S. K. Govern
Stanislaus Kostka Govern was black baseball’s Renaissance man. Govern (1854-1924) was a labor organizer, journalist, and Shakespearean actor who also managed the first professional black team, the Cuban Giants. Sol White, a player from the early days of black ball who later chronicled its history, called Govern a “smart fellow and shrewd baseball man.”[i] According to author Michael Lomax, “Cos” was without question one of the two most successful early black baseball entrepreneurs.[ii] He not only established the business model for the Negro Leagues but also just might deserve credit as the father of Latin American winter ball.
Govern was a native of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. Christian and Isabella Govern’s son was born on October 16, 1854.[iii] At that time, St. Croix was still part of the Danish West Indies. Judging by his appearance, it is fair to guess that he was half European -- and that in the U.S., he thus became part of society’s “mulatto elite” stratum. Whereas the Danes were mainly Lutheran, the Govern family was Catholic. Stanislaus Kostka, the source of the boy’s given name, was a 16th century Polish saint. The church would remain important throughout Govern’s life.
The Catholic Church records of that time in both of St. Croix’s main towns, Christiansted and Frederiksted, are lost. However, Danish census records from 1857 and 1860 provide a picture of the Govern family. The ethnic origins of Christian and Bella are not recorded, but Danish governor Peter von Scholten abolished slavery in the Virgin Islands in 1848. We may be reasonably certain that Stanislaus was born in Jolly Hill, a sugar-cane estate northeast of Frederiksted, in the western end of St. Croix. The 1857 census lists Christian as an overseer and Bella as a washer on the estate, which was owned by an Irishman named Major Adam Logan.[iv] It also shows that Stanislaus had an older sister named Elise and two younger sisters named Constantia and Geraldine.
By 1860, the Governs had moved to Frederiksted, where Christian worked as a saddler. This census does not show Elise or Geraldine; instead there are two older children named Norman and Matilda. Constantia is still listed, along with a new arrival named John.
In 1868, 13-year-old Stanislaus came to the U.S., serving as a cabin boy aboard the training ship Monongahela. As a teenager and young adult, Govern lived in Washington, D.C., where black baseball players were definitely active. The People’s Advocate, a local African-American newspaper, stated that there was a match between the Philadelphia Pythians and a club from Washington in 1868. Jerry Malloy, a leading authority on 19th century black baseball, believed that “Siki” may first have become involved in the late 1870s. He added, “I’ve got to believe that at one time or another he played the game.”
The U.S. census of 1880 shows Govern working as a retail cigar dealer in Washington, married to a woman named Lucretia who was born in Pennsylvania. As yet, the couple was childless -- but Lucretia must have been expecting their daughter Isabella, who was born in June 1880. The next year shows Govern’s first documented connection to baseball. He was manager of the Washington Manhattans from 1881-84. The Washington Bee provided some brief descriptions of their games, especially in 1883.
As has been well chronicled, the Cuban Giants began life in 1885 as a team that entertained guests at the Argyle Hotel in the resort town of Babylon, Long Island. Frank P. Thompson was the headwaiter at the Argyle, and Govern -- for many years a headwaiter in Philadelphia and Atlantic City -- was a business associate. Their job was a relatively advantaged one, where the mulatto elite benefited from proximity to moneyed circles. In August 1885, Thompson, Govern, and C.S. Massey forged the Giants from the best of the Argyle Athletics, Washington Manhattans, and Philadelphia Orions. “Cos” Govern -- who probably signed the three best Orions[v] -- retained the role of manager.
The Giants toured the South in the winter of 1885-86, staying active and generating revenue all year. They wound up in St. Augustine, the beachhead of original Florida land baron Henry Morrison Flagler. That very year Flagler had begun construction of the Hotel Ponce de León, the start of Florida’s transformation from pesthole to playground. The “Cubes” -- thanks to the Thompson/Govern axis -- were featured entertainers in Flagler’s hotels. “The emerging leisure component [of the resort hotel industry] also enabled aspiring entrepreneurs, such as Frank Thompson and S.K. Govern, to seize an opportunity to establish a commercial enterprise.”[vi]
In addition, the tour had a leg in Havana (though the limited evidence is problematic).[vii] Indeed, though it has not been confirmed, Govern may have taken the Manhattans to Cuba as early as 1881 or 1882. His Caribbean background could well have been the key to recognizing the nexus of commerce and culture in baseball throughout the region.
