George Stovey came of age just as overhand pitching became legal. A left-hander, he hit the top minors in 1886 at the age of 20 and dominated, winning 50 games over two seasons. He struck out more than 300 batters and posted stellar 1.13 and 2.46 earned-run averages, respectively. Surely, a major-league club could use a young lefty with an array of curves. It was not to be, though, not because he blew out his arm or drank himself out of the game; Stovey couldn’t crack “The Show” because the men who ran the game and those who played with and against him rejected him because of his skin color. Stovey was a mulatto and as such was soon forced out of Organized Baseball and the white minor leagues altogether.
Considered “the first great Negro pitcher” by historian Robert Peterson, Stovey finished his career with the Cuban Giants, the New York Gorhams and other barnstorming black clubs. His career was spent exclusively with East Coast clubs. As often happens in baseball, the best African-American pitcher of the 19th century manned the box for some of the best black teams of the era.
George Washington Stovey was born in May 1866, likely in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The 1870 US Census, when he was 4 years old, shows him living with his parents, Henry and Phoebe Johnson, in Loyalsock, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Williamsport. Presumably Henry was his stepfather. George’s actual father is unknown. Phoebe, a mulatto from Pennsylvania, was in her 40s when George was born; thus, the family dynamics cannot be determined from available sources. George may have had much older siblings, and Phoebe’s relationship to his father also has not been determined. Henry, identified as “black” in the Censuses, supported the family as a laborer.
There are several indications that Stovey’s name was actually Stover. The 1870 Census identifies him as George W.E. Stover, further indicating that he had two middle names. He is listed as Stover in five different Censuses – 1870, 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930. In his only other surviving US Census, 1880, he is incorporated in the family under the Johnson surname (The 1890 Census no longer exists). It’s also interesting to note, and perhaps rather telling, that the earliest found references to him in his hometown Williamsport Gazette and Bulletin identify Stovey as Stover. (Those quotes can be found in the body of this work.)
If his name was actually Stover, which was much more common, the following quote from Sporting Life – which gave him his first national attention in 1886 – may explain why he was identified as Stovey in baseball: “There is another Stovey in the field. The new man is named George, and is a colored left-handed pitcher, just brought from Canada by the Trentons, late Cuban Giants.” The quote refers to Harry Stovey, who entered the game a decade before George. Incidentally, Harry’s real surname wasn’t Stovey.
George Stovey grew up and was educated in Loyalsock. He learned to play ball there, joining area clubs in and around Williamsport. He grew up playing mainly with white youths. In 1884, by the time he was 18, he was playing for a local semipro club. One of his friends decades later declared that Stovey was so excited to join the club that he offered to tend the ball grounds for free. The light-skinned Stovey batted and threw left-handed. He was tall and thin, standing approximately 6 feet tall and weighing about 165 pounds through much of his career. He was extremely fast and often displayed his talent in races and sprints.
As a pitcher, Stovey relied on a fastball and a variety of curves, some hard-breaking, others less so – all from the left side. Numerous box scores show him striking out 10 or more batters in a game. He was very athletic and was known as one of the better fielding pitchers of the day, especially for the verve and effectiveness with which he covered first base. A left-hander, he had a natural advantage over runners on first base and used it well, intimidating runners with a tremendous pickoff move.
In 1885 he played for the Elmira, New York, club, located about 80 miles up the road from Williamsport. He also joined the Lumber City Blackbirds, a team known throughout Pennsylvania for its popular captain, Javan Emory. In August the Williamsport Gazette and Bulletin commented on the local boy after a contest against the Williamsport nine: “[Lumber City’s] regular pitcher, Stover, is the making of a good pitcher. He is hard to hit.”
Stovey began 1886 with a Canadian team. In mid-June, Cos Govern, manager of the Cuban Giants, went to Canada and brought Stovey back to play with his team, based in Trenton, New Jersey. Govern boasted that he spared no expense to form the best nine possible for his fans; the trip to recruit Stovey was a prime example. He signed the young lefty to a contract for the remainder of the season.
