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Baseball and Ethnic Violence in Toronto: the Case of the Christie Pits Riot, August 16, 1933

Sports and Ethnicity
Spring/Summer 1985 Vol. 7 No. 1 Pg. 67

During the depression, the City of Toronto made a concerted effort to keep many of its young men out of trouble by providing them with a program of organised sports at a number of parks and playgrounds.1

The most popular of the sports activities was baseball, and amateur teams were followed by their fans with a degree of enthusiasm nearly equal to that shown for the major leagues.

On most evenings during the summer months amateur hardball and softball games provided free and exciting entertainment for many who could not afford more expensive forms of leisurely diversion. At one of these games, played in Willowvale Park (popularly referred to as Christie Pits), one of the most serious ethnic disturbances in Toronto's history took place.

The summer of 1933 was particularly hot and humid. The oppressive weather only exacerbated the tensions created by growing protests against poverty and unemployment in the city.

Toronto's parks were the scenes of violent confrontations between communists and socialists who had gathered to hear their leaders speak and the Toronto police who, acting under the orders of Chief Draper, were determined to break up those illegal gatherings. On the evening of August 16, 1933 a semi-final softball game was played in Christie Pits between Harbord Playground and St. Peter's.

This was the second game in a three game series; there had already been some trouble at the first game played two days earlier. A small group of spectators waved around a black sweater with a white swastika sewn onto it and harangued the Harbord team (the majority of its players were Jewish) and its supporters with anti-Semitic epithets; and Jewish and Gentile boys returned to the park on the evening of the second game, Wednesday, August 16, ready for trouble.

Regardless of who introduced the anti-Jewish taunts into the Monday game at Christie Pits, members of the Pit Gang were not slow in recognizing that this was an excellent way to cause trouble. Rumours of possible confrontation brought out large numbers of both Jewish and anti-Jewish supporters to the second game.

Rumours about what had happened on the Monday evening and what was going to happen on the Wednesday evening spread so quickly in the community that on Tuesday the secretary of the Toronto Amateur Softball Association appealed to the city police to take action to prevent a violent altercation at the second game.

An editorial in the Toronto Daily Star two days after the riot referred angrily to this forewarning: Chief Draper had, owing to the rumours of the trouble that was brewing, been requested by letter to provide additional police protection for the occasion.

This extra protection was not provided. No doubt if the request had been based on the fear that somebody was going to make a speech in Willowvale Park, horse, foot and artillery would have been there to prevent the speech and drive everybody out of the valley. (18 August, p. 6) In response to the tense atmosphere, local people organised in advance for trouble and made sure they got to the Pits before the beginning of the ball game.

Most of them were Jewish boys loosely referred to as the Spadina Avenue Gang. Frequenters of the pool halls and restaurants in the Spadina/College area, they were considered "tough guys" both within and without the Jewish community. (In fact, their number included many amateur boxers, several of whom went on to become professional fighters.) Scores of these boys, perhaps more, went to the park in cars and trucks before the game on the strength of the rumour circulating since Monday night.

Trouble came soon after the end of the game on Wednesday night, which St. Peter's won 54, when a group of youths unfurled a large swastika flag at the southern end of the Pits.

Jewish youths charged across the field towards the swastika bearers and an hour of uncontrolled fighting with baseball bats, clubs and lead pipes, which left many injured on both sides, ensued. Four members of the so-called Pit Gang - local unemployed adolescents from the Willowvale area - were arrested. When questioned, they admitted that it was their aim to keep the Jews out of their park.

Any analysis of a riot requires some consideration of the sequence of steps culminating in the breakdown of social control.As Neil Smelser has shown in his Theory of Collective Behavior, riots are typically sparked by a "precipitating factor" which triggers off the riot proper.2

This triggering incident, taken by itself, does not cause the riot but becomes defined by those involved as appropriate grounds for embarking upon the violent course of action. As sociologists of sport have shown, sporting events frequently serve as both the social occasion and social context within which the precipitating factors of riots unfold.

An understanding of the Christie Pits riot necessarily involves a general appreciation of the anti-Semitism confronting Toronto Jewry at the time, but, more importantly, Jews' perception of the horrifying change in its manifestation with the sudden appearance of Swastika Clubs in the 1930s, organised allegedly for keeping the public beaches clear of "undesirables." Anti-Semitism and the formation of the Swastika Clubs, however, are not the focus of this short paper.

