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African-American History

The Negro Baseball Leagues and the Baltimore Elite Giants

Elite Giants. Photo by Paul S. Henderson, not dated. HEN.09.10-016, MdHS.

Elite Giants. Photo by Paul S. Henderson, not dated. HEN.09.10-016, MdHS.

Baseball is not a new game. Baseball players battled each other as early as the middle of the 19th century, although the game was quite different from today’s.  As early as the 1860s, men played baseball on an open lot on Baltimore’s Madison Avenue near Druid Hill Park. Catchers had no protective gear; a ball caught on the first bounce was an out, a walk was awarded for nine balls; the ball was much more lively than the contemporary baseball; and a score like 40 to 24 was not unusual; refinements like the foul ball and the three-strike rule were yet to appear. The pitcher’s throwing arm could be no higher than his hip, requiring him to throw underhanded. A pitcher named Cherokee Fisher started using a radical sidearm throw that was ruled a legal pitch. After that, the height of the throwing hand increased gradually until the pitcher was throwing overhand, as is today.

The 1872 Lord Baltimores, detail from James Bready's Baseball in Baltimore. Uncredited photo.

The 1872 Lord Baltimores, detail from James Bready’s Baseball in Baltimore. Uncredited photo.

Professional baseball teams began to form after the Civil War, but professional leagues had not developed yet.  There were black teams and white teams in the segregated society. Both amateur and professional teams were organized and black and white teams played each other occasionally, although typical of the times, they mostly observed the color barrier. The rules were also relaxed at times when players crossed the color line. Some players even crossed the color barrier for the rest of their careers.

Intercity rivalries of black teams began to appear as early as the 1880s, when Washington and Baltimore teams met on the Madison Avenue lot. There were no organized professional leagues yet. The first local professional black teams were named the ”Baltimore Maryland Baseball Club.” By 1938, professional black baseball had progressed—there was a new ball park, Bugle Field, at the intersection of Federal Street and Edison Highway—just south of Baltimore Cemetery. There was also a business office at 200 Madison Avenue. Now, the Giants were members of a major league team—the Negro National League.

 

The Black Yankees Photograph by James VanDerZee, 1934. Eubie Blake Photograph Collection, PP301.630.18, MdHS.

“The Black Yankees.” Photograph by James VanDerZee, 1934. Eubie Blake Photograph Collection, PP301.630.18, MdHS.

The original National Association of Base Ball Players (formed in 1886) had banned black athletes, but by the late 1870s, some African-American athletes played on white teams and several African-American players were on the rosters of white minor league teams.

The Baltimore Elite Giants  posed in front of billboard advertisement for the 200th anniversary for Arrow Beer.  Group portrait, May 1949. Photograph by Paul S. Henderson. Paul Henderson Photograph Collection. HEN.00.A1-056, MdHS.

The Baltimore Elite Giants posed in front of billboard advertisement for the 200th anniversary for Arrow Beer, c. May 1949. Photograph by Paul S. Henderson. Paul Henderson Photograph Collection. HEN.00.A1-056, MdHS.

The Baltimore Elite (pronounced Eee-light) Giants played in the professional Negro Leagues from 1920 to 1950. The team was founded in Nashville as the Nashville Standard Giants in 1920. In 1921 its name was changed to the Elite Giants. That year, the Giants won a four game championship series against the Montgomery Grey Sox, making them the Southern Colored Champions.

Left to right: Henry Kimbo, Robert "Butch" Davis, Lester Locket, Lenny Pearson. "Group portrait. Batters of the Baltimore Elite Giants," Photograph by Paul S. Henderson. Paul Henderson Photograph Collection. HEN.00.A1-055, MdHS.

Left to right: Henry Kimbo, Robert “Butch” Davis, Lester Locket, Lenny Pearson. “Group portrait. Batters of the Baltimore Elite Giants,” Photograph by Paul S. Henderson. Paul Henderson Photograph Collection. HEN.00.A1-055, MdHS.

The Giants became a member of the Negro Southern League in 1926. The team’s first season in the league was not successful—a seventh place finish with a 39-47 record. The team joined the Negro National League  in 1930, again compiling a losing record. The next year the Negro National League went out of business and the Giants moved to Cleveland under the name Cleveland Cubs, where again they had a losing record. The team moved back to Nashville the next year. After that, the team played in Nashville, Columbus (Columbus Elite Giants, fourth place 16-17 record). They moved again, this time to Washington, where they compiled a first year 21-24 record (fourth place).

The team moved to Baltimore in 1938 and became the Baltimore Elite Giants. Games were held at Bugle Field, Oriole Park, and Memorial Stadium. Their thirteen years in Baltimore earned them the Negro National Title. Several future major league players played for the Elite Giants, including Roy Campanella and Leon Day, both of whom would be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Junior Gilliam and Joe Black both won the National League Rookie of the Year awards.

Left to right: Hoss Walker, Frazier Robinson, Johnny Hayes, and Vic Harris. "Catchers, Elite Giants," May 1949. Photograph by Paul Henderson. Paul Henderson Photograph Collection. HEN.00.A1-053, MdHS.

Left to right: Hoss Walker, Frazier Robinson, Johnny Hayes, and Vic Harris. “Catchers, Elite Giants,” May 1949. Photograph by Paul Henderson. Paul Henderson Photograph Collection. HEN.00.A1-053, MdHS.

The Giants’ owner, Tom Wilson, had guided the Giants successfully throughout their time in Baltimore but declining health forced him to sell the franchise to Vernon “Fat” Green in 1946. Unsuccessful in leading the team, Green hired Dick Powell to be in charge of the team’s operations. His success was modest, and when they fell to second place in 1959, the team was sold to William Bridgeforts for $11,000. Bridgeforts returned the Giants to Nashville, but the team was dissolved after only one season there. After 30 years, the team’s name, the Elite Giants, was retired. The Giants became a relic of the past, a pleasant memory of Saturdays at the ball park and a winning team that instilled pride in the community. (Michael Mark)

American Giants a.k.a. Cole’s American Giants, Chicago American Giants, Leland Giants Photograph by James VanDerZee, 1934. Eubie Blake Photograph Collection, PP301.630.19, MdHS.

American Giants a.k.a. Cole’s American Giants, Chicago American Giants, Leland Giants. Photograph by James VanDerZee, 1934. Eubie Blake Photograph Collection, PP301.630.19, MdHS.

Michael Mark is retired Professor Emeritus of Music at Towson University and a volunteer in the Special Collections Department of the Maryland Historical Society.

Sources and further reading:

Much of the material in this piece came from James H. Bready’s Baltimore Baseball in Baltimore: The First 100 Years. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998 and Bob Luke’s The Baltimore Elite Giants: Sport and Society in the Age of Negro League Baseball. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

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