Historic baseball series captures Nottawa author’s heart

 In Sports

Nottawa resident Doug Fox has channeled his love of baseball into his first book, On Account of Darkness: The Summer Ontario Baseball Broke the Colour Barrier.

A lifelong baseball fan and player, Fox said he could often be found in the stands watching his home team rounding the bases, and playing in the minor leagues which developed into a love of grassroots baseball that is still going strong.

Fox became enthralled with the story of a 1934 historic baseball series when The Ontario Baseball Association allowed a team of black players to compete in the provincial playdowns. The team of black players were from Chatham and they played Penetanguishene in the intermediate finals that year.

“That really brought it home to me because I grew up in Midland and so several times a year I would play in the Penetang arena and there was this big old black and white photo of an old ball player,” said Fox.

He came to learn that man was Phil Marchildon, who played major league baseball at a time when Canadian players were almost unheard of in the league.

A retired elementary school teacher and sports journalist, Fox began researching the story in earnest about three years ago.

The end result is a fictionalized story reconstructed through first hand accounts and newspaper archives.

One of the players’ moms kept a scrap book of articles printed in the local newspaper and was later published by two University of Windsor professors as an educational tool to promote awareness and understanding of the team.

“I found lots of stories that had largely been forgotten from that era so it was a lot of fun to bring them back to life,” said Fox.

He said he wanted to reconstruct the story for both teams so he opted to tell the story through two narrators – both real life reporters covering the story for their respective towns – Jack Calder, reporting for the Chatham Daily News and Marvyn Dickey reporting for the Penetang Weekly Herald as they follow star players Phil Marchildon, who played for Penetang and Bloomer Harding who played for Chatham.

“I wanted to address the racism angle that was inherent in Ontario at that time, and still is in Ontario today,” said Fox.

The series went late into the season so it captured the attention of baseball fans around the province but Fox says his research has indicated that no one thought about the series as progressive, or history-in-the-making. He said even Marchildon glossed over it in his biography, making note that the race of his opponents was not a main part of the story.

“I think it has gained importance over time because it happened 13 years before Major League Baseball broke the colour barrier,” said Fox. “So I think its fame has only grown over time.”

The story builds throughout the book to the final series played in Guelph in late November which was tense for many reasons, including possible underlying racism.

The game was tied after 10 innings. Chatham took the lead in the top of the 11th and then Penetang came to bat, trailing by a run in the bottom of the 11th with one man out and the umpires called the game “on account of darkness.”

According to the rules of the day, the game would have to be played again the next day.

Chatham felt it was assured a win and it had been stollen from them, being only two outs away from victory.

Tempers flared and accusations of racism were made.

Accounts of the day say that Marchildon, Penetang’s only pitcher, suffered from fatigue the next day and Chatham pounded them.

“The win for Chatham was very big in their community, because I think it helped gain acceptance for the black community,” said Fox.

The Chatham coach followed the win with a famous speech about ending discrimination and Boomer Harding became Chatham’s first black postman, and later became the first black player in the International Hockey League.

Fox said, as a white man, he wrestled with writing a book about race and discrimination but decided not to shy away from talking about the larger issue of racism locally.

Fox will be giving a book talk at the Penetanguishene Centennial Museum at 2 p.m. on August 31.

He will also be appearing at the Literacy Day Celebration at the Collingwood Public Library on Sept. 8, when he will be giving a brief talk.

The book will be sold for $20 at both events and is also available online.

Fox writes about the Blue Jays farm system at futurebluejays.com.

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