The Cuban Giants were the first top black team in baseball history. They were formed in 1885 by Frank P. Thompson, who melded three teams – the Philadelphia Keystone Athletics, the Washington Manhattans, and the Philadelphia Orions – and renamed them the Cuban Giants. At the time Thompson, an African-American, was based in Babylon, Long Island, New York, where he was a headwaiter at the Argyle Hotel. He initially bought the Keystone Athletics and relocated them to Babylon to entertain guests at the hotel. Thompson’s hospitality skills were in demand along the East Coast. In the winters, he worked in St. Augustine, Florida, at the Ponce de Leon Hotel; in the summers, he toiled at Northern vacation spots such as hotels in New York State’s Adirondacks. During these stints in Florida, Stovey and the Giants may have sailed to Cuba for games.
In 1886 Thompson sold the Cuban Giants and the club landed at the Chambersburg Grounds in Trenton, owned by Walter Cook, a wealthy white local resident. Govern, African-American, managed the club. He was also a headwaiter, a colleague of Thompson’s. Govern was originally the manger of the Washington Manhattans.
Looking forward to the new pitcher joining the club, the Trenton Times alerted the fans that “his reputation is very wide.” Stovey made his debut for the Cuban Giants on June 21, 1886, a 4-3, four-hit loss to Bridgeport of the Eastern League. The winning run was scored on an error. According to the Times, “Stovey, the Trentons’ new left handed pitcher, occupied the box and if he may be judged from yesterday’s game, he is all that has been said of him. He succeeded in striking out eleven of the visitors and those reaching first base found it difficult to proceed farther on account of his watchfulness and accurate throwing.” It was his only game with the Cuban Giants.
Stovey’s pitching made an impression in the Eastern League. Pat Powers, manager of the Jersey City team and future longtime president of the International League, headed to Trenton to lure Stovey away from the Cuban Giants. He arrived at midnight on June 21, the night of the Bridgeport game, gathered a friend and woke Stovey in order to drive him away in the dead of the night. As the Times declared, “Considerable feeling has been aroused by the way Manager Powers of the Jersey Citys has been endeavoring to secure Stovey the new pitcher from the Trentons. He came here midnight Monday and offered Stovey $200 a month, which he refused.”
Powers had asked the Eastern League president, George Ballard, for assistance, or perhaps more accurately enlisted his help in coercing the pitcher away from the independent black team. Ballard issued demands that in essence gave the Cuban Giants an ultimatum: either hand over Stovey or lose future lucrative exhibition games against Eastern League clubs. The Times said that on June 25, “Mr. Powers admitted to Mr. Cook that he had acted low in his transaction here. Yesterday, he was at the ball grounds, armed with a letter from Mr. Ballard, of Newark, president of the Eastern League, saying that if the management of the Trenton club did not give Stovey up to Jersey City that dates at Trenton with the Newark and Jersey City clubs would be cancelled, as also dates the Trenton club have next week with the Hartford, Bridgeport and Waterbury clubs at Connecticut. Mr. Powers then admitted the legal contract Mr. Cook had with Stovey was binding, and made a cash offer for his release. As the terms were satisfactory, the manager gave Stovey his release.”
Stovey then pitched for Jersey City on June 26, his first game in Organized Baseball. He lost 1-0 to George Knowlton and Newark. The game was scoreless until the ninth. Stovey batted fourth and struck out eight batters, allowing only four hits. Knowlton tossed a three-hitter. According to the Williamsport Gazette and Bulletin, “George Stover, the left handed colored pitcher of this city, late pitcher of the Lumber Citys, was signed by the Jersey City club, of the Eastern League, last Saturday. In his first game, played that day, the Newark club got but three hits (sic) off Stover and only won the game 1 to 0 on a close decision of the umpire. The Williamsport club was advised to take Stover in hand early in the season but neglected the opportunity. He will make his mark.” The New York Times wrote, “The home nine, for the first time, played Stovey, formerly pitcher for the Cuban Giants of Trenton. He is a colored player. He pitched with great effect.” Sporting Life offered praise as well: “Both pitchers were very effective; the new colored pitcher of the home club showing up well indeed.”
