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Original Photo Of The 1885-1886 Cuban Giants: Black Baseball's First Professional Team

1886
Artist Unknown, Gelatin Silver Print

"They were the happiest men in the world."

Hall of Famer, Sol White, 1905
This proud team of African-American ballplayers is the only known photograph of the 1885–1886 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. Standing left: Andrew Randolph, 1st base; Harry Johnson, 2nd base; Ben Holmes; Shep Trusty, pitcher; Art Thomas, the catcher who in the mid 1880s 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.

The Original Cuban Giants from 1885–1886 were 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.

The 1885–86 Cuban Giants 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 artifact 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.

Let’s learn a bit about the men featured in the photo of the team.

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 baseball. The game was, by this time, almost universally considered the “National Pastime” but it was played mainly either in the open fields and rural areas that dotted the New York City environs or professionally by the city’s well-known teams in the established leagues. Thompson, though, shrewdly saw it as a potential moneymaking venture that would provide a spectator sport for his hotel patrons. He wanted the Hotel guests to have entertainment but wanted the team to play at the highest level so they would develop a fan base. Thompson began to look for men who could really play the game and not merely clown about. Within short order his team, christened the Cuban Giants, emerged into an amalgam of some of the best black ball players of the era. 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.

Things gelled quickly. 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 and Mutuals of Washington DC, the Orions of Philadelphia, and the famous Keystone As. By the fall of 1885, the 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.
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 exceptional Philadelphia Athletics Club of the American Association. They lost both games but they were close battles and the Cuban Giants did possess legitimate bragging rights as the American Association was considered a much stronger league during that time period than 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 northern whites. 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 1907 book History of Colored Base Ball that “by 1886, (The Original Cuban Giants) were the happiest set of men in the world. As one of them told the writer, they would never even trade positions 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.

 

 

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