*This article contains a word in historical reference to the name of a professional baseball league in the United States that operated from approximately 1920 to 1951, which may raise difficult emotions for some readers.
One thing Paul Allen might like more than baseball is a good story ─ about baseball. And as a young 21-year-old player for the London Pontiacs in the 1960s, he heard his share, recounted by “the legends” of the Intercounty Baseball League (IBL).
Now he’s telling their stories and a few of his own in his new book, Bright Lights, Black Stars.
The book celebrates the IBL, Canada’s oldest baseball league, and the players from its glory years, post World War II, including former Western professor and squash coach Jack Fairs, and the Black stars who extended their careers in Canada when the Negro Leagues south of the border collapsed.
“The first year I was there, I played with the guys who were older than me telling everything about the great players who came before me,” Allen, now a retired teacher, said.
“I remember sitting on the bench before a game in Kitchener, Ont., and longtime London coach and trainer Norm Aldridge pointed at the green left field fence in Victoria Park. He said, ‘Allen, you see that fence out there?’ and then proceeded to tell me about Wilmer Fields, a great Negro League star hitting two-line drive doubles off that fence, saying ‘It’s amazing that fence is still standing.’”
“They would talk about the home runs of all these IBL greats, who sent balls over the trees and into the rivers. I was filled with a sense of awe for these phenomenal players,” Allen said.
His admiration remained throughout his nine-year IBL career playing for London and the Brantford Red Sox, and as his book illustrates, lives on today, sixty years later.
Breaking the colour barrier and the collapse of the Negro Leagues
When Allen, a graduate of Althouse College at Western, joined the Pontiacs (now the London Majors) in 1963, it was 44 years after the IBL was founded ─ and 16 years after Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier, becoming the first African American to play in Major League Baseball (MLB).
It was a triumph long overdue, opening the door for Hank Arron and Willy Mays, and many of the best young players from the Negro League. However, the loss of these major players saw attendance decline at Negro League games, hastening the league’s demise.
“As more MLB teams signed up younger Black players, the older players in their early or mid-30s were considered ‘too old,’ But they still wanted to play, and north of the border, post-World War II baseball in Canada was booming,” Allen said, noting the players also joined the winter leagues in Latin America and Mexico.
The Galt Terriers and Brantford Red Sox were early supporters in recruiting Negro League players, with other IBL teams soon following their lead. Often, the Black players found more security and bigger salaries than what they experienced in the barnstorming leagues.
“While the Manitoba-Dakota League attracted more than 300 Negro League stars, that league lasted only eight years, from 1950 to 1957,” Allen said. “But the IBL is still going today and can boast 40-plus Negro League stars on its rosters between 1948 and 1958.”
The up-tempo, fast-paced ball played in the Negro Leagues was “a more exciting brand of baseball,” Allen said, noting key innovations they brought to the game.
“They were the first ones to have portable lights, and they ‘hit and run’ (running as the batter was getting ready to swing). If there was a base that was open, they would go. White players might steal second, but they would very rarely go to third.”
The IBL glory years included Allen’s former hometown coaches, a group he also honours in Bright Lights, Black Stars.
“Part of my desire to write this book came from my association and respect for Jack Fairs, Joe Bechard, Willie Casanova and Bruno Casanova, all of whom played in the IBL. They were not only excellent coaches, but fine men who made lasting contributions to baseball in Chatham,” he said.
Beyond great coaches, Chatham also offered Allen what he now describes as an integrated setting, “but, back then, we were just kids who wanted to play ball.”
He played alongside Don and Mel Wakabayashi, who were born in Slocan, British Columbia, in a Canadian internment camp for people of Japanese origin during World War II – and the great pitching legend and first Canadian inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Fergie Jenkins.
“Fergie and I go back a lot of years,” Allen said, having played with Jenkins from his Bantam to his Junior days, until Jenkins signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1962. “We were on three OBA (Ontario Baseball Association) championship teams and often attended Major League tryout camps together.”
Allen saw in his book a chance to set the record straight.
“Fergie likes to start his speeches teasing that he learned how to pitch throwing coal at the CNR cars going by near his home, but I wanted people to know that Fergie learned how to pitch in the Chatham minor baseball league with people like Fairs and Bechard from London’s championship ’48 team, and then, my grade 13 high school coach, the great Gene Dziadura, who had played pro ball for the Phillies.”
Jack Fairs: London Major, gentleman coach, respected professor
After graduating from Columbia University in 1947, Fairs joined the London Majors of the Senior Intercounty Baseball League. He played with the team for six seasons as catcher, helping the squad win the North American Sandlot Championship in 1948. When he passed away in 2021, at the age of 98, he was the oldest of the London Majors alumni.
Allen considers himself extra lucky to have had Fairs not only as his all-star Pee Wee coach but also as his professor when Allen earned his teaching certificate during summer sessions at Althouse College in 1965, 1966 and 1967. He reflects on Fairs’ humour in a “teachable moment.”
“Jack Fairs was not only a great baseball coach, but a great educator. I was thrown out of a game at Labatt Park before my next scheduled summer session class with Professor Fairs. The London Free Press printed a picture of me ‘getting tossed’ and when I arrived for Coach Fair’s lecture, he impishly held it up and announced to the class: ‘Paul Allen is going to briefly speak on sportsmanship’. He did this with a twinkle in his eye and did not embarrass me. My ex-coach was still coaching me. He was always about sportsmanship and class.”
Fairs was offered professional baseball contracts from the Chicago Cubs and the Brooklyn Dodgers, but chose to stay in London, teaching at Western, where he was one of the founders of the physical education department, which became Kinesiology in 1972.
Back where it all began
On Friday, June 30, Allen officially launched his book during a London Majors game at the oldest continuously played baseball park in the world, Labatt Memorial Park. Fitting, given it’s where he first played in the IBL, with the greats who inspired him to write his book.
“There were a lot of terrific players that came out of London and Londoners should be proud of the history of baseball in their city,” Allen said.