History

'GOD'S COUNTRY'

Former Negro league players found their fields of dreams in small towns across Canada

Michael Snider May 14 2001
History

'GOD'S COUNTRY'

Former Negro league players found their fields of dreams in small towns across Canada

Michael Snider May 14 2001

'GOD'S COUNTRY'

History

Former Negro league players found their fields of dreams in small towns across Canada

Michael Snider

There was a time when Jimmy Wilkes was so fast he could chase down a fly ball in deep centre field that looked like it was going to be a sure triple. Wilkes was so fast that when the 19-year-old Philadelphia native broke into the Negro leagues in 1945, his teammates called him “Seabiscuit” after the thoroughbred that burned up the track during the Great Depression. Now 75 and living in Brantford, Ont., near the diamond where he finished his playing days, Wilkes recalls those times

as he leafs through yellowed newspaper clippings and faded blackand-white photos. “Fast, oh yeah,” he says. “I’d get on first, you might as well put me on second. Just the same as a double.” Wilkes started his professional career with the Newark Eagles after a short stint in the navy during the Second World War, and in 1946, helped his team win the Negro League World Series against the legendary Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs. Over the next few seasons, he played with and against fu-

ture Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson—before heading north to sign on with the Brantford Red Sox of Ontario’s Intercounty Major Baseball League in 1954.

There’s Paige. Satchel struck me out three times in a row. He was tall. He’d step down on top of y ou and boom! The ball would be right there. AndJosh. Josh Gibson. He was the Babe Ruth in our league. He could

History

hit ’em a long way. If they would have broke the colour line earlier, he would have broke all kinds of records in home runs.

The Brantford team lured Wilkes with a city public works job by day and, for $500 a month, a chance to play ball under the lights at night and on weekends. Tired of life on the road and sickened by the racism he experienced on road trips in the Deep South, Wilkes jumped at the chance to cross the border. Wilkes was one of dozens of black ball players who migrated north to Canada’s semi-professional teams after the U.S. Negro leagues slowly died when Robinson broke the colour barrier in 1947. Some returned home over the years, others played out their careers in Canada. A few, like Wilkes, became citizens and never looked back.

It was a new experience living here. It was God’s country, that’s all I can say. I didn’t have any trouble like I had down there in the States, no racial things. I was always surprised how wellpeople liked us. They always treated me well.

For decades, black players had suffered from Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in such public facilities as schools, restaurants, hotels—and ball diamonds. Although organized baseball never formally banned black players, major-league teams simply never recruited them. Locked out, blacks formed their own leagues, which began to flourish in the 1920s. All-

It was a new experience here—no racial things. I was always surprised how well people liked us’

black games regularly drew 20,000 fans to parks such as Comiskey Park in Chicago or Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, N.Y., while the white home teams were on the road. By the late 1940s, as baseball became more integrated, the best black players began signing with major-league teams. The black ball fans, captivated by the trials and triumphs of Robinson, followed by the likes of Doby, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays, came out to watch their heroes in the majors. As attendance in the Negro leagues dwindled, several teams collapsed under financial

pressure, and players not yet ready for the big time or past their prime signed with Canadian teams like the Brandon Grays in Manitoba, the Indian Head Rockets in Regina and the Brantford Red Sox.

Jackie was well educated, and that’s what they wanted him for. Encouragement? Oh, yeah. We were watching him real close. It was overdue. Way overdue.

It was a better life in Canada for the black Americans, says baseball historian Bill Humber, author of Diamonds of the North, a Concise History of Baseball in Canada. Local baseball, according to Humber, a teacher at Toronto’s Seneca College, relied on civic boosterism and private entrepre-

neurs who felt obliged to put money back into the community. Some teams could afford to lure talented ball players like Jimmy Wilkes. Explains Humber: “They’d say, ‘Look, we can’t pay you what they pay in the minor or major leagues, but we can provide you with a job and security and the chance to play a pretty competitive level of baseball.’ ” In turn, the imported ball players drew thousands of fans.