Instead, against the general backdrop of ethnicity, we examine the role of a baseball game which served as the triggering incident resulting in the inter-ethnic violence at Christie Pits. The area around Christie Pits was predominantly lower-middle and working-class English then. The Orange influence was pervasive. Local inhabitants had suffered under depression conditions and many of the young men had been unemployed for quite some time.

Jews were beginning to move into the area just south of Christie Pits and many of the neighbourhood youths felt called upon to defend their turf from the encroaching aliens. It is, therefore, no accident that the street fighting took place in an area contested by Jewish and Gentile groups.

The major newspapers in Toronto contributed to the growing hostility by describing the trouble which had occurred at the end of the first game in the Harbord - St. Peter's series. Furthermore, both the Toronto Daily Star and the Mail and Empire reported that the Jewish boys had threatened that they would be coming to the second game prepared to deal with any anti-Semitic provocation.

Interestingly, after the riot, the Toronto papers emphasized the spirit of sportsmanship and cooperation which existed among the boys of all ethnic groups in the baseball leagues of Toronto. The Toronto Star, for example, in reporting the riot stressed the mixed composition of Harbord Playground, St. Peter's and other teams. Under the heading "Jews, Gentiles Play Together," it reported: Amateur sport puts up no racial barriers if the personnel of many of Toronto's most successful baseball and basketball teams - with Jews, Gentiles, Italians and other central Europeans playing together - is any criterion.

Irish boys in minority groups play on predominantly Jewish teams. Jews, singly and in groups, team with Gentiles, and throughout all there is no friction of a racial character, according to sporting authorities, closely in touch with the teams.... Most striking examples of this inter-racial teamwork is seen in the Lizzie's basketball team, 1932 champions, the University of Toronto basketball team, Big Five champions last year, and the Arlington baseball team, leaders of the Greenwood Park Senior League, all of which have several races represented in their line-ups.

Playing on the Arlington team, which is predominantly Jewish, and managed by Harold "Skin" Gallander (a Jewish athlete who plays for the Lizzies' basketball team) are Jack O'Connor, Joe Hill (who plays softball for St. Peter's, one of the teams playing at Willowvale Park where the fracas occurred last night) Johnny Decker, and Herman Bush, an Italian who is rated one of the best pitchers in the city.

There are nine Jewish boys on the team. A sole Jewish member of the Native Sons' team, playing in the Western City League at Willowvale Park, is Myer Miller, while another similar example is that of Al Samuelson, pitcher for the Bain's Coal softball team in the Davisville Park senior league.


Another is Sammy Rubin, who is the only Jewish member of an east end softball team in the Beaches League. (17 August, p. 3) Spokesmen for the two teams vigorously denied that the players were involved in any way with the provocations or the actual fighting.

In an interview conducted by us last year, the manager of the Harbord boys confirmed that there was no animosity between the two teams: But the interesting part of this whole thing is there was no animosity between the teams. There was nothing because St. Peter's was the Catholic Youth Organization. They did not have an everyday programme, they had a league programme. Most of these kids that played for St. Peter's were in the same neighbourhood.

They came to Harbord Playground and they probably played other teams at Harbord. The boys knew each other. It was a good series. According to former residents of the Christie Pits area, members of the Pit Gang supported local sports teams from St. Peter's Church and Essex Playground. While this support was partly a reflection of anti-Jewish sentiments, the latter were not deeply rooted in anti-Semitism.

The riot, they maintain, is best seen as the result of actions taken by overly enthusiastic fans with a history of causing trouble in the past. As one resident recalled: The peculiar thing that impressed me about them [the Pit Gang members] was . . . they were fans of local teams like Essex Playground ... and St. Peter's.... They were your fans, and they come and cheered you up.... And there was no doubt about it, they were trouble makers.... Whether they were anti-Semitic or not, I don't know.... I mean, in that group, I got to recognize this, that any Jew was an outsider.... Jews was outsiders, they were good bait, and that was it.... I doubt very much if anybody in that group really, really had a hang on anti-Semitism as we know it today.

I doubt it. That there was resentment, ya, but I think it was based on local sport pride. This approach to understanding the riot, however, is not strongly supported by the evidence. Contemporaries also explained the Christie Pits riot as a clash between Anglo-Saxon and "ethnic" youth. Both Jewish and Italian respondents pointed out that the Jewish contingent was accompanied to the Pits by Italian allies.

They reminded us repeatedly that the relationship between the Jewish and Italian communities, in particular the connection between the youth, was generally supportive and cordial. After all, both were immigrant groups sharing similar life circumstances in the same poor neighbourhoods.

