By Mike Kinney
Richmond City Councilmember Nat Bates won’t soon forget those precious moments playing professional baseball in Canada 70 years ago, when he and his teammates, several of whom were also from Richmond, were “treated like rock stars.”
“Fans would follow us from city to city, wherever we played,” said Bates, who was a pitcher with “a pretty mean sneaky ball.”
On Saturday, Aug. 20, those memories resurfaced when Bates traveled to Canada with his son and grandson to be inducted along with his entire 1952 Indian Head Rockets baseball team into the Canadian Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame. The Rockets were one of the first all-Black baseball teams to have played in Canada and had an outstanding record.
“Receiving this acknowledgement was amazing, I just couldn’t believe it,” Bates said.
During the ceremonies, Bates recalled receiving three or four standing ovations from attendees.
“I was so honored to be able to represent our team,” he said.
Bates was among five players from Richmond recruited to play professional ball in Canada. The others were Willie Reed, Emmet Neil, Winters Calvin and Pumpsie Green, who was the first African-American player to play for the Boston Red Sox.
Reed and Bates are the last two surviving members of the Indian Head Rockets. Reed was unable to attend the Hall of Fame Induction because he had recently undergone surgery. The Indian Head Museum and Max Weder sent Rockets jerseys to Bates and Reed.
“I felt so honored to know we were being honored as a team,” Reed said.
When Bates and fellow Richmond ball players were fresh out of high school, they played for Contra Costa College. They along with Black players from Jacksonville, Fla., were recruited to play for the Medicine Hat Mohawks in Alberta, along with several white players from the Bay Area. Then the owner of the Medicine Hat Mohawks switched up teams and became the owner of the Indian Head Rocks, an all-Black baseball team out of Saskatchewan that played in the Western Canadian Baseball League.
“If we won a tourney a big cash award would go to the owners of that team,” Bates recalled. “The players would receive nothing. An average tourney could make the owner of a team a possible $15,000 dollars. However, the generosity, respect and kindness from the Canadian fans was simply amazing. We had never experienced this before.”
Reed called the experience of playing for the Rockets “rewarding.”
“It was a great team and I was able to fit in right away,” he said. “I really enjoyed playing professional baseball there, and the fans were simply terrific.”
Bates recalls how he and his fellow Richmond teammates recruited to Canada could really play ball. Neil could “hit that ball far.”
“Reed was a single and doubles hitter,” Bates added. “He was a fire plug, so speedy. And Calvin Winters was a true power hitter, while Pumpsie Green was known for his calmness about him when he played ball with the team. The kind of calmness that baseball scouts look for when they were looking to recruit new players to a team.”
As for Bates, he was a pitcher who used strategy and psychology. Which is far from unbelievable given Bates would become a successful longtime politician serving the city of Richmond.
“I studied the batters,” Bates said. “I would set them up and then outmaneuver them, that was my style and strategy.”
He added, “Professional baseball prepared me for a successful life.”
With the time period being the early 1950s, some players, including Bates, ended up serving in the Korean War, which diminished their opportunity of playing professional baseball.
“When we returned from Korea, many of us could not return back to Canadian baseball because we were married and had families to support,” Bates said. “But I do remember before the Korean War, our Richmond players were talented and had skills.”
Bates says he wouldn’t have dreamed that an induction into a Hall of Fame was possible.
“It was such an honor bestowed upon Willie, myself and the rest of the team,” he said. “It was a thrill to acknowledge a team from 70 years ago.”