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Sports This Week: The Indian Head Rockets remembered

Now black players in Canada was not especially unusual at the time although bringing an entire team north for the summer seemed to be.
Indian head rockets 72
The Indian Head Rockets.

INDIAN HEAD - The semi-professional Indian Head Rockets were a baseball team playing from 1947 to 1955.

On the surface that doesn’t seem like anything that unusual. Saskatchewan, and in fact Canada, was much more a baseball nation in that era than it is today. Every small team had a team, and sports days held tournaments that brought out large supportive crowds in a time before widespread television and improved roads taking people afar for entertainment.

“Between the years 1947 and 1955, the small town of Indian Head, Saskatchewan, held some of the largest baseball tourneys ever held in Canada. For most of those years the town was the home of the semi professional Indian Head Rockets. The first tournament,1947, attracted a post-war crowd of 10,000 people and was held as part of the July 1st celebrations. It drew 29 teams that included players Max, Doug, Scoop and Reg Bentley, Jim Shirley, Gordie Howe, Emile Francis, Nick and Don Metz, and other well-known players. Broadcasters Johnny Esaw and Lloyd Saunders were on hand to cover the play by play and post-game presentations,” suggested a release from the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum. 

But, the Rockets were indeed different from most teams back then.

“Jim Robison, the Mayor and businessman in Indian Head, Saskatchewan, in the 1950’s, promoted his town at every opportunity and was particularly enthused about baseball and curling. In 1950 he went to Wichita, Kansas where the National Baseball Congress was located and bought the Jacksonville Eagles, an all-black team on a naval base in Florida, which was part of the Negro American League. They were soon to be known as the Rockets,” detailed the release about the team’s upcoming induction. 

However, according to the Indian Head Museum Robison did not buy the Jacksonville Eagles, he contracted them to play as The Rockets when they played in Canada, and that the Eagles were in the Negro Southern League not the American League.

Now black players in Canada was not especially unusual at the time although bringing an entire team north for the summer seemed to be. The HoF release did note “1950 was long after Jackie Robinson broke the colour bar in professional baseball but major league teams were slow in taking on black players. It is estimated that up to 500 black players found their way up to Canada during the 50’s, which for many meant higher pay and less prejudice on the part of the Canadian public.”

Rockets players included Winters Calvin, Tom Alston who then went to the St. Louis Cardinals and Elijah ‘Pumpsie’ Green who went on to play with the Boston Red Sox. 

Green is actually notable as “being the first black player to play for the Red Sox, the last pre-expansion major-league club to integrate, according to Wikipedia. “In his Boston tenure, he was used mostly as a pinch runner or day-off replacement for infielders Pete Runnels and Don Buddin. Green made his debut on July 21, 1959, pinch-running in a 2–1 loss against the Chicago White Sox.

The Rockets were actually the Jacksonville Eagles lured north to play out of Indian Head.   

In his chapter on the Rockets for the book ‘Our Game Too: Influential Figures and Milestones in Canadian Baseball’ Max Weder explained the Florida team was required to “supply 16 players of AA calibre (including five pitchers), a bus, uniforms (with the name changed to the Indian Head Rockets), and all equipment. Robison also suggested that the team bus lettering be changed to the Indian Head Rockets. He requested that the uniforms be lettered with “Indian Head” on the front, and “Rocket” (singular) on the back with the player’s number. This was in fact done with the uniforms. In effect, the Jacksonville Eagles were to become the Indian Head Rockets. 

“As was true of some of the other earlier touring teams and prairie teams with imports, the Jacksonville Eagles were an all-Black team … Monetary considerations were undoubtedly the significant factor in Williams’ decision to move the team north. The players were to be paid $200 per month, plus board. It is not clear what portion of any prize winnings from the money tournaments the Rockets players would keep, but it was in addition to their salaries. 

“Along with other towns on the Canadian prairies, Indian Head was more welcoming to Black players than was much of the United States. The players were billeted in renovated apartments above the Dominion Café, owned by Charlie Koo. They were provided meals, and were not subjected to segregated seating.” 

Weder said while escaping the racism of some areas on the U.S. was likely a factor in the team coming north – it was less harsh in Saskatchewan to be sure albeit not non-existent – money, the chance to earn more in Canada was the main reason the team came north. 

“I do wonder how would it have been different had they stayed all year?” he questioned. 

In terms of the book Weder said his contribution was only a chapter among 22 provided by writers from across the country. 

Weder, who grew up in Saskatchewan, said his personal interest in teams such as the Rockets really developed after he moved to Vancouver and began collecting baseball memorabilia. 

“Ninety-nine per cent of people collect major league stuff,” he said, adding he met a fellow collector “who convinced me there was much more historical interest in local stuff” because that material represented “the stories that hadn’t been told.” 

At the time of the Rockets Indian Head was a hotbed of baseball. 

“Indian Head was home to some of the biggest Western Canadian baseball tournaments in the late 1940s, early 1950s. The tournaments in '48 & '49 brought in 25,000 to 30,000 people to Indian Head,” noted a release from the Indian Head CDC. 

While the Rockets were part of Weder’s chapter, he admitted “things with the Rockets are very hard to find.” 

Even when going into old newspaper files not every game was covered, and details of those that were written about were often still scant. 

The Town of Indian Head held its Indian Head Days once again this year June 24-26. The theme of the weekend was ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ in celebration of the 1950’s Indian Head Rockets. 

The Indian Head Museum opened its newest exhibit on June 25 at 1:00 p.m. which pays tribute to the Rockets. Indian Head Museum President, Robyn Jensen said in the release “The Rockets is a story of one man's vision, the community who stood behind him, and the level of talent by our all-Black players which made Indian Head the centre of Western Canadian Baseball in the early 1950's”. 

“This piece of our Town’s history affects so many people” said Steven Cole, Mayor of Indian Head in the release. “These community celebrations bring people together to show their community pride. The story of the Rockets and their legacy is definitely something that we can all be proud of”.


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