The Cuban Giants were the first African-American professional baseball club.
The team was originally formed in 1885 at the Argyle Hotel, a summer resort in Babylon, New York. The team was so skilled in the game, and achieved victory over so many of the nearby amateur "white" teams that they attracted the attention of a promoter, Walter Cook. To appeal to a broader audience, Cook styled them the "Cuban Giants," a common ploy to avoid referring to the players as "black" or "Negro." There were no Cubans on the Cuban Giants. The team remained one of the premier Negro league teams for nearly 20 years.
The team went on to become the "world colored champions" of 1887 and 1888, and spawned imitators.
Though there were no actual Cuban men on the Cuban Giants, the team had played in Cuba in the fall or winter of 1885–1886.
In the September 1938 issue of Esquire Magazine, Sol White recounts the early days of the team: "…when that first team began playing away from home, they passed as foreigners—Cubans, as they finally decided—hoping to conceal the fact that they were just American Negro hotel waiters and talked a gibberish to each other on the field which, they hoped, sounded like Spanish" (Coover, 3).
It was a popular practice in the Sporting press at the time to refer to African-American players as Cuban, Spanish, or Arabian instead of admitting to the truth.
In 1896 ownership issues would lead to a new offshoot team being created, calling themselves Cuban X-Giants. The older owner's team was then referred to as Genuine Cuban Giant or Original Cuban Giants.
There are two different tales on how the Cuban Giants got their start. According to Sol White, a player who would join the Cuban Giants several years after they got started, Frank P. Thompson, a headwaiter at the Argyle Hotel in Babylon, Long Island, would regularly play baseball with the other waiters that soon became an attraction for the hotel’s guests. Before long, he signed 3 star players from the semi-pro black team, the Philadelphia Orions, and the team went on the road to contend any team who would play them.
However, according to an interview with Thompson himself published on October 15, 1887 in the "New York Age," an African-American newspaper, the majority of the ballplayers did not come from the hotel's staff, but from several other black teams. In Philadelphia, Frank P. Thompson organized the Keystone Athletics in May 1885, and in July they were transferred to Babylon, L.I. By August the Athletics had partnered with the Manhattans from Washington, D.C. and the Philadelphia Orions, and it was the coming together of these three teams that created the Cuban Giants. Walter Cook from Trenton, New Jersey was their white owner and Stanislaus Kostka Govern was their black manager.
Govern, who was a native of St. Croix, Virgin Islands, understood how a team could financially prosper in the Caribbean at this time. His own team, the Manhattans, had been playing in Cuba since 1882. Thompson had a connection to Henry Flagler through Osborn D. Seavey, and once the team was through with their Cuban winter tour, they came to St. Augustine, Florida to entertain the guests at the newly forming resort hub.
The Cuban Giants would come back to Florida many times during their existence. During the St. Augustine years, Thompson put together an organization called the Progressive Association of the United States. Thompson was the president of the Association, and Govern acted as secretary. Thompson used his position to conduct annual sermons for the Cuban Giants and any citizens who wanted, to come together against prejudice in the South. These sermons were widely well received and inspired others to join him in the cause.
In 1886, Walter E. Simpson bought the team and gave them a home at the Chambersburg Grounds in Trenton, New Jersey. Two months later, he would sell the team to Walter I. Cook.
Cook came from a wealthy family and was generous to the team with his money, especially when it came to illness or injuries, and he is known as the Giant’s most well-liked owner. They even played a benefit game for him in which they donated their pay to him. J.M. Bright purchased the Cuban Giants from Cook in June 1887. Bright was able to get them into the Middle States League in 1889, as joining a league was something the team had been trying to do for some time. However, Bright was not nearly as well-liked as Cook, and had to deal often with renegade players. This would be the teams last year in Trenton. In 1890 the entire team fled and played as the Colored Monarchs of York, Pennsylvania. In 1891, the heart of the team fled to their rival, Ambrose Davis’ Gorhams of New York City, then called the Big Gorhams.
This dismantling and reassembling of the team became routine year after year until 1896, when E.B. Lamar Jr. from Brooklyn bought the team from Bright, renaming them the Cuban X-Giants. Bright responded by putting together an inferior team calling them the “Genuine Cuban Giants” or the “Original Cuban Giants.” The Cuban X-Giants had a successful ten year run as one of the best black teams in the East.
In 1885, the year of the inception of the Cuban Giants, Henry Flagler built the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, Florida. Many members of the Cuban Giants worked at the hotel and played exhibition games as entertainment for the patrons of the hotel (Malloy). This is a point of contention, because some people say that the Cuban Giants actually worked at the hotel and began their baseball careers as something fun to do after they got off work, and others say that they didn't actually play at the hotel until their team was actually established. What is known though is that "playing for the wealthy clientele that frequented Flagler's empire kept the team afloat until they headed... to... Trenton, New Jersey" (Heaphy 16).
During their first summer season, 1886, the Cuban Giants played a game at a field in Trenton, NJ. At the time, Trenton did not have a hometown baseball team. The Cuban Giants gladly took the space, and Trenton became their “home base” (Malloy). Soon after moving to Trenton, a man named Walter Cook took over the job of booking games for the team. Cook also established salaries for the players (Heaphy 16). Walter Cook used the position that the player filled to determine how much they earned. The average pay for pitchers and catchers was about $18.00 per week, plus expenses. Outfielders made about $15.00 per week, and infielders made about $12.00 per week. These salaries were much more money than African Americans could have expected to make in a regular job at the time (Heaphy 16). Today, these salaries seem very low. In 2006, the minimum baseball player’s salary was $380,000, while the average salary was $2,699,292 (mlbplayers.mlb.com).
“The Giants…played a number of winters in Havana, Cuba” (Heaphy 17). The Giants had discovered that the key to being financially stable was to play baseball all year round. Cuba was a perfect place for them to play their winter seasons, because they could avoid the cold temperatures that were common in New Jersey in the winter, and they drew huge crowds when they played in Havana. They were so popular in fact that they played “…in front of as many as 15,000 fans” (Heaphy 17). This is very impressive for the late 19th century, considering that the average attendance per game for the Philadelphia Baseball Grounds, a popular baseball venue at the time, in 1890 was 2,231 per game (baseball-statistics.com).
Some of the prominent players were:
* Ben Boyd
* Frank Grant, infield
* Abe Harrison, shortstop
* Andrew Jackson
* Oscar Jackson
* William Jackson
* John Nelson, pitcher
* William Selden, pitcher
* Arthur Thomas
* Sol White, infield
* Clarence Williams (baseball player), catcher
* George Williams (Negro Leagues infielder), infielder and captain