IBL WELCOMED FORMER NEGRO LEAGUES PLAYERS
Baseball was popular in Ontario prior to the founding of the Intercounty Baseball League in 1919, and south of the border there was an abundance of teams competing in the major and minor leagues as well as the Negro Leagues.
Jackie Robinson taking the field as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers marked a watershed moment in North American professional sports. But with its brightest stars soon scooped up by previously whites-only major league teams, the Negro Leagues began to falter, closing up shop for good 13 years after Robinson’s big league debut in 1947.
As a youngster in Galt (now Cambridge, Ont.) in the 1950s, Galt Terriers fan Ed Heather cheered on the roughly two dozen former Negro League players who joined the independent Intercounty Baseball League (IBL).
“Most of them were pretty darn good players, but in those days, unfortunately, even if they were as good as the white guys, they had to be better. There were a number of players who would’ve been in the big leagues if not for their colour,” said Heather, who went on to cover southwestern Ontario as a scout for the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Terriers team for which young Ed chased batting practice home run balls featured Gentry “Jeep” Jessup, who had pitched for the Chicago American Giants in the Negro Leagues and dominated on the mound and at the plate in Galt.
Jessup was one of a group of African-American IBL players that included Ed Steele, who once patrolled the outfield alongside Willie Mays with the Birmingham Black Barons, and former Homestead Grays outfielder Bob Thurman, who joined the Brantford Red Sox in 1953 before being signed by the Cincinnati Reds.
The Negro League players quickly became the stars of their new teams.
“These guys who came up were the prominent players in the league,” Heather said, calling Wilmer Fields, a pitcher/outfielder from the Homestead Grays, “the best player I’ve ever seen in the Intercounty, period.”
American imports were also fan favourites.
“(The fans) loved them,” Heather said, citing Jessup as a prime example. “I swear to God he could’ve run for mayor. He was so popular. Everybody loved him.”
Jimmy Wilkes, a speedy outfielder who hit leadoff for the 1946 Negro League champion Newark Eagles, helped Brantford win five straight IBL titles during his decade with the club. The Philadelphia native settled in Brantford after his playing days, working for the city and serving as a highly respected Intercounty umpire for 23 years...