Stovey pitched in 31 games for Jersey City, amassing a 16-15 won-loss record and a 1.13 ERA in 270 innings pitched. He tossed three shutouts, struck out an astounding 203 batters against only 43 walks and held opponents to a .167 batting average. In a game against Bridgeport, he reportedly fanned 22. Jersey City finished in third place with a 49-39 record.
Racial troubles plagued Stovey all season. Sporting Life reported, “’Tis said the other Eastern League clubs don’t fancy Jersey City’s employment of a colored pitcher.” The Sporting News believed that his Jersey City teammates were a little lacking while he was in the box: “If the team would support him they would make a far better showing. His manner in covering first from the box is wonderful.” Nevertheless, Stovey produced, and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat summed up his season, “Stovey, the colored pitcher of the Jersey Citys, is considered one of the best twirlers in the Eastern League.”
Being one of the better pitchers in the top minors, Stovey attracted major-league attention. According to Sporting Life in early September 1886, “New York has been seriously considering the engagement of Stovey, Jersey City’s fine colored pitcher. The question is would the [National] League permit his appearance in League championship games?” It was a good question; the National League didn’t knowingly field a player of African descent until 1947. Supposedly, the Giants wanted to bring Stovey in to pitch during a series with the Chicago White Stockings at a time when Chicago was in a tight pennant race with Detroit. Scantily chronicled and unsubstantiated claims suggest that Cap Anson and his Chicago teammates raised a fuss and the Giants backed away from the plan. Whether that’s true or not is left to debate. It is true, as demonstrated by the Sporting Life piece, that the rookie Stovey garnered at least some interest from a major-league club.
In November 1886 Stovey signed with Charley Hackett of the Newark Little Giants, who had just won the Eastern League championship. Pat Powers was quite upset, claiming that Stovey had already renewed his contract with Jersey City and accepted advance money. Tension arose, as noted by the Baltimore Sun: “Geo. W. Stovey, pitcher of this year’s Newarks, is a colored man. There is a prospect that the Newarks and Jersey City clubs may get into a fight over him.” The two managers bickered back and forth over the winter but in the end Stovey joined Newark, as the team moved into the revamped International League for the 1887 season. Powers had a few parting words for his pitcher: “Personally, I do not care for Stovey. … I consider him to be one of the greatest pitchers in the country, but is head strong and obstinate, and, consequently, hard to manage.”
Along these lines, Stovey is cited by researchers for being hotheaded, belligerent and surly; however, it should be noted that a good deal of that reputation stems from one man’s opinion, that of Powers. On pitching days he was known to chastise teammates for fielding misplays and lack of support on offense. For example, in August 1887 Sporting Life commented, “It is stated that there is considerable feeling against Stovey in the Newark team, because he is always complaining of lack of support.” In deference to Stovey, the complaints may have been justified, as white teammates were known during this era to tank their performance if it would shine unfavorably on a black teammate, which would be especially easy if the target was a pitcher.
To help support its new pitcher, Newark signed catcher Fleet Walker to be his batterymate. Walker was the first acknowledged African-American to appear in the major leagues, with Toledo in 1884. His promotion to the big leagues came almost by accident, as the Toledo franchise en masse joined the major American Association. The National League wouldn’t knowingly field a black player until Jackie Robinson.
From the start the black battery drew a great deal of attention, mainly positive. The New York Freeman issued a typical review: “Newark’s colored battery, Stovey and Walker, when upon their mettle, can be excelled by no battery in this country.” Newark capitalized on the novelty of Organized Baseball’s first black battery and marketed them heavily. The local correspondent for Sporting Life summed up the club’s intentions: “Our ‘Spanish Beauties,’ Stovey and Walker, will make the biggest kind of a drawing card.” Later in the season, the weekly noticed a marketing strategy: “There is not a club in the country who tries so hard to cater to all nationalities as does the Newark club. There is the great African battery, Stovey and Walker, the Irish battery, Mickey Hughes and Gene Derby, and the German battery, Bob Miller and Bart Cantz.
