking Year by Heidi LM Jacobs.
From publisher Biblioasis the book is the true story of the first black team to win an Ontario Baseball Amateur Association championship.
That in itself suggested that the book was of some historical significance and preserving the stories of our past is important.
And the focus of the book almost suggested there would be elements to the story which were not just about sport history, but the social history of Canada which has not always been as shiny as we might wish it to have been.
So to start, a snippet from a promo of the book, explaining a little of what the story is about.
“The pride of Chatham’s East End, the Coloured All-Stars broke the colour barrier in baseball more than a decade before Jackie Robinson did the same in the Major Leagues. Fielding a team of the best Black baseball players from across southwestern Ontario and Michigan, theirs is a story that could only have happened in this particular time and place: during the depths of the Great Depression, in a small industrial town a short distance from the American border, home to one of the most vibrant Black communities in Canada.
“Drawing heavily on scrapbooks, newspaper accounts, and oral histories from members of the team and their families, 1934: The Chatham Coloured All-Stars’ Barrier-Breaking Year shines a light on a largely overlooked chapter of Black baseball.
“But more than this, 1934 is the story of one group of men who fought for the respect that was too often denied them.”
The book at times falls into the trap of sports books and relates too many games that individually don’t mean a lot to the reader from the distance of time, yet of course those details are pertinent to preserving history so you read on.
The book is saved too by being only 233 pages so a few slow pages are easily tolerated.
What does come through though is the love of the game the players had, and the hardships they overcame – both the Depression and racism to play. That made for compelling reading.
The book also comes across as a sort of labour of love for the author.
So did it surprise Jacobs how deeply the story affected her as author?
“That question made me smile as I didn’t realize it would be so evident that this book was exactly that,” she said via email with Yorkton This Week. “There were certainly times when walking away from this book probably would have made a lot of sense but that never really seemed like an option.
“This book was written at four different desks and each had a team photo propped up on it. If I ever got stuck or thought about giving up, the players would stare back at me and I imagined them saying ‘really? You’re going to quit because of [insert whatever small issue I was running into]? Have you learned nothing from us?”
“And so I’d carry on.”
It became deeply personal for Jacobs to tell the story.
“The players, who I never met, and their families, who I came to know and love, became such a huge part of my life,” she said. The love the families felt for those players was contagious and it created an momentum that sustained me and the fuelled the writing of this book. In the past, I’ve written many things I thought were interesting or important in small ways—but nothing like this.
“I don’t expect I’ll ever have this sort of experience again—it’s a once in a lifetime thing and I am so grateful for having had the chance to get to know the families, hear their stories, and play a small part in the preservation of those stories.”
It helped there was resource material access, which in itself seemed a bit surprising.
“One of the things that became really evident to me while writing the book is that much of this story is about love,” said Jacobs.
“But, it’s also about coping with loss and grief of parents and people you love. I came to see the material they saved was more than just keeping a story alive—it was one of the ways that they kept the memories of their fathers, uncles, and friends alive and a way to honour them.
“So, I wasn’t surprised that there was a pretty solid collection of material. The thing that really surprised me—I marvelled at actually—is that this material survived. That these newspapers, documents, scrapbooks etc didn’t get damaged in a flooded basement, accidentally thrown away, eaten by creatures—that’s the amazing thing to me.”
Of course the book could not ignore the element of racism, which is an important element in making the story matter even today.
While the hardships of racism came through was Jacobs surprised how little of that side of playing they shared with family?
“Maybe, but it also makes sense to me that they didn’t,” she said. “So many of the family members say that their parents shielded them from some of the harsh realities and that makes sense. The players seemed more willing to talk about their experiences with their peers and some of those memories are captured in interviews in the late 1970s.
“Some other scholars I know are doing some work into this question and I’m really interested to see what they find out.”
Given the material I was curious if the author found herself surprised by anything in particular?
“In terms of the subject matter, it still surprises me that the story of the Chatham Coloured All-Stars isn’t-wasn’t well-known outside of Chatham—but there are also many, many stories still out there that are just like this,” offered Jacobs. “In my training as a literary historian and a librarian, I’m actually pretty amazed at the depth of the historic record that is available through small town newspapers. If it hadn’t been for local newspapers and active, supported journalists, there wouldn’t be much of a print record. Microfilming local newspapers was also a way in which this story was preserved.
“As I’ve been working on this project, local papers have been shutting down and local journalism isn’t valued or supported in the ways it needs to be. The All-Stars story is a reminder of why local journalism was and remains vital for future generations.”
So far reaction has been good to the book.
“I left the country a few days after the book came out so I’m not really sure — but we’ve had a lot of provincial and national attention and that’s been really wonderful for the families to both see and participate in,” said Jacobs. “I’ve loved that the voices of the families are being heard and shared.”