New Orleanians on the Canadian Prairies

The 1937 Broadview Buffaloes

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a multiple-part series on New Orleans Negro Leaguers on the Western Canadian Prairies.

I’ve stated a few times before that a good chunk of historical research and discovery comes along purely by chance — you’re looking into one subject or investigating a certain path of inquiry, and ka-blam! Something else completely unrelated pops its mischievous head up. That then leads to a steady uncovering of a tale all its own.

That happened several months ago as I was combing through microfilmed issues of the Louisiana Weekly newspaper here in New Orleans as part of my research about Eddie “Kid” Brown, a member of Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9 semipro baseball team and successful local boxer in the 1930s.

While doing this, I stumbled across a short article on the Sports page from June 2, 1938, with the headline, “Local Diamond Stars Shining in Canada.”

Nestled amongst similarly brief dispatches about the Alexandria (La.) Black Aces’ win over the Ferriday (La.) All Stars and the upcoming New Orleans Sports-New Orleans White Sox’ upcoming clash at the Crescent City diamond, the article about the Great White North discussed the exploits of local lads Freddie Ramie, Red Bougille, Lionel Decuir and “Bad News” Harris with the Broadview Buffaloes way up in the province of Saskatchewan.

The Louisiana Weekly article stated:

“Ramie and Bougille alternate in pitching and fielding. Both have been running up great records as pitches and due to their efforts, their team, the Broadview Buffaloes, are now leading the Southern League in Canada and seem headed for a pennant. Decuir catches and Harris plays first base.”

It added:

“In a doubleheader last week Bougille pitched the first game against the Senators winning 9-2 and Ramie hurled a twelve inning second game, winning by the close score of 8-7. All four boys are pounding the apple hard for extra base hits and are well liked.”

A couple months later, the Weekly ran a brief updating the situation in Saskatchewan, with a particular focus on Ramie. The article from Aug. 6, 1938, reported:

“From Broadview, Sask., comes the news that Freddie Ramie, son of J. M. Ramie, local letter carrier, is enjoying a brilliant season as a pitcher with the Broadview Buffs in Canada. He has compiled the good record of 9 wins, 3 losses and two ties. The Buffaloes have played 56 games to date, winning 43 and losing 10 and tying 3. The team has traveled over 4,000 miles during the current season. Young Ramie expects to leave Canada for New Orleans on August 15.”

A couple weeks later, in the newspaper’s Aug. 20 edition, sports editor Eddie Burbridge reported that the Jax Red Sox, a team in New Orleans sponsored by the Jax Brewing Co. and managed operated by longtime local Negro Leagues owner and entrepreneur Fred Caulfield, now had Ramie and George Alexander, another Crescent City native who had ventured north of the border, in the Jax lineup for a five-game city championship series with the New Orleans Sports.

Wrote Burbridge:

“Fans are in for some great baseball, as Manager [Clarence] Tankerson of the Sports is really pointing for the Red Sox. The Sox have been strengthened by the addition of Freddie Ramie and George Alexander, who have been playing good ball in Canada. The Red Sox play the Lafayette Red Sox in Lafayette on Sunday, August 28, Sunday, September 4, and Labor Day, September 5, play a Mexican Club at Pelican Stadium.”

Having stumbled on the local kids’ trip to Saskatchewan while perusing the Louisiana Weekly, I checked a couple newspaper databases on the Internet for any corresponding coverage in the Saskatchewan press from 1938.

The online adventure paid off when I found a bunch of articles from papers in Saskatchewan covering the Broadview Buffaloes that include writings about Ramie, Decuir, Bougille and Harris and their exploits for the Buffs in ’38.

Lionel Decuir with the Broadview Buffaloes

Bougille started Broadview’s home opener on the mound, and Ramie took the hill in relief. In addition, Decuir donned the catcher’s mask behind the plate. From there, the guys from the Big Easy played a huge role in Broadview’s stellar season, with reporters occasionally noting that the Louisiana imports were black, “colored” or antiquated adjectives like “dusky.”

In the June 2, 1938, edition of the Regina (Sask.) Leader-Post, sports columnist Dave Dryburgh relates how the Broadview management’s intensive scouting efforts had paid off by placing the Buffs “in a class by themselves.”

Dryburgh added:

“They’ve picked up a few dandies this summer and our guess is that rival Southern league clubs will have to do a spot of bolstering if they hope to stay within hailing distance of the Buffs.”

The article listed Harris (first base), Ramie (right field), Decuir (catcher) and Alexander (pitcher) on the roster.

A later article in the Post-Leader credited Broadview’s recruits for an easy Buffaloes’ victory in a day-long tournament that had attracted more than 2,000 spectators.

“It made the day just about perfect for main line baseball fans who are ready to wager next fall’s crop,” the article reported, “that the Buffs, with their sun-tanned imports, will clean up on everything around the countryside before the summer is over.”

The less-than-PC term “sun-tanned imports aside, the New Orleans players led the squad’s burst of talent. Similar effusive but cringe-worthy parlance filtered through a June 17 Leader-Post story previewing the upcoming weekend’s slate of contests; the article noted that much of the club’s core was composed of the NOLA fellows. It stated:

“In their first appearance in Regina this season the Buffaloes made a hit with a big crowd in taking a close decision over the [Regina] Senators. Their dusky sluggers from down Louisiana way are popular, and tonights [sic] crowd should be every bit as large.”