Stovey left his home in Williamsport to join Newark on March 21, 1887. Local fans and national readers got their first glimpse of the Stovey-Walker battery and the Newark club in early April. On the 4th, they played the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers of the American Association. Stovey lost 12-9 after ceding eight runs in the first inning. On the 9th, he lost to New York of the American Association, 13-4. Sporting Life didn’t focus on the score, though: “The Newarks presented a strong front including the celebrated colored battery, Stovey and Walker.” (Stovey lost to Brooklyn again on April 21, 12-8.)
On April 7 Stovey pitched against Tim Keefe and the New York Giants of the National League at the Polo Grounds. The New York World described the outset of the competition: “The game opened with the local team at the bat. … George Gore opened the battle, and was followed by Jim O’Rourke, then came Buck Ewing. Under ordinary circumstances the trio would bat out at least one run, but so cleverly did Stovey twirl the sphere that none of the Giants scored. A like result followed in the second inning and the third.”
Stovey eventually lost, 3-2, but he made an impression. Monte Ward, playing shortstop for the Giants that day, suggested to team manager Jim Mutrie that the Giants acquire Stovey to complement the one-two punch of Keefe and Mickey Welch. According to the Newark Daily Journal, the Giants offered to buy both Stovey and Walker but “Manager Hackett informed (Mutrie) they were not for sale.” Again, unsubstantiated claims have been made that Anson’s screams could be heard from Chicago to New York demanding that the duo not be added to the league. The attempted signing allowed the New York Freeman, a black paper, to proudly boast that Stovey “is one of the best pitchers of this day.” The southpaw drew interest from the American Association as well. Sporting Life said on June 15, “Brooklyn is trying to buy Newark’s crack colored pitcher Stovey.”
In one game in May, Stovey shut out Binghamton 9-0 on a five-hitter. He didn’t lose his first game of the regular season until June 4, capturing his first ten decisions. The Brooklyn Eagle wrote, “Newark’s colored battery is doing finely.” Overall, Stovey had an outstanding year, a season that would vault any other pitcher into the big leagues. In 48 games pitched and 424 innings he posted a 33-14 record and a 2.46 ERA. Some sources say the win total was 34, others 35; nevertheless, the total led the league. He was a little less commanding than in 1886 with his control, walking 119 and striking out only 107, but the end results can’t be argued with. He batted .255 in 54 games. Newark finished in fourth place in a very tight league. The Little Giants posted a .602 winning percentage, 59-39, and finished only 4½ games behind the league leader, Toronto.
More importantly, 1887 proved to be the pivotal year in the exclusion of African-Americans from Organized Baseball. On July 14 the International League formally banned any additional signings of African-American players. A vote taken by club owners directed the league secretary to “approve of no more contracts with colored men.” Officials were reacting to white players’ grumblings and derogatory comments by the press suggesting that the International League change its classification to “colored league.” After the effective banning, the Newark Daily Journal headlined, “Color Line Drawn in Baseball.” Stovey, Frank Grant, Bob Higgins, and Fleet Walker were permitted to play out the season in the International League. Walker actually remained in the league through 1889.
The vote was sparked by a revolt in the Binghamton club against black players Bud Fowler and William Renfro. After the contest on June 27, one of Binghamton’s white players, Buck West, rallied the rest of the team around his cause. A petition was signed by nine players and a telegram was sent to the club directors demanding that Fowler and Renfro be released or the protesters would strike. Fed up with the abuse, Fowler asked for his release on June 30 and it was granted. Renfro was later released. One local newspaper, according to researcher Neil Sullivan, gave a curt notice to the fans: “Gone coons – Fowler and Renfroe.”
Stovey later had a hand in West’s removal from the league. On July 26 the left-hander defeated Binghamton in a close game, 4-3. After the loss, the still-troubled West was suspended and eventually released for “indifferent play.”
