I’ve written before in these pages about the Sandy Bay baseball team of yesteryear. As a child I often watched baseball being played between Sandy Bay (Indigenous) versus Island Falls (non-Indigenous) starting about the age of five.
Sandy Bay is in northeast Saskatchewan on the Churchill River, not far from the Manitoba boundary (about 25 kilometres as the Crow flies). Island Falls is across the river from Sandy Bay, and it was a company town in that almost all of its adult residents were employees of Churchill River Power Company, which was a subsidiary of then Hudson’s Bay Mining & Smelting Company which had its operations at Flin Flon, and headquartered in far-off Toronto. The head office might as well have been in Timbuktu because it was so remote from even remoter Sandy Bay and Island Falls.
It so happened that sometime in the 1950s the “Smelter” team was the top fastball in Flin Flon. Flin Flon is about 120 kilometres to the southeast of Sandy Bay, and to it still runs the hydro transmission tower which first carried electric power from Island Falls in 1930. (That is 85 years ago and counting, SaskPower.) A “friendly” fastball game was arranged (to use the soccer term) between Smelter and Island Falls. It is Louis Ray, b. 1936, who told your scribe most of the details of the baseball side of the story. I merely took notes in listening to him tell it because your scribe was mortally afraid that if he brought out a recorder that the conversation would come to an end.
Louis was born in 1936 to Bud and Charlotte Ray and they lived at Sandy Bay. Bud was an American who had gone north in the 1920s from his hometown of Salina, Utah. Somehow he ended up in northern Saskatchewan in the Sandy Bay area and met and married Charlotte, who was Cree. (Now I didn’t get this part of the story on this from Louis but because your scribe is from Sandy Bay, has come into the possession of a few facts somewhere along the way.) Bud and Charlotte had a number of children, including Frank, Leonard (b. 1929), Ernie (b. May 1, 1934), Louis, and one or two others. Charlotte was Cree but the children were (are) Indigenous and grew up in Sandy Bay. Leonard and Ernie still live there but Louis moved away in the very early 1960s.
And so it came to pass that the Smelter fastball team was in Island Falls to play that exhibition match. Maybe needing some extra punch the Island Falls manager asked Leonard, Ernie and Louis to play for them, and they agreed. I still don’t know what year the match was played but Louis was all of 16 in 1952. Island Falls had some excellent sporting facilities because HBM&S was a wealthy company and it wanted its remote non-Indigenous employees to have amenities that they may otherwise not have had. They had a nice ball diamond with a backstop, a community club building with a basketball court and bowling alley, and an indoor hockey arena. They were a generally talented lot, those non- Indigenous employees and some of them were professionals (but not in fastball). One of the Smelter players, a pitcher, was Roderick Bear, and he apparently was from Muskoday Reserve. He was a good pitcher, Louis says. Roderick worked in Flin Flon for years and retired from there with a pension and eventually returned to his home turf at Muskoday.
In the initial stages of that exhibition game the Smelter team was on fire because they quickly built a 10-0 lead. However, thanks to the presence of the Sandy Bay imports Island Falls won the game 16-10. Louis didn’t want your scribe necessarily telling of this win because he may not have wanted to appear to be bragging, but I was such a fan of the game as a child. My late father, Thomas Merasty (b. 1927, d. 2000) used to take us to Sandy Bay- Island Falls fastball games all the time. I remember that dad came home from work every day at 5:00 pm. He’d have supper and then after a short spell on game days we’d get in the boat and go across the river to the ball game at Island Falls. It was always a treat to go to Island Falls.
The ball diamond was located somewhat behind Tom Willey’s store. It was a commissary and belonged to the CRPC but Willey was the manager and so Sandy Bay folks, for all intents and purposes, considered it his store. The Sandy Bay team always had their dugout (if there had been one) on the south side, and from an early age I knew that I had to stay on the south side and never stray into the north side.
Louis says that any non-Indigenous employee considered for hire in Island Falls had to have some athletic prowess, and if he was a good fastball or hockey player, they had a better chance. However, in the Sandy Bay-Island Falls friendlies, Sandy Bay always won every game they played in the early to late 1950s. Island Falls was the loser every time, Louis says. In those days there was an RCMP constable stationed at Island Falls and he policed both communities. However, in the late 1950s, just when your scribe was just developing his memory bank, a detachment office and holding cell was built in Sandy Bay. I do remember my dad doing some finishing work in that building. That meant that the RCMP officer was stationed there even if he still overnighted in Island Falls. This is an aside but the first person from Sandy Bay arrested and held in the lock-up was the late Etienne McDonald, for the usual reasons. Etienne retired from his job at Island Falls in 1970.
