This article was written by Merritt Clifton
This article was published in the 1984 Baseball Research Journal
When Jackie Robinson joined the Montreal Royals in 1946, he became – as every baseball fan knows – the first acknowledged black player in Organized Baseball since Cap Anson, Tip O’Neill, and the Ku Klux Klan routed Moses and Welday Walker back in the 1880s with threats of lynching. But Robinson didn’t crack the professional baseball color line in Quebec.
That distinction belongs to an otherwise obscure but determined and courageous pitcher-outfielder named Alfred Wilson, who joined the Granby Red Sox of the Quebec Provincial League in July 1935. The paradox that Robinson, not Wilson, re-integrated Organized Baseball is resolved by pointing out that the Provincial League then labored in the same twilight zone as the all-black Negro National and Negro American leagues.
Just as baseball had a color line, so it also had a language line. French-speaking players weren’t overtly barred from the American professional leagues, as black players were, but they faced strong xenophobic prejudice, especially if they didn’t speak good English and were born in Canada. Some weathered it, aided by U.S. citizenship, like former Dodger first baseman Jacques Fournier, Others, like Fournier’s successor Del Bissonette, tried American baseball for a time but eventually retreated back north of the border, where French prevailed. Still others, like Roland Gladu, spent almost their whole careers in the Quebec bush leagues, becoming legends of similar order to Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, but making only token appearances anywhere else.
The Quebec Provincial League, unlike the Negro National and Negro American leagues, was admitted to the Organized Baseball hierarchy off and on – 1921-1923, 1940, and 1950-1955. But mostly it remained independent from hazy origins in the nineteenth century through dissolution in early 1970. Even Wilson may not have been the first black participant, because in early, unstructured days the league included several teams in Missisquoi County, formerly the northern terminus of the Underground Railroad. A substantial black population lived there until around the turn of the century when, like many of their white neighbors, most sold small farms and moved westward. Some blacks definitely played on the Bedford town team, as verified by old photographs, although Bedford was never actually a Provincial League member. Bud Fowler, often referred to as the first Negro baseball player of note, is rumored to have appeared with several Quebec teams in the late 1870s, despite lack of written evidence.
However, once formally chartered, the Provincial League was all white. It remained all white until after restructuring in 1935 as an “independent” league, which meant that the teams supported themselves by gate receipts alone rather than through political patronage or industrial sponsorship. The team owners therefore had to stress winning and entertainment to a greater degree than ever before, and this in turn led to innovation.
Exactly who first thought of introducing black players isn’t recorded. The Granby owner, Homer Cabana, had organized exhibition games with barnstorming black teams in previous years and had undoubtedly been impressed with their talent. Meanwhile, Ace Corrigan, the Granby manager, had attended spring training with the New York Giants the year manager John McGraw tried to pass off black centerfielder Oscar Charleston as a white Cuban. But whoever had the idea, they agreed it was a good one and contacted Chappie Johnson of Chappie Johnson’s All-Stars (the protype of “Bingo Long’s Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings”) for help in recruiting.
Alfred “Freddy” Wilson was born somewhere in Alabama during 1908 probably in a Cajun district, because he did speak some French as well as English. He may have had a college education and was certainly reputed to have a good head for business despite personal financial misfortune — not uncommon for anyone during the depths of the Great Depression. He was articulate, dignified, proud and an extremely hard worker who made the most of limited natural talent. He stood about six feet tall, weighing 170 pounds, medium-sized among American professional ballplayers, but a giant in Quebec, where even today few men top six feet.
Wilson broke into the black bush leagues at age 21. For several years he belonged to the Zulu Cannibal Giants, who outwardly conformed to Jim Crow and lived up to the worst white stereotypes. But playing names like Bissagoos, Wahoo, Tanna, Rufigi, Taklooie, Kangol, Limpopo, Mofike and Ny Ass Ass concealed a hard edge of self-respect and defiance. Some of these “African” names were actually obscenities directed at white ignorance. Others harked back to actual African heritage. And the Zulu Cannibals weren’t afraid to whip hell out of white teams by any score they could manage. While Chappie Johnson cautiously instructed his All-Stars not to exceed a two-run lead, lest white fans take violent exception, the Cannibals often won by ten runs or more, depending upon guts and luck to save their lives.
The Cannibals dropped Wilson in favor of someone more talented. Johnson promptly picked him up, then dispatched him north in 1935 when Granby summoned. Wilson responded to the challenge by playing the best baseball of his life. He won all five of his pitching decisions while batting .392 with 20 runs batted in 79 trips to the plate.