It wasn’t only teammates who had it in for the black players. An unnamed International League player gave a revealing interview to The Sporting News two years later: “Fowler [and Frank Grant] used to play second base with the lower part of his legs encased in wooden guards. He knew that about every player that came down to second base on a steal had it in for him and would, if possible, throw the spikes into him. … [Also,] about half the pitchers try their best to hit these colored players when [they’re] at the bat.” Furthermore, league umpire Billy Hoover admitted to calling close plays against clubs that fielded black players. Imagine the tight strike zone Stovey was working with when Hoover was behind the plate. Part of the shame in the situation arises from the success black players had in the league. Besides Stovey’s outstanding won-lost record, Fowler registered a .350 batting average and Frank Grant led the league in home runs.
On the same day that the vote was taken by the directors of the International League, the most famous and, perhaps, defining racial incident in baseball history occurred. Cap Anson and his Chicago White Stockings refused to take the field in an exhibition game against Newark if the latter team planned to use their black battery, Stovey and Walker. Anson had tried a similar tactic unsuccessfully against Walker in August 1883 (The Brooklyn Eagle wrote, “Anson, who is very particular about playing against respectable players who happen to be colored and who does not hesitate to play against the dirtiest ballplayer and rough in the fraternity, had to play against catcher Walker in 1883 at Toledo, because the Toledo management had the pluck to withstand the bluff. Anson then threatened to withdraw his men in case Walker played … but the Toledo management told (Anson) to withdraw and – well, he concluded to play with Walker after all. The joke of it was that Walker was not in condition to play, but Anson did not know it until Walker retired in the first inning.”)
Again in 1887, Walker was nursing nagging injuries, common for catchers during the barehanded and primitive-glove eras, and wasn’t scheduled to play. Stovey was, though. This was clearly listed in that day’s Newark News. Furthermore, the Toronto World declared, “[Charley] Hackett intended putting Stovey in the box against the Chicagos but Anson objected to him playing on account of his color.” Newark management was expecting a robust local crowd to see the great Anson and his charges and consequently buckled under the pressure. Stovey would not appear that day.
The Newark Evening News wrote that the pitcher “complained of illness” and asked off the assignment. At least that was the official announcement. It was a cover and the Newark Sunday Call wasn’t buying it: “Stovey was expected to pitch in the Chicago game. It was announced on the [grounds] that he was sulking, but it has since been given out that Anson objected to a colored man playing. If this be true, and the crowd had known it, Mr. Anson would have received hisses instead of the applause that was given him when he first stepped to the bat.” Newark won that day, 9-4, as Anson mostly played his younger men.
Curiously, Newark reserved Fleet Walker at the end of the year but not Stovey. It doesn’t appear that his temper soured the team’s management, as the Newark Daily Journal found him to be “very gentlemanly” and a “first class lad to work with.” Stovey spent the winter at home “shoveling grain in a Williamsport brewery.”
On May 30, 1888, Stovey signed with Worcester of the New England League. Sporting Life reported, “Manager Walter Burnham received orders this week to secure a good pitcher at any cost, and last night he accepted the terms of George Stovey, the colored left-handed twirler of last year’s Newarks. He has the name of being a first-rate man.” His first game for the club took place on June 16, an 8-7 victory over Lowell. He appeared in 11 games, amassing a 6-5 record before being released in mid July. He was supposedly dumped for being “headstrong.” The Boston Globewrote, “Stovey, Worcester’s colored pitcher, has fine curves, but no head for working a batsman.” The Worcester Spy opened another angle on the story: “The colored pitcher Stovey has caught on in Worcester, but is not being treated fairly by the other league clubs.”
In early August of 1888, Stovey rejoined the Cuban Giants. By this time the Giants were renting space at the Polo Grounds and in Brooklyn and Hoboken, New Jersey. They were aggressively, and successfully, marketing themselves throughout the area. The Sporting News surprisingly posted this bit of praise: “There are players among these colored men that are equal to any white players in the ball field. If you don’t think so, go out and see the Cuban Giants play.” The Cubans were now owned and managed by John M. Bright, who had purchased the club in June 1887. The team included pitcher Shepard Trusty, who along with Bill Seldon rivaled Stovey as the best black pitcher of the era. By September 10, Stovey was released by the Giants and joined the New York Gorhams. The Gorhams, named after a saloon in Manhattan, were formed in 1886 and quickly became one of the top black clubs of the day.