In 1886 the Cuban Giants established a new home in Trenton, New Jersey. John Lang, the man who first financed the club, did not renew his support. Instead, two new white backers emerged: Walter I. Cook and John M. Bright. In Michael Lomax’s view, Govern helped engineer the deal with Cook and was the driving force behind day-to-day operations of the club. “Much like the modern-day general manager, he signed players to one-year contracts, utilized the press to schedule games, and was even responsible for selling season tickets.” In particular, Govern had a knack for drumming up business at the most fundamental level -- scheduling. He attracted major-league clubs with hefty guarantees or percentages, also booking an array of matches with minor-league, college, and local club teams.[viii]
Govern led the best teams assembled during the first brief period when black pro baseball flowered. In June 1887 the Giants beat big-league teams in Cincinnati and Indianapolis. They were not Colored champs in 1887, as one team photo claims -- that year they lost a best-of-three series to the New York Gorhams. In 1888, though, they decisively won a four-team championship tourney.[ix]
Cos must have had an eye for talent; he signed George Stovey, the premier black pitcher of the 19th century. It seems he was a good field manager too -- his teams were called well-balanced and crafty as well as physically gifted. Govern himself was known as a disciplinarian.[x]
An interesting paradox presents itself here, though. The Giants were praised for their “respectable” conduct on and off the field -- an essential for that era in baseball, which would struggle to overcome its ruffian image for years to come. However, the club was also known for its unconventional on-field antics. “No doubt this buffoonery alienated some Afro-American leaders who sought to construct a more positive image of the race. Such were the kinds of compromises Govern and the players were willing to make to advance their economic interests...the Giants symbolized the mulatto elite’s expectation that by creating a successful enterprise, like the Cuban Giants, they would be accepted into the mainstream of American society.”[xi] Furthermore, Cos was also a showman who was even known to perform as a comedian himself.
In that era, players routinely jumped ship. Govern was the victim when Jersey City raided Stovey after just one game in 1886. More often, though, he was the beneficiary. Notably, he managed the New York “Big Gorhams” of 1891, so called after snapping up the Giants’ best players. And “from 1886 to 1889, Govern was able to keep intact a nucleus that made the Cuban Giants the top independent club in the East.”[xii]
Govern, representing Philadelphia, was a director of the ephemeral but groundbreaking National League of Colored Base Ball Players (1887).[xiii] The Cuban Giants stayed out of the league, citing long traveling distances. However, Cos remained involved in an “unofficial” capacity.[xiv] It was tempting to think that he managed the new Pythians, but in reality, that position went to Robert Still. Quite possibly Govern’s involvement consisted of obtaining equipment at a good price from manufacturer Albert Reach, then a rival of Albert Spalding.[xv]
Despite whatever financial acumen Govern may have lent, the NCL folded after just 13 games. Meanwhile, Cos had been busy with Giants business. He re-signed the ballplayers and signed leases for ballparks in Brooklyn, Manhattan (the original Polo Grounds, just north of Central Park), and Hoboken (Elysian Field, the site of the historic 1846 organized baseball match). Cook and Bright had leased and expanded a home field in Trenton, and Govern’s promotional efforts in New York bolstered the club’s competitive position.[xvi]
Cos broke more new ground as a promoter. Inviting bareknuckles boxing champ “Nonpareil” Jack Dempsey to umpire a Giants game on April 20, 1888 was the first celebrity tie-in for black baseball.[xvii] However, Walter Cook died on June 25 that year -- an important turning point for the Giants. Cook was the wealthy philanthropist behind the venture. His money and civic ties in Trenton enabled Govern and the club to operate most effectively.[xviii] J.M. Bright, although a supporter of the game, had a completely different style. Although Govern was not impeded at first, Bright’s approach led to strains and ultimately a break with his manager.
