Joey Rosenthal is the young hero of our story. He’s a 14-year-old Jewish boy who just wants to go to the upcoming baseball game between Harbord Playground and St. Peter’s Church. Joey is only recently becoming aware of the antisemitism directed at his family and friends… but on this day Joey will witness it firsthand, when he decides to defy his older brother Zev, and go to the game.
On August 14, 1933, two days prior to the riot, the Harbord Playground, a largely Jewish and Italian team, played its first junior soft-ball quarter-final game against a team sponsored by St. Peter’s Church at Bathurst and Bloor Streets. During the first game that night, a member of the crowd unveiled a swastika flag. The flag bearers were later identified as members of the Pit Gang, also referred to as the Willowvale Swastikas, a group of Anglo-Canadian youths who fought to control Christie Pits Park.
Later that night, the members of the gang returned to the park to paint a swastika and the words Hail Hitler on the roof of the clubhouse. The members later told the Toronto Star that they did this because they wanted to “get the Jews out of the park.”
The second game on August 16, 1933, began with trouble. During the second inning a fight broke out between Jewish spectators and the Pit Gang after a group yelled, “Heil Hitler!” Throughout the remainder of the game there were several confrontations, including remarks shouted for the duration of the game and physical fights among the spectators.
After the game came to an end, some youths on the hill south of the baseball diamond unfurled a large white blanket with a black swastika on it. Upon seeing the offensive symbol, Jewish spectators charged towards it in an attempt to grab and destroy the makeshift flag.
Fighting then broke out at the scene. After an hour of fighting, the police arrived to control the violence. When the violence settled a rumor began to circulate that a Jewish boy had been killed. This refueled the fight, and the riot broke out again. The streets were flooded with people, many armed with baseball bats, exhaust pipes, and anything else they were able to find.
Word about the riot spread quickly with people rushing out of their homes to help on both sides. Some witnesses even reported seeing trucks bringing Italian and Jewish supporters to the scene of the riot. Many notable people from the Jewish and Italian communities took part in the fighting, such as local boxers Sammy Luftspring and Frank Genovese, as well as Johnny Lombardi, all of whom came out to support the Jewish fighters in the riot.
Despite being warned about the possibility of violence breaking out at the games between the Harbord Playground and the St. Peter’s teams, there was barely a police presence on the scene.