Nat Bates sat in a movie theater full of fans on Monday to reminisce about his days in Saskatchewan – the only place he felt he felt welcome.
Bates, now 91, traveled to Indian Head, Saskatchewan, in 1952 to play with the Indian Head Rockets, an all-black baseball team originally from Jacksonville, Florida. The team was one of several to compete on the Canadian prairies in the 1940s and by the 1950s offered black and Cuban players an opportunity that was elusive in the United States.
In 1952 there were more than a dozen leagues on the prairies, four of which operated in Saskatchewan.
The Rockets team was inducted into the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame last year, and Bates earned a spot in the hall individually on Friday.
“It must be tremendously rewarding for people to step up and show that kind of respect after such a long, long time that I've forgotten most of,” Bates said.
Bates traveled from his home in Richmond, California for the launch. On Monday he was in Indian Head, about 40 miles east of Regina, for a film screening Golden Chancesa CBC documentary about Bates, the Indian Head Rockets and the other teams of black American players who came to the prairies in the '40s and '50s.
After the screening, Bates patiently descended from the stage and spoke to every fan who turned up to see him, even though it had been some seven decades since he'd touched a baseball bat around town.
Fans lined up to get newspaper clippings and posters autographed. Some had kept the relics for as long as they could remember. Some – like Shirley Jackson – even saw the Rockets play live.
“They were all good, exceptional players. I think they won a lot of games,” Jackson said. “We enjoyed this – hot summers and baseball.”
This trip was Bates' third trip to Canada. He said it was the most heartwarming yet.
“I feel fantastic. The warm welcome I received during my recent visit was overwhelming,” he said.
Bates said the people of Indian Head made him feel at home during his time there.
“In addition to the hospitality of the people in general, families often invited us to their homes on Saturdays or after games for dinner. That was unthinkable.”
With tears in his eyes, Bates said he believed he was one of only two surviving members of the 1952 team, the other being Willy Reed.
It's important for players who face racism in sport today to respect themselves, he said.
“If you encounter such situations, be strong enough to ignore them and stay away from them.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — visit Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.