The 1889 season was a tumultuous one for black baseball in general and the Cuban Giants in particular. The previous November, a new circuit -- the Middle States League -- had been organized. Govern represented Trenton, and the Giants were admitted to the otherwise all-white league to spur attendance. Govern ran afoul of the MSL administration because he was loath to sacrifice other revenue opportunities. In addition, the struggling league admitted another black club -- the arch-rival Gorhams -- in mid-season. This prompted talk that the Giants would be forced out because Govern was violating the MSL’s salary cap -- an unfounded allegation.[xix]
Despite the tension between the Gorhams and Giants, the two clubs formed a traveling team, the Colored All Americans. This enabled them to make money barnstorming while fulfilling their league obligations. Yet the ongoing problems of the MSL prompted Govern to declare in late August that he wished the Giants had never entered the league -- though he promised his club would play out the rest of the schedule.[xx]
Shortly thereafter, though, J.M. Bright issued a contrary statement: the Giants would play no more games in the MSL. “Undermining Govern’s edict no doubt created a rift between the Cubans’ manager and Bright. Moreover, the players did not respond well to Bright’s intrusiveness, leading to some player unrest.”[xxi]
On January 2, 1890, the Trenton True American reported that Govern had been “dropped” -- but more likely, he walked away. The MSL’s instability, Bright’s meddlesome and stingy ways, and decaying race relations in baseball were all co-factors.[xxii] As a result, Cos spent 1890 and early 1891 managing the Hotel Ponce de León club. In August 1890, The Sporting Life carried an item noting that this team was touring northern New York and Vermont, with an eye toward adding dates in New Jersey and Pennsylvania before returning south for the winter. Govern’s address was given as the Hotel Champlain, an imposing resort in Plattsburgh, New York.[xxiii] Govern himself filed a report with The Sporting Life from St. Augustine in February 1891.[xxiv]
Shortly thereafter, though, Gorhams owner Ambrose Davis (an African-American) lured Govern to manage his club -- and the chance to retaliate against Bright through player raids was another motive.[xxv] Govern also conceived a bold venture, establishing two Gorhams squads and maintaining both minor-league and semi-pro affiliation. However, the expenses of running both traveling and stay-at-home squads proved unsupportable.[xxvi]
According to Michael Lomax, “neither Ambrose Davis nor the players fully recovered from their disappointing 1891 season.” He labels 1892 to 1895 period as “the lean years...a period of decline and reorganization.”[xxvii] S.K. Govern did not return for the 1892 season and was now out of black baseball.[xxviii]
James A. Riley says in The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues that Govern managed the Cuban X-Giants in 1896. This is also supported by authors Lawrence Hogan and Jules Tygiel. X-Giants owner/business manager Edward B. Lamar, a white man, convinced many players to jump from Bright’s team and made Govern his field manager.[xxix] , However, I have not yet found any supporting evidence from the press of the day.
Unfortunately, factual gaps in the life of S.K. Govern still remain. Even the spelling of his name was uncertain until his death record was obtained; it was often given as “Governs.” There were many African-American newspapers back then, but they were mostly slim and underfunded vehicles. Those surviving on microfilm contain just a precious few snippets on baseball. And again, if he did ever visit his birthplace, there is no record of it, though he is identified as “S.K. Govern of St. Croix, WI” in an 1887 report on the Cuban Giants.
Outside baseball, Govern was the founder and first president of the Hotel Brotherhood (1884), which survived into the 1940s. Indeed, the formation of the Brotherhood that October was the first encounter between Cos and Frank Thompson. A fellow Crucian, Ludwig Peterson, actually hatched the concept and coaxed Govern into action. Apparently hotel proprietors along the Atlantic Coast had established a two-tier salary structure for waiters and bellhops, penalizing black workers on racist grounds. Govern obtained a retraction of the proprietors’ statements in the press -- though it would be interesting to know how much the salary inequities were redressed.
