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," although there were rarely (if ever) any 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.
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).
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 Giants 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 team's 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.
Henry Flagler's role
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, New Jersey. 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
- John "Pat" W. Patterson, third base
- William Selden, pitcher
- Arthur Thomas
- Sol White, infield
- Clarence Williams, catcher
- George Williams, infielder and captain
Among them Boyd, Harrison, Selden, Thomas, Williams, and Williams were members of the team by 1886, its first full season.
- May 1885: Keystone Athletics formed in Philadelphia.
- July 1885: Keystone Athletics relocated to Babylon, Long Island.
- August 1885: The Keystone Athletics join the Manhattans of Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia Orions, creating the Cuban Giants.
- Fall 1885: Giants recorded as playing the major league New York Metropolitans (lost 11-3) and Philadelphia Athletics (lost 13-7). Both games are pitched by Shep Trusty
- Winter 1885-86: Cuban Giants play in Cuba
- Spring 1886: The team is bought by Walter E. Simpson who sets up home base at the Chambersburg Grounds in Trenton, New Jersey. The Cuban Giants win the first 40 games, losing 9-3 to the St. Louis Browns, a major league team (May 28, 1886).
- Summer 1886: Team sold to Walter I. Cook. First full season of summer baseball for the Giants begins.
- June, 1886: S.K. Govern signs George Washington Stovey to the Cuban Giants. On the 25th, in his first and only game with the Giants, he struck out eleven batters from Bridgeport of the Eastern League, losing 4-3.
- July 21, 1886: Shep Trusty pitches a 9-4 win over the Cincinnati Reds. Five days later, he beats the Kansas City Cowboys 3-2, and next loses to the same team 13-4.
- August 13, 1886: The first meeting between the New York Gorhams and the Cuban Giants ends with a Cuban Giants victory, 25-4.
- December 1886 – January 1887: Cuban Giants play in Cuba again.
- June 1887: J.M. Bright buys the Cuban Giants from Walter Cook. (Malloy 11)
- August 1888: The Cuban Giants win the round-robin Colored Championship Series over the Pittsburgh Keystones, New York Gorhams and the Norfolk Red Sox.
- 1889: The team’s last year in Trenton, the Cuban Giants join the Middle States League.
- 1890: Entire team leaves and plays as the Colored Monarchs of York, Pennsylvania.
- 1891: Mid-season, a good portion of the Cuban Giants, under J.M. Bright’s control, leave for the Gorhams managed by S.K. Govern, now called the Big Gorhams. The Giants reassemble annually under Bright.
- Duration of the team: 1885-1914
- The Cuban Giants were the Colored champions in 1887 and 1888 and they were the eastern champions in 1894 (Riley 202).
- Affiliation: 1885-1888 and 1892-1899 – Independent, 1889-1890 – Middle States League, *1891 – Connecticut State League (Riley 202). In 1888, the Cuban Giants were briefly associated with the Hudson River League (as were the 'colored' New York Gorhams); the league folded less than two weeks later.
- The Cuban Giants were the first salaried Colored baseball team (Heaphy 16).
- Malloy, Jerry (2005). Out of the Shadows: African-American Baseball from the Cuban Giants to Jackie Robinson (The Birth of the Cuban Giants). Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-8032-7825-7.
- The Sun (New York). July 11, 1886 http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030272/1886-07-11/ed-1/seq-7/
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- The Sun (New York). August 27, 1888 http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030272/1888-08-27/ed-1/seq-3/
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- The Sun (New York). June 9, 1888 http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030272/1888-06-09/ed-1/seq-3/
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- The Sun (New York). June 21, 1888 http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030272/1888-06-21/ed-1/seq-5/
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- Heaphy, Leslie A. (2003). The Negro Leagues 1869-1960. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-1380-8.
- Holway, John B. (2001). The Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues: The Other Half of Baseball History. Fern Park, FL: Hastings House Publishers. ISBN 0-8038-2007-0.
- Malloy, Jerry. "The Birth of the Cuban Giants: The Origins of Black Professional Baseball." Presented at the Cooperstown Symposium for Baseball and American Culture, Cooperstown NY, 1992. Published in Bill Kirwin, ed., Out of the Shadows: African American Baseball From the Cuban Giants to Jackie Robinson. U of Nebraska Press: Bison Books, 2005. 1-14.
- "MLBPA Info." MLBPlayers.com. 2005. Major League Baseball Players Association. 23 Apr 2007 <http://www.baseball-statistics.com>.
- Riley, James A. (1994). The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. Carroll & Graf. ISBN 0-7867-0959-6.
- Verjee, Aman. "Attendance." Baseball Statistics. QATD Internet Ventures, Inc.. 23 Apr 2007 <http://www.baseball-statistics.com>.