Monday, 24 June 2013

The Broadview Buffaloes




1937 Broadview Buffaloes Photo taken in front of the Broadview CPR station, 1937.
Back row (left to right): Buck Eaton, John Isaacson (both pitchers from Winnipeg), Chris Edwards, Dick Webb, Gene Bremer, Mack Sinclair.
Front row:
Lionel Decuir, Red Boguille, Roy Scheppert, Kitchie Bates, Ronnie Bates (manager). (Photo by Thora Anderson, Broadview) 

Where’s Broadview? Who are the Buffaloes? Little did I know that a casual conversation with my father in 1975 would lead to a huge fact-finding undertaking on my part. At that time, my wife Bonnie and I were newly-married a few months and living in Regina, Saskatchewan. That September I went cross-town to visit my father. We were sitting at the kitchen table over a beer, and somehow got on the conversation of integration in the major leagues, and Jackie Robinson, when out of the blue my father said, “Did you know Broadview had an integrated ball team back in the 1930s? They were pretty good, too.”

What!


Broadview was my birth place, as was my father’s. For those of you unfamiliar with the area, Broadview is a town of less than 1,000 people ninety miles east of Regina on the southern CPR line. But Broadview, how could they have fielded an integrated baseball team? It turned out, my father knew one of the locals named Chris Edwards who had played third base for the Buffaloes.  Later that day, I found Edwards’ phone number through information. My wife and I drove to Broadview a week later, met Edwards, and a friend of his named Bus Conn, who had also played on the team.  Thanks to Edwards, I got in touch with an elderly woman, Edie Maynard, a few days later. She, along with husband Frank, ran a Broadview hotel on the CPR line and helped to bankroll the team during the 1930s. At her house in Regina, Mrs. Maynard showed us the books she had kept for the team as its treasurer. One interesting expense was a $1,000 bond that the team had to pay at the international border to bring up the black players each year to play in Canada. It was then refundable upon return of the same players at season’s end. 


After what I had discovered then and many years later, leading up to 2013, the Broadview Buffaloes were probably not only the first fully-integrated baseball team in Canada, but a powerhouse on the prairies, a good decade before Jackie Robinson appeared on the scene.


Pre-1930, there were many documented cases of imported African-American ringers who came to Canada from the US to play here. In those cases, it was pitchers only, such as the legendary lefty John Donaldson, who had thrown for semi-pro teams in the Saskatchewan centers of Moose Jaw and Radville. One black pitcher, the rest were white seemed to be common.


Thanks to the many contacts over the past few years who have helped me in acquiring information, I never would have been able to put this article together.  My father, Chris Edwards, Edie Maynard, Bus Conn and others were very accommodating. The icing on the cake was Jay-Dell Mah’s outstanding website dedicated to baseball on the western provinces. Many of his accounts are from local newspaper archives. Try it at www.attheplate.com. Warning to all baseball historians…it contains a pile of interesting reading that could take you hours. And the site keeps getting larger by the week.


To start off, the Buffaloes were a semi-pro squad, meaning the black imports were paid, while most of the local amateurs (who were still good ball players in their own right) weren’t. Competition on  Western Canada ball fields was tough back then. Every town and city wanted to win. And, from what I heard, side bets were very common. Broadview senior ball dates back to 1934 and 1935, when the town fielded an all-white team called the Red Sox. Independent of any league, they played the lucrative tournament circuit, as lucrative as prairie ball during the Great Depression could be. By 1936, still as independents, they took aboard twenty-one-year old, right-handed pitcher Gene Bremer and his catcher Lionel Decuir, two Negro League players who had come up with their Shreveport Acme Giants teammates to Winnipeg in 1935 for an exhibition series against future-Hall-of-Famer pitching great Satchel Paige and his Bismarck Churchills, a fully-integrated team across the border in Bismarck,  North Dakota. Between 1936-1938, the Broadview roster saw Decuir, Bremer and other blacks from the Negro Leagues, including pitchers Jimmy Miller and George Alexander, power-hitting Sonny Harris, and the versatile Red Boguille.  (According to Edie Maynard’s records, Bremer was paid $45 a month plus housing expenses his first year in Broadview). Some of the white locals who played good decent ball, besides Edwards and Conn, were Roy Scheppert, Kitchie Bates, Harold Horeak, Mack Sinclair, and Dick Webb. I know these aren’t household names today, but they were well-known players in the area. In 1936, the Red Sox won three major tournaments with their beefed-up lineup. On June 11, they took the Broadview Annual Sportsday Tournament beating the Moose Jaw Athletics 5-0. July 1, they won the Moosomin Dominion Day Tournament  by defeating Virden, Manitoba 9-3. July 22, they took the four-team  Yorktown tournament, beating the host team 8-4. Then, on July 31, the Buffaloes, with Jimmy Miller on the mound, made a real name for themselves by downing the famous House of David, the bearded white barnstormers from Benton Harbor, Michigan, in an exhibition game at Indian Head by a score of 8-5. 

