For baseball fans across Canada, the name Fergie Jenkins is immediately recognisable. The first Canadian elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first baseball player to win the Lou Marsh Trophy, and a member of the Order of Canada (for being ‘Canada's best-known major-league baseball player’) - there is no doubt that he is a national legend. But, what many people don’t know is that Fergie’s father - Ferguson Jenkins Senior - was a Canadian baseball legend in his own right. A member of the Chatham Coloured All-Stars, Ferguson Senior was part of the roster which broke colour barriers and made the All-Stars the first Black team to win a title in the Ontario Baseball Association. Facing discrimination and racism on and off the field, this title win proved a monumentous occasion - sending a strong message and taking a defiant stance against the bigots of 1934 Canada.
However, as of 2022, the legacy of the All-Stars had started to fade. It was for this reason that Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG), in partnership with Major League Baseball (MLB) wanted to immortalise the 1934 championship-winning roster. Partnering with The Hive, a decision was made to recreate the team in the popular baseball video game, ‘MLB The Show 22’. Using historical photos, team artefacts and consultation periods with family members of the team’s players, as well as the Black Historical Society of Chatham, the 13-player roster was uploaded using the game’s team editor function - allowing the memory of the All-Star to live on through the global baseball community’s next generation.
Additionally, this campaign was supported by a short yet powerful film, featuring the descendants of the legendary players. Developed by The Hive and directed by Fela’s LeSean Harris, the spot provides an overview of the team’s history and the players’ perseverance through racism and the era’s other challenges. It also provides a behind-the-scenes look at the meticulous effort it took to recreate the team for the video game.
LBB’s Josh Neufeldt sat down with The Hive associate creative directors Mike Albrecht and Ryan Speziale, OLG director of brand experience & marketing Greg Dermer, and LeSean to learn more about how this historical campaign was brought to life.
LBB> What was the brief for this campaign like?
Mike> The brief was to showcase OLG’s commitment to Ontario communities through a partnership initiative with MLB. Right away, Ontario baseball communities became the focus for us.
Greg> As the OLG brand, we are looking to reinforce our position as an organisation that exists to contribute back to Ontario and its local communities. 100% of our profits go back to the province. Our sole purpose for existing is to contribute back to Ontario. Consumer awareness of this is low, so the question was, how can we - through the lens of baseball and our partnership with the MLB - tangibly show an example of our commitment to contributing back to Ontario and its local communities? As such, we felt the story of the Chatham Coloured All-Stars was perfect - representing a way for us to care for Ontario by ensuring the memory of this historic team is preserved and celebrated.
LBB> Did you instantly know you wanted to pay tribute through the ‘MLB: The Show 22’ video game, or were there other ideas in consideration?
Ryan> Once we decided we were going to honour this historic team, we threw all sorts of ideas at the wall. There were ideas about statues, AR experiences, and renaming parks or streets after them, but they all felt a little expected. Then, we were just looking at the MLB logo, and we remembered they have a video game. Once we reviewed ‘MLB The Show’s’ existing player creation tools and felt confident we could build the team’s roster and logo, we knew we were onto something.
LBB> Using ‘MLB: The Show’s’ team editor function to recreate the Chatham Coloured All-Stars is very creative. Tell us more about this process! How long did this take, and who was involved with physically recreating the team?
Ryan> The process began by scouring the internet for every photo and piece of information we could find about the team. We found some great resources on the University of Windsor website, which were collected and curated by Dr Heidi Jacobs and her team.
Once we had enough information to start building, the production team at Makers brought in a great play tester named Michael Narimalla for the development phase. We worked with him for countless hours, pouring over every image and detail of the 13-man roster, their uniforms, and team logo. It was very important that we bring these players back in the most authentic way we could!
LBB> Fela’s LeSean Harris directed the spot that came with the campaign. What was working with him like, and what made him the right person for the job?
Mike> We were thrilled when LeSean and the Fela team joined this project. Fela’s strength is their ability to tell cultural stories authentically and give a voice to the underrepresented - which made them the perfect partner to help tell the story of the Chatham Coloured All-Stars. As for LeSean, his aesthetic is incredible. He really elevated the overall craft of the film, and he was instrumental in helping us find the right tone with which to tell this story.
LBB> LeSean, what was the script for this campaign like? What immediate ideas came to mind when you first saw it, and why was it something that you were keen to get involved in?
LeSean> In many ways, I got my start in documentary filmmaking, so having an opportunity to tell a story about a historic baseball team was an immediate draw. The challenge however, was the fact that it’s been over 88 years since the All-Stars played. With none of them here to tell the story and little to no archival footage available, the immediate question was, ‘how do we still make this visually dynamic?’. From that came the idea of doing re-enactments on 16mm film and projecting the few archival moments we did have across significant landmarks throughout the city of Chatham.
LBB> Capturing the making of a project such as this must be different than shooting a traditional ad campaign. As such, what was the initial concepting process like?