In 1889, Thompson and Govern also formed an organization called the Progressive Association of the United States of America (PAUSA). While given to lofty rhetoric, this was actually a racially integrated group that “served as a means of eliminating racial barriers that hindered efforts to facilitate entrepreneurship.”[xxx] Again, the agenda was to promote the business of the Cuban Giants, benefiting employees as a result.
Four years later, Govern (representing Pennsylvania) joined other leaders of the Colored Catholic Congress for the World’s Columbian Catholic Congresses of 1893. Held in Chicago, the event took place in conjunction with the city’s vast Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair.[xxxi]
Govern also contributed to the Philadelphia Tribune when that African-American paper, which is still flourishing today, was getting off the ground. Yet another sign of his social consciousness was his marriage in 1888 to Elizabeth B. Myers, the granddaughter of black abolitionist/publisher Stephen Myers, who was head of the Underground Railroad in Albany, New York. (It is not known when Lucretia Govern passed away; one tends to doubt that a serious Catholic like Govern would have gotten divorced.)
One of the most remarkable facets of Govern’s career, his pursuit of acting, is almost entirely obscured. Although his obituary states that he won prizes for his interpretation of Shakespeare, supporting evidence has not yet surfaced. It is possible that Govern could have crossed paths along the eastern seaboard with J.A. Arneaux, an actor noted for his portrayal of Iago in Othello,[xxxii] as well as Richard III and Macbeth. Also noteworthy is that Arneaux too was a journalist. He was editor of the New York Enterprise and wrote for a mainstream big-city paper, the New York Sun.[xxxiii] He was another member of the mulatto elite -- the fair-skinned, straight-nosed, mustachioed New Yorker looked like he could have been Govern’s cousin.
The only definitive reference I uncovered was to an 1879 amateur production. The black Catholic parish of St. Augustine in Washington formed The Ira Aldridge Dramatic Company, one of many named for the great African-American thespian. They staged Sheridan’s Pizarro before a slim audience, though Govern and most of the cast got good reviews.[xxxiv] Cos and two friends named Chase and Smith may also have staged an unidentified play in Washington in the fall of 1883.[xxxv]
As of 1919, Govern was still involved in union affairs. He was listed as a member of the executive board of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees’ International Alliance.[xxxvi] Govern was one of two African-American delegates at the founding convention in 1890. “In his talk, he made the intelligent proposal that their new union try to establish a central employment bureau to control hiring.”[xxxvii]
S.K. Govern’s life was cut short at the age of 70 when he was struck by a train on November 3, 1924. The accident took place in the resort town of Hot Springs, Virginia, where (according to funeral home records) he had lived for eight years. His occupation was given as laborer, and the likelihood is that he was working at The Homestead, a grand hotel/resort established in 1766. The 1920 census lists Govern, among a myriad of other people with hotel-related occupations, as a news agent.
Elizabeth was not shown next to Govern, and though the census entry on his marital status is not legible, one tends to believe that Cos survived her too. They were certainly living together in Philadelphia as of the 1900 census, which listed her and 20-year-old Isabella Govern as dressmakers. The couple was in New York as of 1909, when Isabella died in Reading, Pennsylvania. Isabella had married a local ballplayer named Edgar Still, who became one of Reading’s most prominent African-American citizens. Her obituary mentioned a brother named Alonzo B.C. Govern, who may well have been the product of S.K. and Elizabeth’s marriage.[xxxviii]
The funeral was held at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, near the hotel, on November 8. Govern’s body was then brought to Philadelphia, where he lay in state at Brotherhood headquarters. He was interred in Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, a historical resting place for African-Americans. Sad to relate, the grave is unmarked. Yet over a century after his pro sporting career ended, details of this seminal Negro Leaguer’s life continue to emerge from the fog banks of history.
