Black History Month: Earl Chase, ‘a legend that needs to be known’

Earl 'Flat' Chase, centre, seen in a team photo of the 1934 Chatham Coloured All-Stars (Photo Courtesy of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame).

Most of those who played with and against Earl Chase agreed: Were it not for the colour of his skin, the man they called ‘Flat’ could have played major-league baseball.

Nicknamed for his flat feet, the North Buxton, Ont. native starred on teams throughout the southern part of his home province during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, captivating fans wherever he went. Like Babe Ruth before him and Shohei Ohtani decades later, Chase was a two-way player. As a hitter, he held the longest home run record at many of the parks he visited and routinely batted close to .500. His crowning achievement as a pitcher came when he out-duelled future big-leaguer Phil Marchildon to win the 1934 Ontario Baseball Amateur Association (OBAA) championship for the Chatham Coloured All-Stars.

Chase kept playing for years after that championship, but because the prime of his career took place before Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in 1947, he never got the chance to play in the bigs. In the years since his 1954 death, Chase’s accomplishments have largely been lost to history.

Beginning in 2015, however, the University of Windsor created Breaking the Colour Barrier: Wilfred “Boomer” Harding and the Chatham Coloured All-Stars, a digital project designed to document and preserve the story of the first black team to win an OBAA championship.

For more context on Chase’s life and career, Sportsnet spoke to two of the directors of that project, Dr. Miriam Wright, an associate history professor at the University of Windsor, and Dr. Heidi Jacobs, the co-director of the Centre for Digital Scholarship at the university’s Leddy Library.

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

Sportsnet: Let’s start with ‘Flat’ Chase the player. What was his skillset on the field?
Dr. Miriam Wright: He was somewhat typical of the era in that he was a baseball player who could play many different roles. Very, very versatile. He excelled as a batter, a pitcher and also a shortstop. This was a time when players weren’t so specialized. His skillset was very broad and deep.
Dr. Heidi Jacobs: While collecting his stats, I remember adding up [the numbers] and at one point he was batting something like .750.

What about the other teams? What kind of competition did the Chatham Coloured All-Stars face?
Jacobs: One of the things I want to underscore when we talk about this team is this isn’t just a small, regional team. They pitched against [nine-year MLB veteran Phil] Marchildon, and Chase was one of the reasons why they won. There’s a [newspaper] quote from 1934 that helps put this into some context. They had played a double-header against the [Negro League’s] Detroit Stars in 1934 and split the series. This journalist wrote “when it’s considered that the Detroit nine was picked from the 180,000 coloured residents of Detroit, where baseball’s going better than ever, Chatham’s fans must realize that the Stars are a pretty nifty team.” Those couple sentences capture that had they not been Canadian, they probably all could have gone a lot further.
Wright: [Chase is] also the one that people describe again and again as the one who should have had a chance in major-league baseball. People say again and again that “he could have made it” or “he would have had a chance if it weren’t for the colour of his skin.” That’s the sad part of his story. We celebrate him as an incredible ballplayer, but that’s the other side of it: this realization that just because of who he was, he was denied a chance that other people had.

At the time, how well known was Chase to local baseball fans?
Wright: Even at the time, he was described in superlative terms. There’s a headline in the Chatham Daily News from 1947: “Three-time champion Chase has his following. It consists of every baseball enthusiast in Chatham.”
Jacobs: Just legendary. In my research I came across a story where his son was wandering around in Welland, Ont. and running into someone who asked his name. He said, “It’s Horace Chase,” and the person said, “Are you related to Earl Chase? There’s a plaque out here commemorating one of his record home runs.”
Wright: That’s the thing that really struck me. You look at material from that time period but also in the years that followed, there would often be commemorations at various points over the years recognizing the team. There were a few newspaper articles and oral histories that were done from the ’50s through the ’80s and ’90s, and he’s the one people talked about the most, he’s the one that’s a sort of legendary giant, but it doesn’t seem like it’s an exaggerated legend. In his case, it seemed to reflect reality — as crazy as it seems. They talk all about the records he set in ballparks all over southern Ontario. The stories about the ball flying over the fence and into people’s backyards and over buildings and going downtown.
Jacobs: He hit balls they still haven’t found.

In addition to his playing ability, he was known as a charismatic player. What kind of personality did he have?
Wright: A very big personality, and he may have dominated the team in some ways. The former players when they talk about that time, also talk about how much fun they had. They’d hang out and someone would play a piano and Flat wound sing and dance — that kind of thing. So there is a sense of a party atmosphere.

What kind of racism would Chase have encountered in Ontario at this time?
Wright: All of [the players] faced the same kind of racism. Society was fairly segregated. There were no specific Jim Crow laws like there were in the U.S., but there were real social and economic divisions. Black people were often relegated to low-paying jobs. In Chatham, labour jobs or working the hotel as a bellhop [for example].
Jacobs: A lot of the players worked at the same hotel; a hotel they wouldn’t be able to stay or eat at.
Wright: Segregation in restaurants and public places was real. A lot of restaurants just did not accept black people and that was true in Chatham and it was true throughout Southern Ontario. Even if there were no official laws, it was real. There’s all kinds of evidence about that, and the players themselves talked about that. They talked about getting turned away from restaurants or having to go to the back door. This was a real problem for them when they were traveling on the road. They’re going to away games and they don’t know if there’s a place where they can get something to eat or stay overnight. It was hard. That’s the thing about this team, Flat and all of them. It was a lot for them to put themselves out there by joining this white league and traveling and putting themselves out in a very public way, they knew that they would be drawing flak. They knew they were going to get racial slurs thrown at them and things thrown at them, but they powered through that. That’s something that we need to give them credit for. It took a lot.
Jacobs: I knew racism existed in Canada, and I knew racism existed in this region, but reading some of the transcripts, it was just horrific some of the details that you’d hear.

Looking back, how would you describe the legacy of Flat Chase?
Wright: Well, it’s a shame that his legacy hasn’t been wider-known. Within the black community in Chatham, within the descendants of these players he’s always been this giant figure that was in many ways larger than life at a time that they needed people like that. They needed people who could excel, make them proud and instil a sense of self-confidence in them. A ‘he is part of us’ kind of thing. That’s what his legacy was for that community and it’s been a very powerful one. That’s why within the families and the community, his name has continued to live on. It’s a shame that in many ways he was lost to the rest of Canada. It’s a story that I think we still need to hear. Not only was he an excellent baseball player, but he was willing to stand up and put himself out there and face the kind of racism that was prevalent in society.
Jacobs: This is a story that absolutely needs to be told. Once you start hearing about it you think “this was a legend that needs to be known.” That story needs to get out there and I think the time is now — well, the time was many years ago¬ — but I think it’s really inexcusable that we don’t know this story.

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