The following spring found Stovey pitching for the Cuban Giants again. On April 12, 1889, he lost a close one to Washington of the National League, 3-2. Stovey allowed only four hits, as did the Washington combination of George Keefe and Alex Ferson. According to the Washington Post, “The pitching of Stovey and the batting of [Frank] Grant and Billy O’Brien were the features of the game.” The Post even included a rare quote from Stovey, perhaps with a little syntax flair by the writer: “I never did see a man hit da ball as hard as dat man O’Brien.”
That season the Cuban Giants joined the otherwise white, independent Middle States League, as the Trenton entry. At the end of July the Philadelphia team left the league and was replaced by the New York Gorhams, now representing Easton, Pennsylvania (though the club based itself in Harrisburg). Stovey pitched for both clubs, Cuban Giants/Trenton and Gorhams/Easton. He appeared on the mound in seven games with a 1-4 record. In July and August the Cuban Giants and Gorhams pooled their teams to form another dubbed the Colored All-Americans that barnstormed in upstate New York, mainly on weekends. The team was fluid, players moving back and forth between the All-Americans and their regular team, as both parent clubs still maintained their presence in the Middle States League. Stovey pitched at times for the Colored All-Americans.
Stovey kicked off 1890 with the Cuban Giants. By July, he had joined Hoosick Falls (New York) in the Albany and Rensselaer League. According to Sporting Life, “The team took a game from the leaders [Ridgefield] July 16 by a score of 12 to 8. Stovey occupied the box for the Hoosicks and pitched a good game.” In late July Stovey signed with Troy in the New York State League. In early August Sporting Life declared, “Stovey is more than holding his own in Troy.” Nevertheless, he lasted only two games, with a split record 1-1. He then rejoined the Hoosick nine.
The 1890 season was Stovey’s last with an integrated club. Though only 25 years old at the start of the following season, he was relegated to work for black-only clubs. A few scattered black players found roster spots with white minor-league clubs during the rest of the 1890s before the color line was firmly drawn. In 102 games on the mound in the top white leagues, Stovey produced a 60-40 record with a 2.17 ERA. He batted .256 in a total of 122 games.
Stovey spent the winter of 1890-91 in New York and signed with the Cuban Giants, according to Sporting Life, which reported in January, “Geo. Stovey, the crack pitcher, has just been engaged, and on account of his heavy batting will play right field when he is not pitching.” However, before leaving Hoosick Falls, he ran into legal troubles in February. Sporting Life wrote, “Geo. Stovey, the colored twirler, was in court this week charged with assault on an old colored woman. The charge was not sustained, and Stovey was discharged.”
In May 1891, the Cuban Giants soundly beat the Gorhams twice, 18-10 and 17-2. Ambrose Davis, boss of the Gorhams, didn’t take the humiliation lightly. He raided the Cuban Giants for Stovey and Clarence Williams. Sol White and Frank Grant soon followed. Naturally, the Cuban Giants were severely wounded. As the Ansonia Sentinel put it, “The Cuban Giants, or what remains of the original club, have gone to pieces and the Gorhams have absorbed the largest portion of the nine.”
Davis then renamed his club the Big Gorhams. In his landmark work on black baseball history, Sol White identified the 1891 Big Gorhams as the best black club of the 19th century. Manager Cos Govern oversaw an infield that included George Williams at first, White on second, the strong-armed Frank Grant at shortstop, and Andy Jackson at third. Oscar Jackson played center field. The team’s catchers, Arthur Thomas and Clarence Williams, and its pitchers, Stovey, Bill Selden, and William Malone, took turns in left and right fields. According to White, the team posted a record that year of more than 100 victories to only 4 losses, but that seems a little exaggerated. At one point, though, they won 41 straight.
The Big Gorhams briefly joined the Connecticut State League representing Ansonia. They posted an 8-10 record before the league disbanded. In three games, Stovey’s record was 2-1. Regardless of their success on the field, the Big Gorhams were a financial failure. Stovey opened 1892 with the renamed and revamped Gorhams. On April 6 he relieved in an embarrassing contest against the New York Giants, a 36-1 eight-inning rout. By July he rejoined the Cuban Giants, and stayed with the club through 1893. In June and July 1894, Stovey pitched and played the outfield for Hornellsville, New York, an integrated, independent team. Clarence Williams was his batterymate.