This biography was originally published in 2000 on Rory Costello’s website, Baseball in the Virgin Islands (http://home.roadrunner.com/~vibaseball). It has been augmented since then as facts have come to light. Acknowledgment to the works of Jerry Malloy (1946-2000) and Michael E. Lomax.
www.ancestry.com: census records from 1857 and 1860 (Danish West Indies); 1880, 1900, and 1920 (United States); reference to marriage record for S.K. Govern and Elizabeth B. Myers
Malloy, Jerry. “The Birth of the Cuban Giants: The Origins of Black Professional Baseball.” NINE, Spring 1994. pp. 233-247.
Govern’s obituary: Philadelphia Tribune, November 15, 1924, p. 1.
Lewis, Peter. “Hotel Brotherhood Completes Fifty Years of Service.” Philadelphia Tribune, November 1, 1934, p. 27.
NYPL Digital Gallery (http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?1231482). Originally published in Sol White’s Base Ball Guide.
[i] White, Sol. Sol White’s History of Colored Base Ball. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1995: 150.
[ii] Lomax, Michael E. Black Baseball Entrepreneurs, 1860-1901: Operating by Any Means Necessary. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003): 174.
[iii] Govern’s birthdate came to light in my 1999 research upon obtaining his death certificate from the Circuit Court Clerk’s office in Bath County, VA. The names of his parents came from the LDS (Mormon) Church genealogy database.
[iv] In the 1900s, a man named Carl Lawaetz came to own Jolly Hill; his son Frits (1907-2005) founded a team called the Annaly Athletics that sent three men to the major leagues: Joe Christopher, Julio Navarro, and Elmo Plaskett.
[v] Lomax, op. cit.: 52.
[vi] Ibid.: 51.
[vii] Ibid.: 96.
[viii] Ibid.: 54-55.
[ix] Ibid.: 79, 92.
[x] Ibid.: 107.
[xi] Ibid.: 78.
[xii] Ibid.: 74.
[xiii] New York Freeman, March 26, 1887. Compiled and edited by Sullivan, Dean A. Early Innings: A Documentary History of Baseball 1825-1908. Lincoln, Nebraska: Bison Books, 1997: 147.
[xiv] Lomax, op. cit.: 63.
[xv] Ibid.: 66-67.
[xvi] Ibid.: 70-71.
[xvii] Ibid.: 90.
[xviii] Ibid.: 118.
[xix] Ibid.: 96-99.
[xx] Ibid.: 101.
[xxi] Ibid.: 105.
[xxii] Ibid.: 107.
[xxiii] “In a New Field.” The Sporting Life, August 30, 1890: 1.
[xxiv] Govern, S.K. “From St. Augustine.” The Sporting Life, February 7, 1891: 9.
[xxv] Ibid.: 116.
[xxvi] Ibid.: 106.
[xxvii] Ibid.: 123.
[xxviii] Ibid.: 133.
[xxix] Hogan, Lawrence D. and Jules Tygiel. Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball. Cooperstown, NY: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, 2006: 79.
[xxx] Ibid.: 95.
[xxxi] The World’s Columbian Catholic Congresses of 1893. Chicago, Illinois: J.S. Hyland & Co, 1893 (Reprinted 2007 by Gardner Press): 122.
[xxxii] “Arneaux Captures Baltimore.” Cleveland Gazette, January 7, 1888, 1.
[xxxiii] Cleveland Gazette, January 29, 1887; April 7, April 21, May 12, 1888.
[xxxiv] “Pizarro at Ford’s.” The People’s Advocate, May 3, 1879.
[xxxv] The Washington Bee, May 5, 1883.
[xxxvi] American Federation of Labor: History, Encyclopedia, Reference Book. Washington, D.C.: American Federation of Labor, 1919: 438.
[xxxvii] Josephson, Matthew. Union House, Union Bar: The History of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees’ International Alliance. New York, NY: Random House, 1956: 17.
[xxxviii] “Mrs. Edgar A. Still.” Reading Eagle, November 2, 1909: 3.