Newspaper accounts don’t record what antagonism he may have faced, but one afternoon in Sorel the fans beat up the entire Granby team after a game Wilson pitched. Wilson’s race may have been advanced as an excuse. However, one must note that such conduct wasn’t uncommon in Sorel, a shipyard town where the umpires sometimes carried guns. On the other hand, racism was as prevalent in Quebec as in the United States. The all-Mohawk team from the Caughnawaga reserve was subjected to all manner of indignities by the team sponsored by the Montreal Police, while headlines called them the “Red Injuns” and referred to the barnstorming Hawaiian All-Stars as the “Japs.”
As Sorel ran away with the 1935 pennant race, revenue from exhibitions with barnstorming teams became essential to keeping the league afloat. Wilson used his black baseball connections to arrange tours by the Cleveland Browns, Boston Black Giants, the white House of David, the Boston ABC, the Hawaiians and, of course, his own former teams, the Zulu Cannibals and Chappie Johnson’s. The black barnstormers brought portable floodlights with them, the first time Quebec ever saw night baseball. By the end of the year, Granby had floodlights, too, and in future years night baseball became the Provincial League rule rather than the exception.
Wilson most distinguished himself in these exhibitions. He beat the ABCs with a five-hit shutout while hitting the first home run ever to clear the Granby stadium. Then he defeated the Zulu Cannibals, 7-6, before a then-league record 7,500 fans. The box score suggests the Cannibals might have given the game to him on purpose, committing several uncharacteristic errors in the last two innings. He was a brother, after all, and they wanted him to look good.
Wilson’s success in that regard was fleeting, however. An impressed Chappie Johnson dispatched Jack Wilson, no relation, to run an all-black Provincial League entry in 1936 and 1937. Called the Black Panthers, they replaced the Montreal Police, who were finally expelled for taking entirely too many liberties with the law. The Black Panther players were mostly teenagers from the Deep South, away from home for the first time and miserable. Their lineup changed from day to day and week to week as players steadily defected and were replaced.
One black player remained in the Provincial League, 17-year-old pitcher Clifford Johnston, already an imposing 6’4″ and 200 pounds. Some researchers have felt this Johnston actually was Clifford “Connie” Johnson, who at age 31 joined the Chicago White Sox in 1953 to begin a six-year major league career. However, Johnson denies that, claiming he didn’t play in the Provincial League until the late 1940s.
When the Provincial League rejoined Organized Baseball in 1940, it was again conformingly white. One year later the league relinquished its ties with O.B.
After a decade of obscurity, Fred Wilson ironically re-integrated the Provincial League in 1945, this time with Drummondville, where he mainly pinch-hit. This was still a year before Jackie Robinson’s Montreal debut. Lloyd MacKeen was then teaching school in Drummondville. “When we heard the team had a black pitcher coming with his family,” he remembers, “we told the kids that they’d soon have a classmate who was a little bit different, and they should be nice to him. We shouldn’t have worried. The pitcher’s son was a little hooligan, and he soon was the most popular kid in the school. I shouldn’t say he was a hooligan. He was a good kid, but lively. You know, the team didn’t pay the players much, and when the season was over we had to take up a collection to send the family back home to Alabama.”
Post-Robinson, the Provincial League became an entry league for blacks gaining their first crack at white baseball. Among the graduates were Dave Pope, Ed Charles, Vic Power, Hector Lopez, Ruben Gomez and Al Pinkston, who never played in the majors but who made the Mexican League Hall of Fame after hitting a lifetime .372. Connie Johnson won 15 games and struck out a league-leading 172 batters with St. Hyacinthe in 1951 on his way up at last.
And toward the end, after the last flirtation with Organized Baseball in 1950-1955, the Provincial League harbored a new kind of proud black ballplayer – men who knew they were good enough to play with whites, but who felt they had nothing to prove and preferred low pay and obscurity to taking guff somewhere south of the border. Nova Scotia-born John Mentis was one of these. He hit .340 in 13 Provincial League seasons, picking up a pair of batting titles. Twice he topped .400. “I had offers to play American baseball,” he remembers, but softly adds, “I wasn’t ready for that, where someone else could walk on the sidewalk and you couldn’t.” A quiet, gentle man, Mentis preferred the Alfred Wilson role-model to Jackie Robinson’s, even if it doomed him to the same fate.