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Recalling the Western Major Fastball League

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The Winnipeg Colonels of the Western Major Fastball League pose with their namesake, Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Col. Harland Sanders. The Colonels won the WMFL championship in 1973.

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The Winnipeg Colonels of the Western Major Fastball League pose with their namesake, Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Col. Harland Sanders. The Colonels won the WMFL championship in 1973. Photo Store

When the Western Major Fastball League (WMFL) came to Winnipeg in 1973, it filled a void on the summer sports scene.

The city was without professional baseball after the Winnipeg Whips were moved by the Montreal Expos before the 1972 International League season.

The idea for a high-level interprovincial fast-pitch softball league was first raised by prominent Edmonton curler and sportsman Bill Tainsh during the 1972 Canadian Senior Men’s Championship played in the Alberta city.

Manitoba was represented by the K & A (Black) Knights, a team that had dominated the provincial scene in recent years. At first, Harry Buekert and Art Penner of the Knights weren’t interested, but they realized that the team needed to find better competition if it ever hoped to challenge for the Canadian title.

In February 1973, Buekert and Penner decided to take the plunge. They announced that the Knights would join Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon and play home games at Charlie Krupp Memorial Stadium on Friday and Saturday evenings. Champs Food Systems president Oscar Grubert liked the idea so the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchiser came aboard as the sponsor and the Knights became the Winnipeg Colonels.

The Colonels were strictly a Manitoba team, with the only interloper being all-Canadian catcher Peter Weston, who had been transferred from Calgary to Winnipeg by his employer.

The Knights provided pitchers Ralph Ens and Kenny Peters, infielders Grant Skinner, Barry Braun, Buzz Lamond, Cliff Dyck and Ron Toews and outfielders Ed Gilroy, Lloyd Penner and Ron Taylor. Captain Al Norris, Ken Dilk, Dave Shyiak, Murray Riddell and Dave Saulnier completed the roster. Buekert served as manager while Art Penner and Leo Bouchard did the coaching.

Crowd and media support for the new team was strong. One highlight came the night KFC founder Colonel Harland Sanders arrived at Krupp in a white limousine.

Between games, Sanders was brought to home plate where Buekert welcomed him and showed him a team warm-up jacket with the iconic photo that you see on every KFC store on its back.

Grubert and Buekert helped the Colonel remove his white suit jacket and replaced it with the black Colonels one. Before the PA system could be switched back to the press box, Sanders turned to Grubert and said, much to the delight of the large crowd, "You got something to do with these boys, Oscar?"    

Throughout the regular season, pitching dominated across the league and the Colonels batters had trouble adjusting to the best in the West, hitting just .184. After Winnipeg and Regina Carlings finished tied for fourth place, Ens threw a one-hitter in a sudden-death game to give the Colonels the final playoff spot. In the semi-finals the Colonels beat the Saskatoon Jacks four games to two while the Calgary Braves got by the Edmonton Monarchs in five. The Monarchs were coached by former CFL greats Johnny Bright and Normie Kwong. In the best-of-nine final, Winnipeg beat the Braves in six games with the clincher coming in front of 1,200  fans at Krupp when Ens won his eighth playoff game.

Now 40 years later, the Colonels, most of whom still live in the city, are remembering the Cinderella run that led to Winnipeg’s only WMFL championship.

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