The RCMP officer of the day, Louis says, was Bob Fraser. (In 1967 a Const. Jack Fraser played for the Sandy Bay side.) He had always played previously
for Island Falls but then decided to play for Sandy Bay after the detachment office was built. The non-Indigenous players from Island Falls hated losing him and so asked him why he was switching. “Guys, I’d like to win for a change,” he told them.
The community of Sandy Bay only came into being after the creation of the powerhouse at Island Falls in 1930. Before 1930 there were some Cree locally and resided in a small collection of log houses about two miles upstream of present day Island Falls in a place that had also been called Island Falls. That original Island Falls community (and falls) were inundated by the creation of the reservoir when the CRPC powerhouse was built. The few dwellings there were flooded and so everyone removed to present-day Sandy Bay. No compensation was ever offered, or perhaps even considered. New arrivals that came from other places, mainly Pelican Narrows and Pukatawagan, Manitoba added to the population and it became a recognized if unincorporated community.
Sandy Bay was about half treaty and half non-treaty Indigenous. Some of the treaty folks, such as my late father, would have learned to play sports in residential school. The non-treaty segment, which was comprised of mostly Morins who had somewhat recently moved from Pukatawagan, would not have been to residential school and would not have had any experience playing team sports. (Pukatawagan, being majority treaty, many there would have been familiar with fastball and hockey.)
Louis says that most of the Sandy Bay players were taught how to play fastball by a Jack Proctor, from Winnipeg, and they must have been quick studies. A match was at length arranged to be played with Pukatawagan, which was a few hours’ ride by boat down the Churchill River. It was far enough away and dangerous enough, because of the rapids (this part of the river is known as “Missinipihk” by the Cree, which means “big water”), that trips between the communities were not common. However, because of their proximity, they have always been sister communities. It is only 67 kilometres by air between the two communities but much farther by boat.
A non-Indigenous Island Falls employee had, around that time, recently moved to Pukatawagan where he now was the proprietor of a general store. That owner, Louis says, brought over a professional fastball player, one Reynolds, from Winnipeg to play for Pukatawagan, a pitcher that was almost unhittable.
Louis recalls that one of the canoes going down to Pukatawagan belonged to Isaac Bear, who worked at Tom Willey’s store. If you needed gasoline, he was the filler-upper. Isaac’s canoe was powered by a nine horsepower Evinrude Elto outboard (your scribe suspects), one of those all-metal ancient models where the gas tank was immediately behind the exposed flywheel. Isaac’s son, Sidley, who is now about 74-75, but was then a teenager, went on the trip. Sandy Bay’s lead-off man was (in translation “Long-tall”) Peter Linklater (“Ki-nwâs-ko Petarr,” d. 1992), a good-natured, always cheerful and amiable fellow. However, he whiffed against Reynolds’s overpowering pitches. Proctor immediately took Louis, the number two hitter, aside and instructed him, “Don’t swing too hard at the pitches, just meet the ball – the ball will go far enough so that you’ll get on base.” All of the Sandy Bay side did the same and the bases were always full and there was always a base hit.
Sandy Bay won that game and they never once lost to Pukatawagan in fastball. This is not to rub it in but to merely state a fact. Louis says that my uncle on my mother’s side, Hyacinth Colomb (b. October 24, 1916, d. December 11, 2011), was a darn good player in those days.
Sandy Bay also had great players. Jean-Louis Morin, says Louis, could throw a fastball from centre field to the catcher on a rope, throwing out the baserunner, and he could hit and field. Both Ernie and Leonard were switch hitters, and Ernie was a power hitter. Proctor was Sandy Bay’s catcher but after he left Cyril “Book” Daniels became the catcher and never relinquished the position. No one ever subbed for him either because he never missed a game. The late Louis Bear later became one of the regular players.
Jean-Louis Morin had been baptised by a Roman Catholic priest and given that name, but locals anglicized his name to John-Louis as everyone became more proficient in English. But before they got proficient everyone spoke only Cree and they had trouble pronouncing the French so his forename was mangled by locals to “Sah-Louis” which is how Martin St. Louis, the former NHLer’s surname, is pronounced.
On the return from Pukatawagan the boys hadn’t had anything to eat so at Sisipuk Lake, which straddles the Manitoba-Saskatchewan boundary, they stopped at a rocky island, probably more like a reef, where Sidley filled a pail with gull eggs. It must then have been around the time before the arrival of summer. The boiled eggs satisfied their hunger.
A few years ago Ernie Ray, who was then at least 70, if not more, was invited to bat in a community fastball game at Sandy Bay. He tagged the ball hard and by then it probably wasn’t wise for him to run so he walked to first, second and reached third before the ball arrived. He still had it 50 years later.