In 1937, the Red Sox changed their name to the Buffaloes and joined the elite Saskatchewan Southern League, with the Weyburn Beavers, Notre Dame Hounds and the Moose Jaw Athletics as competition. The Broadview crew were runaway pennant winners with a 8-1 record, not to mention four tournament wins to their credit in La Fleche, Grenfell, Lemberg, and Regina where they whipped  the local Regina Pilsners 17-1. Do you think they were named after the beer? Eight days before, Broadview split the prize money with the Northgate (North Dakota) Yankees after the two teams had to settle on a 7-7 tie in Broadview due to darkness. The league did not have in-house playoffs that year, electing instead to compete in the provincials with the northern teams. But, out of the blue, Broadview was denied any post-season competition when someone ratted them out. One of their players had supposedly played professional the year before. Ironic, because there were pro ringers all over the prairies in any given year. Results of a  further  allegation revealed that the Buffaloes had been playing touring American teams without the proper SABA (Saskatchewan Amateur Baseball Association) permits.

By 1938, the Broadview Buffaloes were now making a name outside Saskatchewan. A July 13, 1938 Winnipeg Free Press article reported, “A baseball classic of note is scheduled for Moosomin ball park…when the cream of western senior ball teams meet in the $300 tournament …Broadview Buffaloes, with colored players from the Southern States, are a mighty machine that is tops in the Saskatchewan Senior League right now.”  The Buffaloes didn’t win that tournament, finishing third. But they did win a number of other tournaments and important exhibition games, including another Broadview Sports Day Tournament on June 16 by thumping the Northgate Yankees  12-4. Eight days later, they won a 16-team tournament in Watson, Saskatchewan by defeating the hometown team 2-0. Then they won the Dominion Day tournament in nearby Norquay. That summer, the Buffaloes beat the powerful Grover Cleveland Alexander House of David team twice. And the minor-league San Antonio Missions and the colored House of David squads once each.  By this time, a strange thing was beginning to materialize. Broadview became too good of a team and the fans stopped coming out. When the 4-team Southern League play finished on July 31, the Buffaloes won another pennant finishing 16-5, while the closest team to them was the Regina Senators at 9-9. After the bad blood from the year before, Broadview decided to bow out of the 1938 playoff picture and continued on the tournament and exhibition route into August, before calling it a season. After three impressive years, two of those in the Southern league, the Broadview Buffaloes disbanded. Their run was over.

Several of the white players left to join other prairie teams. Most of the blacks returned to the Negro Leagues. Lionel Decuir caught for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1939-40, where Satchel Paige was a teammate.  In 1942, Sonny Harris found his way to the Cincinnati Buckeyes, which moved mid-season to Cleveland. His teammate, Gene Bremer, was the most successful of the Buffaloes imports. Born in 1915 in New Orleans, Bremer was not a big man at 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, but he could throw hard, using a zero windup and a fastball that may have hit the low 90s.


Then tragedy struck Bremer in late-1942, when he suffered a fractured skull in a car accident that killed two of his Cleveland Buckeyes teammates. Taking a year off from baseball in 1943 to recover, Bremer came back and still pitched well. He was a 4-time Negro League All-Star in the years 1940, 1942, 1944, and 1945, which meant he appeared in 4 East-West All-Star Games, the black equivalent to the Major League All-Star Game. The games were held in Chicago, usually before big crowds that saw 50,000 enthusiastic fans on more than one occasion. Bremer was talented enough to play with and against such mega stars in these games as Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson, Roy Campanella, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, Sam Jethroe, Ray Dandridge and Double Duty Radcliffe. As part of what may have been the first fully-integrated team in Canada in the mid-1930s, he was set to perform the feat again a decade later when a war-time rumor was making the rounds…Bremer and two teammates, Parnell Woods and Sam Jethroe, were going to sign with the American League Cleveland Indians. But, it never happened. Otherwise, Bremer might have been a two-time trail blazer on both sides of the border, an accomplishment beyond anyone’s comprehension. Bremer retired as a Buckeye in 1948. He died  in 1971 at the age of 54, while a Cleveland resident. 

 
My father sparked something inside me that day in 1975. Ever since, I’ve been hooked on the Broadview Buffaloes.  Were they really the first fully-integrated baseball team in Canada? Many people, including myself, seem to think so. But I do have an open mind. I’d like to hear from anybody who has information otherwise.

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