LeSean> I never looked at it as a commercial or ad campaign. My focus was telling the story of the All-Stars and how OLG and MLB are keeping their memory alive. That started by building a story structure which allowed the concept of the team being introduced to a new generation of baseball fans to feel impactful. For that moment to pay off, the viewer first has to understand the significance of the team and why being the first all-Black baseball team to win an OBA championship was more than a statistic, and how that achievement went well beyond the sport of baseball.
LBB> Much of the spot plays like a documentary - featuring interviews with family members, recreating old footage and showing shots of significant images and items. What went into achieving this? How long did it take to shoot, and how did the experience compare to a more traditional ad shoot?
LeSean> We shot the project across three days, with about half the time going to interviews and the remainder to providing the visual backdrop for the story to be told. Traditional advertising can be so calculated that there’s little room for spontaneity. Projects like this are great because there’s no script - you have to embrace the process without knowing all the answers. For that reason, the interviews were the most significant part of the process. Speaking to the descendants of the players was emotional. It’s hard to imagine living through that time. By the end of it we had about three hours of interview footage, so you can imagine there’s a world where this could’ve been a full length piece. Whether it’s a traditional ad or a short documentary, the goal is the same - make people feel something. The difference comes in the responsibility as a filmmaker. These are real people and real stories before anything else.
LBB> An emotional part of the spot is witnessing the reactions of the families when they see the All-Stars in the game. Can you tell us more about capturing these moments?
LeSean> For better or worse, we wanted an authentic reaction. After each interview, we set up the video game in another room. The families were aware of the general idea, but hadn’t seen anything. We invited them to take a seat and pressed play. As they watched, I asked questions off-screen, and what you see now is how they truly reacted.
LBB> How involved were you in the post production/edit process? What directions did you give to the post/edit teams, and how long did it take?
LeSean> When working in a documentary format, the story comes to life in the edit. I work really closely with an editor named Nick Yumul. Over the years, we’ve developed a shorthand and built somewhat of a format when it comes to sequencing, pacing, etc., but it’s always a bit of a puzzle.
Initially, we spent five full days locked in an edit suite figuring out that puzzle. Nick has a way of understanding footage so well, you would think he was on set. Because of this, he gave new life to some of my favourite moments from shooting. After getting things to a place where we were both happy, we crossed our fingers and presented the cut to the powers that be.
LBB> Working on a project steeped in Black, Canadian, and Chatham’s history must have been a moving experience. What did the chance to be involved in this project mean to you?
Ryan> It means a lot. This is a very special project for us. The first time we spoke with the descendants of the team and members of the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society, we saw just how much this team means to them. Then, seeing their faces as the team took the field in ‘MLB The Show’ - that was quite a moment for everyone who worked on this project. Their reactions made all the hard work worthwhile.
LeSean> As a director, there’s several people putting their trust in you. For projects like this, that trust goes further, because the people involved are trusting you with their story as well.
Through the process, I realised how much of this country’s history is tied to southwest Ontario, and further, how much of this country’s history is often ignored because it doesn’t fall in line with the tolerant perception of Canadians. Projects like this are important because they bring attention to parts of our history that need to be acknowledged.
Beyond that, it reinforced Canada’s influence on sport. The All-Stars played a pivotal role in making baseball the multicultural game we know and love today. I’m happy their memory is able to live on, and grateful to be a part of telling their story.
Greg> I feel incredibly honoured to have been involved in this project. OLG values, fosters, and reflects equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) as essential elements of our culture. Moreover, we firmly believe that a winning culture can only be achieved with EDI at its core, and that together, we are more creative and innovative. I think this program helps exemplify our beliefs as an organisation.
Speaking purely as a baseball fan, I wasn’t even aware of the story of the team, and I am a born and raised Ontarian. The fact that our first great Canadian MLBer, Fergie Jenkins’ father played on the team nearly knocked me off my seat. This is such an important part of Ontario baseball history that not enough people know about - so we wanted to do what we could to help celebrate and preserve the team’s memory.
LBB> What challenges have you faced during this project? How did you overcome them?
Mike> The first time we pitched this idea, we pitched using a gamer from Twitch or YouTube to tell the story of this team. They were going to go to Chatham to learn about the team and their historic achievements, then build and play as the Chatham Coloured All-Stars for their audience. But then, once we spoke to the families and saw their overwhelming love for the team, it was obvious that they had to be at the centre of the campaign, and not a gamer we brought into the mix. Changing the way we were telling the story mid-project was definitely difficult, but it was the right call.
LBB> What has the initial response been like?
Ryan> The response has been absolutely amazing. The families of the team and members of the Chatham community were so excited to see their beloved All-Stars honoured in this modern way, which was a huge relief and a very satisfying feeling for us. We’re also seeing people download the team’s roster and logo in ‘MLB The Show’, which is really cool! Hopefully more people join in, and the story of the Chatham Coloured All-Stars gets bigger and bigger.
LBB> Is there anything you’d like to add?
Ryan> We’d like to thank the teams at The Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society, Fela, Married To Giants, Makers, Artjail, and Oso Audio for collaborating with us to bring this project to life.