by Larry Lester, Sammy J. Miller and Dick Clark
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The saga of American Giants stomping through Chicagoland consists of various phases of triumph and disappointment, including some great teams and some mediocre teams, amid several ownerships.
Frank Leland, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, cultivated the seeds of black baseball. A Fisk University product, Leland began his baseball career with the Washington Capital Cities in the League of Colored Baseball Clubs. When the league folded in mid-season, Leland moved to Chicago and later, in 1901, founded the Union Giants. Three years later, he christened the team with his surname.
Around 1905, Andrew Foster, a brash, boastful son of a Methodist minister, was making a name for himself up East. As a pitcher for the Philadelphia Giants, he defeated Rube Waddell and the Philadelphia A's in a post-season exhibition game. Not only did Foster take the glory of defeating this future Hall of Famer, but he also took his name, Rube. Soon after, in 1907, Leland signed the young, brash pitcher from Calvert, Texas.
By 1909, Foster was managing the Leland Giants. After a split with Frank Leland in 1910, the Giants finished with 123 victories against six losses. The talented tan contingent boasted of such legendary stars as Bruce Petway, Pete Hill, Grant "Home Run" Johnson, and future Hall of Famer John Henry "Pop" Lloyd.
The following year, 1911, the Chicago American Giants were born. Foster had enticed the best players from the Leland Giants and other teams to form the nucleus of the strongest independent team in the Midwest. On any given Sunday afternoon, Rube's black brand of baseball often outdrew his cross-town rivals, the White Sox and the Cubs.
The American Giants were known for their flashy, up-tempo brand of baseball, with hit-and-run plays, double steals, and do-or-die sacrifice bunts. Foster's teams were also renowned for their pitching and superb defense. Their innovative style of play became the benchmark by which future black teams were measured. During the early teens, Foster's Giants often claimed the unofficial world colored championship.
As America entered World War I, Foster realized the drawbacks of independent baseball. He, like other black team owners, was at the mercy of white booking agents who scheduled games at the convenience of the resident white teams. Invariably, Foster realized that creating a stable league was the best approach for establishing continuity of scheduled games throughout black baseball.
In 1920, Foster met with other independent team owners at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, Missouri. The meeting of minds produced the Negro National League (NNL). Besides Foster's American Giants, charter members included Joe Green's Chicago Giants, John Matthews' Dayton (OH) Marcos, Tenny Blount's Detroit Stars, C.I. Taylor's Indianapolis ABCs, Lorenzo Cobb's St. Louis Giants, and J.L. Windnson's Kansas City Monarchs. Wilkinson was the only white owner in the league.
With Foster's ingenuity in moving players between teams for parity, producing a fixed schedule, and providing front money for financially meager teams, the NNL became the first black league to survive a full season. A strong influence, the league structure was cloned in 1923 with the birth of the Eastern Colored League, with teams based in the northeastern United States.
The American Giants won the league championship the first three years, before the Monarchs stopped their reign. After a two-year hiatus, the American Giants returned to the summit with league championships in 1926 and 1927. Both years they faced the Bacharach Giants in the Colored World Series. Overcoming a no-hitter by Red Grier in the first series, they won the crown behind Rube's younger brother Willie's fine pitching performance. They repeated as world champions the following year.
Between series victories, the black baseball's kingpin, Rube Foster, was committed to a mental institution in Kankakee, Illinois. The American Giants were eventually sold to white businessman William E. Trimble, a florist.
Unable to withstand the devastation of the Great Depression, the American Giants folded with the league's collapse in 1931. Fittingly, they were reborn in 1932 under a new owner, mortician Robert A. Cole, as they won the Negro Southern League championship. The next year, 1933, Cole's American Giants joined the reorganized Negro National League. In their first season, Cole's colored Giants won the championship, only to have it vetoed by league president Gus Greenlee. Greenlee's team, The Pittsburgh Crawfords, was declared winner. In 1934, the American Giants lost the league playoffs, 4 to 3, to the Philadelphia Stars. Citing problems with President Greenlee, the American Giants resigned from league play after 1935.
In 1937, H.G. Hall became president of the American Giants and led the way in the creation of a Midwest-based league called the Negro American League. The revamped American Giants played from 1937 through the 1952 season. While maintaining their historically zenith quality of play, they were unable to capture another league title.
Despite the lack of championships in the closing years, the American Giants were not the only attraction emanating from the great black metropolis on Chicago's South Side. The grand apex of any Negro League season, without question, was the East-West All-Star game. It was the shadow ball version of the Major League baseball's mid-season classic. Starting in 1933, the signature event was played annually at Comiskey Park.
Outside of a Joe Louis fight, the star-studded affair became the most important black sporting event in America, attracting roughly 20,000 fans in its inaugural game (despite inclement weather). Eventually, attendance grew to over 50,000 in the early forties, outdrawing major league's own all-star contests. Many historians, players, and fans alike agree that the overall success of the East-West classics was the chief factor leading to the integration of major league baseball.
Frank Leland's Giants, Foster's original American Giants, and subsequent offsprings were truly gigantic in their accomplishments in giving our national pastime such a fine product of sporting achievement.
From Black Baseball in Chicago by Larry Lester, Sammy J. Miller, and Dick Clark.
Copyright © 2000 by Larry Lester, Sammy J. Miller, and Dick Clark. Excerpted with permission.