Wilfred Harding, our own 'Jackie Robinson,' broke several colour barriers
Article and Photos from the Windsor Star
Years ago, a sports columnist for the London Free Press sought out Wilfred Harding to share his story of being a gifted black athlete growing up in Chatham at a time when those gifts were spurned simply because of race.
Those who saw him flash across the ice or crush a home run speculated he could have played professionally in either hockey or baseball.
“This is the only thing that held me back,” Harding told the late Ernie Miller as he rubbed the skin on his arm.
“Boomer” Harding broke colour barriers in two sports with athletic prowess that simply wouldn’t be denied.
At just 17, he was part of the first black team to win an Ontario Baseball Association championship in 1934. That was also the first year the OBA allowed black players in the league.
Harding was also the first black hockey player in the International Hockey League when he joined the Windsor Staffords in 1946.
He was the first black to play at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium, where ironically, he had been turned away from a public skate years before.
“Very few people know about this story,” said Miriam Wright, head of the University of Windsor’s history department. “It’s our own Jackie Robinson story and it happened years before.”
Scrapbooks full of brittle yellow newspaper clippings and black and white photos that document Harding’s prolific career will now be preserved digitally through a new University of Windsor initiative.
For over seven decades, members of his family proudly snipped out newspaper boxscores and game reports featuring Harding’s exploits. As age forced him to hang up his skates and pack away his glove, he found success in horseshoes and darts.
Pat Harding, his daughter-in-law, pieced much of his story together in three thick binders.
It’s her meticulous work that helped earn him a slam-dunk induction into the Chatham Sports Hall of Fame and it serves as the foundation for the university’s retrospective website and digital archive of Harding’s life and career.
Wright found precious little has been documented about Canadian black sports history in general and few outside of Chatham know the significant contributions of Harding or the Chatham Coloured All-Stars baseball team.
Harding and his All-Stars’ teammates were literally chased out of towns by people brandishing rakes and hoes when they beat the local white team on the baseball diamond.
“That was a normal occurrence,” said Blake Harding, his son.
In spite of facing an onslaught of taunts and threats through the years, Harding continued to play all the sports he loved.
“He wasn’t bitter,” Blake said. “What he was, was a realist. Was he angry? Did he feel cheated? He knew he could have done more but he realized why he couldn’t. There was hurt in his eyes when he spoke of it.”
Harding told his son about making the trip north to play the Penetang Shipbuilders in that historic OBA final.
The team borrowed a flatbed truck and rode up in the back of it.
The group of young men weren’t allowed to stay in any of the hotels in Penetanguishene but they found a hotel owner in Meaford who let them spend the night as long as they cleared out before daylight.
Having won the first game of the best-of-three series in Chatham, they were ahead by three runs in the fifth inning of the second game up north when the umpire called it on account of darkness.
The catch was that it was still a beautiful sunny afternoon.
The umpire told the Chatham team they could come back next weekend at which time they would start the game over from scratch.
OBA officials later overruled the umpire and allowed Chatham to maintain its lead when the game resumed a week later.
In winning the OBA title, they beat Penetang’s ace pitcher, Phil Machildon, who just a year later embarked on a 10-year career in the Major Leagues with the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Red Sox.
Observers felt there were several members of the Chatham team that could have enjoyed similar Big League success.
Of all the snubs he faced as an athlete, one that lingered for Harding was not being allowed to play hockey for his hometown Chatham Senior Maroons.
They weren’t keen on integrating the roster, so Harding played for Windsor. He also played for a Detroit team and for a Canadian army team that did a playing tour against professional teams in Europe.
In 1988, just three years before his death at 77, Harding received an Olympic Gold Achievement Medal honouring 55 years of sports achievements. The medals were awarded to just 18 Canadians as part of the Calgary Olympic celebrations.
Off the field, Harding broke yet another colour barrier when he became Chatham’s first black mail carrier for Canada Post. One brother, Andy, became the first black member of the Chatham Police Service.
Pat and Blake Harding are thrilled that Boomer’s career will now be shared for years to come with the website and digital archive which the university will officially launch in the spring of 2017.
“We’re over the moon,” Blake said. “It’s overwhelming. We’re absolutely thrilled with it. My dad was very humble but he would have been proud.”
University librarian Heidi Jacobs says what they’ve done so far “is just the tip of the iceberg.” They plan to offer a travelling exhibit and curriculum material for K-12 students.
Just a few weeks ago, the university, in partnership with the Chatham Sports Hall of Fame, received an Ontario Trillium grant of $72,000 which will allow for an oral history component featuring recorded interviews with Harding family members as well as relatives of other Chatham Coloured All-Star players.
“Some of the stories will be about the achievements and about the hardships,” Wright said. “It’s important to get both sides.”