Throughout the summer, the Louisiana natives proved their versatility and adaptability. Ramie on the mound and Decuir behind the plate made up arguably the strongest battery for Broadview and possibly in the whole league, but when Ramie had a day off in the pitching rotation, he’d frequently play in the field, particularly in the outfield.

Bougille steadily and ably manned second base for Broadview, but he also appeared in the outer garden and occasionally pitched, while Alexander shined on the hill and Harris found time at first base.

The quintet of Louisiana lads was so good, in fact, that after a rocky start to the season, the Buffaloes pretty mowed down all of their competition by capturing several tournament titles, beating most of the barnstorming teams that traversed the Canadian prairie, and so outpacing the other teams in their league that the circuit closed up shop before the season formally finished.

Quite simply, baseball got boring in Saskatchewan thanks to the Louisiana-led Buffaloes, resulting in plummeting attendance throughout the summer as baseball fans lost interest in a race that was so clearly already won.

Penned Dryburgh in the Aug. 12, 1938, Leader-Post [irritating ellipses in original]:

“No doubt you have noticed that the Southern ball league has come to an untimely end … it just went phft …” he wrote. “… but it did seem like a good idea at the time and improvements can be made in the setup for next summer … for a while earlier in the year the loop caused some excitement as [the] Broadview Buffs failed to hit their stride but once they got to the front the Buffs killed interest by breezing to the wire … frankly, Broadview was too good for the league … but that wasn’t Broadview’s fault and the colored boys packed them in until the fans became accustomed to watching them win and commenced to stay home at nights … next year every club should attempt to important at least one good pitcher and a cleanup hitter … there’s a definite place for league ball during June and most of July … the good touring teams don’t come along until late in the summer.”

He added:

“On the whole it was a good ball season … the Buffs kept things humming at the various tournaments and the tourists that came along were of better calibre than in previous years …”

It’s significant that a sportswriter in the province heartily endorsed the recruiting of outside players by other Saskatchewan teams, and keep the presence of barnstorming teams in the area for a little later in this post.

So that’s the basic outline of the story — New Orleans guys win big in Canada in 1938. However, after a little more curious digging, other rivulets of information branching out from this central narrative slowly grew in number and size, eventually outlining quite a fascinating historical picture.

Bernie Wyatt, an historian of Canadian baseball, told me in an email interview that the Buffs — and their success on the field and at the gate — were a huge deal, significantly because they were in a largely agrarian area with a pretty sparse population:

“The Buffs were very popular on the Canadian prairies — covering the three provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — in the late-1930’s especially in southern Saskatchewan and apparently well-known as far away as Winnipeg, Manitoba, 250 miles to the east,” he said. 

They were also revolutionary in actively and enthusiastically seeking out ringers — especially ones from thousands of miles away and from very different demographic backgrounds, Bernie said. Competition was intense between town teams in a region where, aside from outdoor recreation, there might not have been a lot for locals to do. In the summers, baseball was king, especially at festivals, fairs and other hullaballoos that drew from miles around.

It was in this situation that the Broadview club excelled, with a good portion of that success attributable to the import from the American Deep South.

“Local communities wanted to win,” Bernie told me. “The money was in tournaments, and not so much in league play. The Buffs took a lot of tournaments on both sides of the international border. Bringing in the black ringers — who were a novelty to Canadians — helped Broadview win. Side bets were the thing. And I heard that Broadview kept winning to the point that the side-betters usually had to give odds, and not go even-up.”

The strategic tactic was so outside-the-box that the Buffs, according to current knowledge, “were the first fully integrated ball team in Canada,” Bernie said. He added that “t]he Buffs in any given game would often put three, four or five black ballplayers on the field.”

The Louisiana imports were much beloved by their host community, said Bernie:

“The Broadview community took [the Black players] in as their own, although Black people were seldom seen on the prairies except for the occasional Black barnstorming team that came through.”

Bernie also wrote this excellent article about the Buffs on his blog, for some more in-depth analysis of the legendary team.

(For a comprehensive — nay, exhaustive — look at the history of baseball in Western Canada, you have got to go to this site. Specifically, here’s the page on Negro Leaguers in the region, and, specifically, here for the home page about 1938, and here for 1938 game reports. I’ll be circling back to the Web site in future installments of the series.)

In 2017, the 1936-38 Broadview Buffaloes were deservedly inducted into the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame.

Jane Shury, who recently retired as president of the Sask Baseball Hall, wrote an article in May 2017 for the Battlefords News-Optimist newspaper about the honor being bestowed on the 1930s Buffaloes.

In the story, Shury — who had been with the Hall since 1983, when it was founded by her late husband, David Shury — relates how the squad might be one of the most significant teams in Canadian history because of its roster. She wrote:

“This was a very unique, powerhouse baseball team in Saskatchewan that research indicates as the first fully integrated team in Western Canada and perhaps Canada, which took place 10 years before Jackie Robinson burst onto the major league scene.”

A perfect summary for an amazing club.

Post-note: The next installment (hopefully in a couple weeks) will take a look at the New Orleans players themselves, their lives and their careers.

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