As well, both groups were outsiders experiencing discrimination and bigotry at the hands of the WASP establishment and British majority.3

These explanations, however, are not convincing. According to several respondents, some Italians fought on the side of the Pit Gang against the Jews. Furthermore, as the newspapers reported, and as corroborated by our respondents, although Blacks were hardly present in Toronto in those days, a young Black boxer figured prominently among the group which raised the swastika flag.

Thus while the Christie Pits riot was motivated by ethnic and racial considerations, any attempt to separate the two sides into distinctive ethnic groupings is less than accurate. Clearly the most important element leading to the outbreak of the open hostilities was anti-Semitism. Jewish youths growing up in Toronto during the thirties met social and occupational resistance from a smug Anglo-Saxon elite and a xenophobic Orange middle and working class.

The use of the swastika highlights the anti-Semitic sentiment. A quick perusal of the newspapers in the first half of 1933 shows that the extreme anti-Jewish policies of the German government were duly reported by the Toronto papers. There can be absolutely no doubt as to the implied significance of the swastika nor to the meaning which the Jewish youth attached to it. The character of this anti-Semitism is complex.

On the one hand, it rested on a long tradition of Protestant anti-Semitism, which, unlike the anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church, was founded less on theological dogma than on the perceived economic and social threat of upwardly mobile Jews. On the other hand, the geography and social utility of Christie Pits is not without significance here.

For whatever else the Christie Pits riot may have signified, it was also a struggle for turf between a primarily defensive déclassé group of Anglo youths and an upwardly mobile group of Jewish adolescents who had suffered discrimination. The baseball game, which pitted a team perceived to be Jewish against a local team - albeit one perceived to be Catholic - generated excitement among team members and their supporters and provided the occasion for the outbreak of violent confrontation.

To the extent that Toronto was dominated by a stuffy WASP establishment and the popular ideology of Orangeism, Jews, Italians and other immigrant groups were forced into a kind of alliance. However, squabbles between Jews and members of other groups were not unknown, even though the data suggest that the intensity and duration of such conflicts were limited.

iFor the Jewish youth of Toronto, participation in the Christie Pits riot was a reaction against years of bullying and a signal that Jewish youths were no longer going to play by rules which were so blatantly stacked against them.


1. N. Smelser, Theory of Collective Behavior (New York: The Free Press, 1963).

2. One of the supervisors of the Harbord Playground in 1933 described the organisation of the playground system and the importance of organized sports for the generation of depression youth as following:

The playground system was different then.... Today it's oriented to folkdancing and art and things like that. At that time a fellow by the name of Armstrong ran it. And he come out of the public school system here. He was the writing inspector and started as a teacher of writing at the old McCaul School at University and Elm where the old Mt. Sinai Hospital is.

And then the city hired him as a playground supervisor. His theory was keep them off the streets. It was the depression years; keep them occupied. So the playgrounds were opened wherever possible. And this was at the back of Harbord Collegiate.

That's where Harbord Playground comes from. And there were many like that. Some of them were permanent: Moss Park was a permanent ground, belonged to the city. East Riverdale was, Osler was, Glady Calhoun was at Osler. Bob Abate sort of moved around - you must have heard that name.

That was Lizzie's, it was on the Elizabeth Playground, at the Elizabeth School.... But then he moved to Central Tech.... But the theory of doing things was to have teams and that was the basis of trying to keep kids off the street and out of trouble.

There was no money. The kids had no money. I had kids there who would come at nine o'clock in the morning and if they didn't play baseball, they'd be playing quoits. This was their whole life. There was no money to spend. They might run home or get something to eat or bring a sandwich, but they came from far away.

They came from below College Street, even some below Dundas. And some of them hung around all day and the joint was open from nine to nine. You close up the playground when the lights went off.

3. One of our respondents, an Italian Canadian who went to the Pits with his friends to support the Jewish boys, provided the following interesting account of the anti-ltalian sentiment in Toronto at that time: They'd call you wop, ya. As a matter of fact we even made up a song about the Italians . . . 'When I first come to this country, people called me dago man. Long time ago they make me feel just like an empty banan.

First they called me Tony Spagoni, then they'd say, 'You're full of macaroni.' Now it's a biga shame they gimme the nickname. Why don't you tell them to stop, stop, stop. Why don't the Irish cop tell them to stop.

First they called me Tony, you're full of macaroni, now they call me wop.' Actually, this is how it was: 'You lousy wop.'

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