Even before the postwar arrival of Negro league veterans, Canada had a century-old, rich history of black baseball. Escaping

slavery before the U.S. Civil War or seeking a better life afterward, American blacks settled in such towns as Chatham, Ont., Africville, N.S., and Amber Valley, Alta., where they formed local teams. An allblack team was sufficiently established in London, Ont., as early as 1869 to play against barnstorming American all-white clubs making their way through southern Ontario from New York City to Detroit. But by the end of the century, racial tensions divided much of Canadian baseball along colour lines, and for the next several decades, segregation was the norm.

Baseball’s integration half a century later did not put an end to racist undertones in Canadian ball parks. In the 1950s and 1960s, according to Humber, black players on integrated teams experienced attitudes similar to those in the United States. “Ontario historically tended to share the same cultural outlook as the northern U.S. states,” he explains, “and black players were told, among other things, not to fraternize with white women.” Still, for most blacks Canada’s muted racial prejudice was preferable to their more blatant experiences south of the border.

We’d barnstorm down south, to make money for the team. Wed be down there in Mississippi. Oh, boy. Rough, rough. One time, I fouled a ball off my foot. It really hurt and I fell to my knees and someone in the crowd

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1 still won’t go today,’ says Wilkes, who turned his back on the South

started yelling at me to get up and was using the N word. I don’t mind being called black or a Negro, but I don’t like the word nigger. We also had to put up with walking on the other side of the street, back of the buses and crap like that. Even when I got signed with the Dodgers organization, they had to bring the food to me in the bus. We’d eat on the bus and sleep on the bus, ’cause we couldn’t eat in no restaurant till we’d get in the big cities. Then we’d find coloured diners.

In his prime, Wilkes was good enough to catch the eye of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1950, they invited him to spring training, where he rubbed shoulders with Robinson, Campanella and Don Newcombe, but the

Dodgers had Duke Snider in centre field and Wilkes was sent to the minors, playing in towns from Trois-Rivières, Que., to Elmira, N.Y. Two years later, when the Dodgers wanted him to play with their

Double-A affiliate in Birmingham, Ala., Wilkes asked for his release, refusing to step foot again across the MasonDixon line. “I said, ‘No way,’ he recalls. “I still won’t go today.” Instead, Wilkes signed with the Indianapolis Clowns, a black barnstorming team featuring an 18-year-old infielder named Hank Aaron, whose low line drives would go from home plate to the outfield wall without arcing more than a foot.

We had a tough schedule. After the ball game, each time, you’d go to the grocery store and buy some sardines and crackers and hit the bus for the road for the next game. Only time you had a bed was on the weekend, where you’d go into town the night before a doubleheader.

Travelling through Upstate New York and southern Ontario in 1953, Wilkes so impressed Brantford team owner Larry Pennell that he received an immediate offer to come north. Wilkes arrived a year later as a 28-year-old and spent 10 years with the club, five of which were championship seasons. In 1964, after the last banner year, he traded in his bat and mitt for an umpire’s mask, travelling the intercounty circuit and officiating games for the next 27 years.

After the fifth championship, I said, ‘Well, boys, it’s time to hang ’em up. ’ I was almost 40 and I could see myself slowing down. They started getting me going down to first base. I was getting out by one step when usually I’d be across the bag. And in the outfield, I’d usually be waiting on the ball, but I was just getting there.

The memories come back with ease as Wilkes sits in his kitchen. One rises above all others: the seventh game of the 1946 World Series against Paiges Monarchs. Kansas City had taken the first three, but Wilkes’s Eagles had come back to tie the series. “We were leading them,” he recalls. “They had two men on, and Buck O’Neil was at bat. He hit a ball high, to left centre, for sure it would have been a triple, and I went and got it. He said to me after, ‘You little sonuvabitch. You won the World Series for them.’ That’s why they put me out there. If it was in the ball park, I’d get it.” In his memories, Jimmy Wilkes can still fly. ES]