Original Photo Of The 1885-6 Cuban Giants: Black Baseball’s 1st Professional Team
By Frank Ceresi
The Original Cuban Giants from 1885-6 was the most historically important and significant black ball club of the 19th century. Why? Consider this: What the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 is to white baseball, the 1885 Cuban Giants is to black baseball for they were the very first black ball club whose players were regularly paid for plying their trade on the baseball diamond. Both teams mark the respective points, one in the white major leagues and the other in the Negro Leagues, when astute owners made the crucial decision to forgo “secret” or “under the table” selective payments and regularly pay the salary of their players as professionals.
What a team “of firsts” we are featuring today! They were the first all salaried professional black ball club. Also, they were the first professional team (white or black) to travel abroad to play baseball when they journeyed to Cuba. Also, they were the first African American team to play against white major league teams. The photo we are featuring, the only photograph known to exist of this great ball club, is quite significant in so many ways and is a true National Treasure.
It is being offered at auction during the live SCP and Sotheby’s Auction to be held at the Sotheby’s main offices at 72nd and York in New York City on June 5th, 2007. That the mounted albumen print, once owned by one of the players seen here, is now coming to light, over 120 years after its inception, is remarkable indeed!
Let’s learn a bit about the men featured in the photo of the team.
Let the Games Begin: “They were the Happiest Men in the World…” Hall of Famer, Sol White, 1905
The Original Cuban Giants was founded in late 1885 by Frank P. Thompson in Long Island, New York. Thompson was the headwaiter at the Argyle Hotel and had developed a fondness for the baseball and shrewdly saw it as a potential money making venture to provide a spectator sport for his hotel patrons. He began to look for men who could really play the game and not merely clown about. His team, christened the Cuban Giants, emerged into an amalgam of some of the best black ball players of the era as Thompson sought out only seasoned players who possessed considerable diamond talent. After all, Thompson and his financial backers were creating a business operation, and they needed to be discerning.
Almost all of those invited to join the team had played in organized black baseball for many years on teams mainly from Philadelphia and the District of Columbia. They had honed their craft on established amateur clubs like the Manhattans of Washington D.C., the Orions of Philadelphia and the famous Keystone A’s. By the fall of 1885, club roster was filled, games were scheduled and just as Thompson had hoped, his Cuban Giants quickly established their baseball bona fides by winning almost all of their reported games, mainly against either all black or mixed clubs.
But in the fall, the Cuban Giants embarked on a road trip in the northeast, peppering their schedule with games against white major leaguers when they took on New York Metropolitans and the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association. They lost both games but they were close battles and the American Association was considered a stronger league during that time period that the nine year old National League. The Giants ended the tour victorious over the white Bridgeport club, a team that would win the Eastern League Championship that year. Soon, though, the cold winds of winter began to blow in the northeast so in early 1886 the “Cubes” headed south to a warmer climate in St. Augustine, Florida playing baseball along the way.
In Florida, the team was hired to play ball on the grounds of the newly constructed luxurious Hotel Ponce De Leon, providing baseball entertainment to guests from the north. This was precisely a time when that area of Florida was emerging as a resort town and the team was called upon to satisfy the leisure needs for the paying guests, mainly rich whites from up north. The Hotel patrons saw some excellent baseball during a time when interest in the game was pretty intense nationwide. Throughout this time period, the Original Cuban Giants continued to win and even became the first professional club, white or black, to play ball internationally when they sailed less than a hundred miles south and played a series in Havana, Cuba.
This was certainly an exciting time for the team. Sol White, who would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, wrote in his classic 1905 book “The History of Colored Baseball” that “by 1886, (The Original Cuban Giants) were the happiest set of men in the world. As one of them told the writer, not only would have changed his position with the President of the United States”! The fun continued unabated even as the team traveled from their “safe haven” at the elegant Ponce De Leon Hotel through the Deep South. That spring, the club began its return north, winning all 40 of their barnstorming games before eventually finding what would be their permanent home in Trenton, New Jersey.
It is in Trenton, an area that already had possessed deep baseball roots, where the team captured the fancy of the locals and achieved extraordinary popularity with black and white fans alike. The reason for this is quite simple. They became household names because the press was impressed with their excellent play and the local daily newspapers began to carry their games. They were doing what every salaried club was supposed to do---they put the fans in the stands! Similar to the first all salaried white club, the Cincinnati Red Stockings from 15 years before, the Cuban Giants became the first black baseball personalities to be recognized by the growing sports public.
It’s no wonder that they developed their own fan base, for they dominated
most opponents and featured excellent players during their inaugural season.
Let’s meet some of the men pictured. The team included their star pitcher “Shep” Trusty
dubbed by the Newark Times as being “the best colored pitcher in the
country”. Trusty pitched both games against the white major league
teams earlier in the season. His battery mate was Clarence Williams, a great
hitter who continued to play professionally until 1905. Williams was so good
he was even offered, but turned down, a contract to play in the majors with
Philadelphia in the early 1880’s. Other notable players on the Original
Cuban Giants included Billy Whyte a heady man who by the turn of the century
became baseball coach at Columbia University and the Virginian Ben Holmes
the “field general” at third base. Holmes, a proud man with a
strict sense of justice became quite active in union activities and followed
the game in various capacities well into the 1940’s.
It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times: The Color Barrier Crashes
These were heady and exhilarating times for the Giants and things soon peaked. In May of 1886 none other than Charlie Comiskey’s major league leading St Louis Browns team, featuring the “best of the best” ball players like Tip O’Neill (who batted .400 that year), Arlie Latham and Doc Bushong, came to town to play the Cuban Giants in front of a packed house. The Browns were clearly the best team in the land that year for they would defeat Cap Anson’s Chicago White Sox of the National League in the fall for the Worlds Championship. The Giants played tough but lost. The victorious Browns seemed pleased with the gate, however, and promised to return the next year.
But a return match was not to be and things would swiftly change when fate was to cruelly intercede. Sadly, within a year, just as the Cuban Giants were making what can only be considered as real progress on the playing field, Cap Anson threw his well known tirade and refused to play a team that included two African Americans, Fleet Walker and Harry Stovey, in an exhibition game in Newark. Suddenly the color barrier came crashing down permanently ending any hope that the Cuban Giants and other black pioneers would ever have the opportunity to play in the major leagues. Though Cuban Giants continued its winning ways for several years playing black and occasionally white teams as well (e.g. The New York Sun called them “one of the best teams in the city to see” in 1888), their heyday was without question the group of pioneers that are proudly photographed in this National Treasure.
Standing left: Andrew Randolph, 1st base; Harry Johnson, 2nd base; Ben Holmes;
Shep Trusty, pitcher; Art Thomas, the catcher who in the mid 1880’s
was offered but turned down a contract to play with Philadelphia in the major
leagues; G. Day; sitting left: Billy Whyte; Ben Boyd; George Parego; Clarence
Williams, l.f.: bottom sitting left with bats: G. Shadney; Milton Dabney
(original owner of this photo); S. Epps
This proud team of African American ballplayers is the only known photograph of the 1885-6 Original Cuban Giants. Not only were they the first professional (that is, salaried) all black ball club but they were the first to play against white major league teams shortly before the color barrier crashed down. They were also the first black or white professional ball club to travel out of the territorial United States to spread the baseball gospel when they went to Havana, Cuba to play ball.