Updated: Feb 17, 2022
Playing Baseball before the King
At any time, playing a sporting game with the King of England in the audience was a singular honour. Shaking his hand afterwards was even rarer. One Black-Canadian soldier had the opportunity not just to do this but also to shine in a baseball game played before the King.
Charles Edward “Charlie” Kelly was born on 29 August 1892 in Ingersoll, Ontario. He was raised there, one of two sons to Arabella Henderson and Charles Henry Kelly. His father died while Mr. Kelly was still a child.
As a child he displayed a natural athleticism. When he enlisted in the 168th Battalion on 2 February 1916, he listed his occupation as “athlete.” Before the battalion sailed for England at the end of October 1916, Private Kelly was transferred to No. 2 Construction Battalion at its Windsor, Ontario detachment.
Private Kelly sailed with No. 2 Construction battalion to England in March 1917. In May 1917 No. 2 Construction Battalion was reduced in size and sent to France. Private Kelly was one of the soldiers left in England. Besides the infantry training that the soldiers did, they also played sports to provide exercise and entertainment. Here Private Kelly's baseball abilities caught the eye of officers. He was recruited for the Canadian Forestry Corps team to play in a small Canadian league in England. Kelly became their stand-out pitcher. Surprisingly, this was an integrated team at a time when Black soldiers often were unwanted by other soldiers.
King George V enjoyed baseball but only watched two games during the war. The first of these was on 8 September 1917. The game pitted the Canadian Forestry Corps “Foresters” against a team from Orpington Hospital. The game was played on the Windsor Great Grounds, part of Windsor Castle. Private Kelly pitched an outstanding game. He scored the team's first run in the bottom of the 8th inning to “deafening” applause. Orpington scored one run against him in the top of the 9th but the Foresters claimed the victory with one run in the bottom of the 9th - final score Foresters 2 – Orpington 1. After the game the King came onto the field and shook hands with the players, including Charlie Kelly's.
The Foresters were an outstanding team. When the Anglo-American Baseball League was formed in April 1918, the Foresters were one of the four Canadian teams invited to play in the league. They now played under the name Sunningdale Foresters. The team started well but finished in fifth place. Only one other Canadian team placed higher (in third place). Private Kelly would feature prominently in the team's play.
On 8 October 1918 Private Kelly finally had his chance to contribute more substantially to the war effort. He was transferred to No. 8 Company of the Canadian Forestry Corps. This company was composed largely of Black soldiers. Its role was to repair and improve airfields for the Royal Air Force (RAF) in France and Belgium. As the Allies moved east towards Germany the air force needed to be closer to the front. Repairing airfields the Germans had abandoned was important work as it allowed the RAF to better support the troops on the ground. No 8 Company was part of the Army of Occupation in Germany where it still worked on airfields. It was the last Canadian Expeditionary Force unit to leave Germany, doing so in late March 1919.
Unlike other members of No. 2 Construction Battalion, Private Kelly was released in England in July 1919. He then made his own way back to Canada and would become the star pitcher for the Ingersoll baseball team. At this time Black-Canadians were often denied the opportunity to play in leagues with white teams or even play on integrated teams. The Ingersoll team was integrated. Mr. Kelly and fellow Black player Bob Henderson helped anchor a team that was a contender in the Ontario Baseball Association. Mr. Kelly was not only a threat pitching but also with his hitting. pitched until 1925 after which he played second base. He and Bob Henderson were such an outstanding combination that they would sometimes be imported by other teams to play in tournaments for prize money. Mr. Kelly played baseball until the end of the 1926 season. His career was cut short by illness. He died suddenly at is residence in 1933.
His obituary described Charlie as One of the stars of the Ingersoll baseball team for years and an athlete proficient in other realms of sport. He was only in his 40th year. Besides his widow (British born Violet Goddard), he left behind three sons Charles Jr., Patrick and Lloyst, and daughter Reita.
A brother, Fred Kelly of London, also survived.
Charles Kelly was buried with full military honours, the funeral being held from the family residence where services were conducted by Rev. W. E. V. McMillen, rector of St. James' Anglican Church, assisted by Commandant W. H. Carroll, OBE, of the Salvation Army, Toronto. The funeral was very largely attended and there were many beautiful floral tributes testifying to the esteem in which the deceased was held. The pallbearers were Messrs. Samuel Smith, Herbert Mole, Harold Gray, W. J. Westlake, N. W. Foster and Arthur Jennings - fellow members of the 168th Battalion.
Not many people can say that they played baseball in front of King George. It was a singular honour to do so. Charlie Kelly made the most of his opportunity demonstrating his pitching brilliance to the King. He was also one of the few Black-Canadian soldiers to be part of the only two Black units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Mr. Kelly was inducted into the Ingersoll Sports Hall of Fame in its first induction ceremony on 21 June 1986. He was the lone athlete in the pre-1930 category to receive this honour.
We wish to extend our thanks to Greg Johnson for sharing his collection of family photos with the Ingersoll Cheese & Agricultural Museum. For more information contact the museum www.ingersoll.ca/cheesemuseum