© Al Bryski
Madge Lake is a beautiful small lake of about five kilometres by five kilometres situated in the Duck Mountains Provincial Park in eastern central Saskatchewan. In the 1940’s and the 1950’s when I was growing up in Saskatchewan, it was a summer meeting place for people who traveled from near and far to enjoy the park and especially the lake. It is located about 20 kilometres from Kamsack and is accessible from Manitoba.
The small and larger communities in a hundred mile radius used Madge Lake as a prime recreation area. People would come by car or truck for a day outing. They could also rent a cabin for the weekend or longer. The lake was the main attraction for most. You could enjoy the fine sandy beach known by the name of Ministik; take a refreshing swim in the clean clear water of the lake; rent a rowboat or a motorized boat by the hour; and the fishing was good and water-skiing was just coming into its own. Just up from the main beach was, in my eyes, a most majestic lodge built of logs. It housed a restaurant/coffee shop, a store where you could buy groceries or fishing gear, an ice cream stand, and, of course, the shop for buying fishing licenses, renting boats or cabins, and spots in the campgrounds.
While I enjoyed the beachfront very much, I also looked forward to the Sunday afternoon baseball games at Madge Lake ballpark. The baseball diamond was located to the east if the lodge in a bowl like depression situated in a grove of large conifers. Sadly conifers are rare around the lake area now, replaced with aspens. Situated behind home plate and slightly back of the fence lines along the first and third base lines were rows of wooden planks seated on small wooden stumps that marched up the hill of the depression. The games started at 1:00 p.m. and were usually over by the time many people had to leave for home and/or chores.
Baseball was a popular pastime on the prairies. A local team called the Kamsack Cyclones played many of their games in this park. Their opposition in earlier times usually consisted of teams from the Northeastern Saskatchewan Baseball League. The circuit was based on communities along the old CNR lines in the eastern part of the province – Preeceville, Sturgis, Stenen, Hyas, Norquay, pelly, Arran, Buchanan, Canora, and Kamsack. Players were all local men from the town and surrounding farms. The calibre 0f play was excellent. It was often said that had there been a more thorough scouting system, many of these players would have made it to the top tiers of baseball in the U.S.A.
The pitching, fielding, and hitting abilities were refined with hundreds of hours of baseball played in the short ball season on the prairies. The seasons were shorter because many of the rosters carried farm “boys” who had to work their baseball schedules into the seeding, haying, and harvest times on the farm. Team funds were raised in many ways but the most popular way was by entering tournaments that were staged throughout Manitoba and Saskatchewan. First place money was often $2500 which in 1952 could buy you a couple of new cars. Teams came from all over to attempt to win the big money.
Then there were the touring all-star teams from the U.S who barnstormed through western Canada playing exhibition games and also playing in some of the big money tournaments. People were willing to pay a dollar admission to see some really great baseball although at Madge Lake there was a silver collection during most games. Some of these teams were the Muskogee Cardinals from Texas, the Florida Cubans, Ligon All-Stars from Los Angeles, the Nashville Stars, the Kansas City Monarchs, and the San Francisco Sea Lions. It is interesting to note that the local teams more than held their own against these all-star squads winning as often as they lost.
The Cyclones also played baseball with teams from the Manitoba leagues and in 1952 they were part of the Manitoba – Saskatchewan League playing against teams like the Yorkton Cardinals who had many future NHL players in their lineup and this include 3 cousins of mine, the Prystai’s –Metro, Harry, and Billy, who provided formidable offence as well as Stan Obodiac and Vern Pachal. There were the Dauphin Redbirds, Grandview Maroons, Gilbert Plains Plainsmen, Roblin Millers, as well as a team from Bowsman.
By this time some of the teams who could afford the salaries were also carrying one or two American players, a lot of whom were players from the now defunct Negro National League and the Negro American League in the U.S. In 1947, Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers to play in the major leagues. By Branch Rickey elevating Robinson to the big show from his minor league AAA Montreal Royals team, the color bar was broken. Soon most National League teams were signing Negroes, as they were still called then, to contracts without the Negro Leagues being able to do anything to stanch the flow. The money was so much better. Also at this time television was making an impact on the tastes of people. They began to watch big league games on television sets in their homes or in local bars. Attendance at games in the Negro Leagues was dropping daily and soon running a Negro team was a losing proposition. Eventually the American League colour bar was broken and more players were scooped up. This effectively started the final demise of the Negro Leagues
Not all Negro ball players made it to the “bigs”. Many languished on minor league teams with salaries not much higher than in their previous leagues. Others were deemed too old to be considered for a big league position. Many of these started drifting north into Canada where many were hired not only to play on the local team but to also coach the younger players at the high school and playground levels. Many liked the money and also the more relaxed attitude of their Canadian employers who judged them more on their baseball ability than on the color of their skin.
Three of my favorite Cyclone team members were “colored” players as they were being referred to instead of the term Negro. They were Jim Hester and Travis Taylor, a battery from the Muskogee Cardinals, and David Whatley, who in his career had played with the New York Black Yankees and the Homestead Grays. While his batting average in the Negro pro league was considered average at around .305, he batted at a much higher average in Canada. He was a power hitter!
I always look back with fondness at our Sunday outings to Madge Lake and the fact that I was privileged to see not only some of the best amateur baseball players in action but to also see the end of an era in American baseball with the influx of players from the American and National Negro Baseball leagues. It saddened me that they didn’t get to show their prowess in baseball in an integrated league in the United States and that they were forced to seek employment at lower rates of pay and far from their homes and families.