In 1896, Stovey, now 30 years old, joined the Cuban X-Giants, a club owned by Edward B. LaMar, a white Brooklynite. Created that year, the X-Giants in essence stole the Cuban Giants name and then pilfered their players and fan base. Cos Govern managed the squad which included former Cuban Giants like Sol White, Andrew Jackson, Harry Catto, Oscar Jackson, Bill Selden, and Stovey. In response to LaMar’s encroachment, John Bright changed the name of the Cuban Giants, adding the term “Original” or “Genuine” to refer to his nine.
Stovey also played for the Brooklyn Colored Giants at some point in 1896. The next season, 1897, was Stovey’s last as an active player. He played briefly for the X-Giants and pitched in the otherwise white Central Pennsylvania League with his hometown Williamsport Demorset Bicycle Boys. In August he was hired as an umpire in the Central Pennsylvania League. Thus, he became the second-known black umpire to oversee games in the white minors. The first, Jacob Francis, did it in the 1880s.
In March 1898 Stovey’s argumentative nature continued. According to Sporting Life, “George Stovey, ex-pitcher for the Cuban Giants, received wounds of a serious nature in a fight last night [March 30 in Williamsport] with ‘Son’ Williams. Stovey alleges that Williams slashed him with a razor.”
Stovey umpired in Williamsport at all levels of the game through at least 1913. He even worked the city’s first night game, on May 14, 1902. According to the Williamsport Gazette and Bulletin, “Stovey’s fog horn voice sounded natural as he called out balls and strikes.” Reviews of his work in his hometown were overwhelmingly favorable. He also pitched sporadically until he was about 50 years old and was constantly organizing youth teams and leagues for decades in Williamsport, the future birthplace of Little League Baseball.
It doesn’t appear that Stovey ever married. He was listed as single in each of the first four Censuses of the 20th century. He toiled at odd jobs, working as a laborer where work could be found. At various times, he worked for the city and at a local sawmill. Stovey supplemented his income during Prohibition running bootleg liquor. In 1926, as a result, he was arrested and brought before a federal judge. Williamsport’s Mayor Archibald Hoagland spoke on his behalf: “George Stovey has more friends in Williamsport than any other colored man.” He was found guilty but given a suspended sentence and a small fine. As late as 1929, the local sheriff was still confiscating alcohol from the ex-pitcher.
George Stovey died on March 22, 1936, at the age of 69 of a heart attack. At the time of his death, he was displaced from his residence, living at the Curtin Junior High School with other flood refugees. A pauper, he was buried by the city at Wildwood Cemetery. A year later, his friend, Lycoming County Sheriff Joe Mertz, had a headstone placed on his grave. In an interview, Mertz remembered his friend in part for his skills as a ballplayer, “marble champion,” “incomparable sprinter,” and enjoyable harmonica entertainer.
Lou Hunsinger Jr. was very helpful in providing insight and information into Stovey’s life in Williamsport. He exchanged a couple of e-mails with me and proved to be a valuable source. His articles in The National Pastime and Baseball’s First Stars were my beginning point in the project.
I appreciate the help Tony Kissel provided for this project. He has for some time been researching the Cuban Giants, a worthwhile project. His insight helped me make sense of some conflicting reports.
In 2021, Joe Williams discovered the first known photos of George Stovey in Grit, a Williamsport-based newspaper. Click here to view more images of Stovey at Our Game.
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Newark Daily Journal, New Jersey, 1887.
Newark Evening News, New Jersey, 1887.
Newark News, New Jersey, 1887.
Newark Sunday Call, New Jersey, 1887.
New Brunswick Daily News, New Jersey, 1891.
New York Age, 1887-1889.
New York Freeman, 1886-1887.
New York Times, 1886, 1892, 1896.
New York World, 1887.
North Adams Transcript, Massachusetts, 1897.
Peterson, Robert. Only the Ball was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams Before Black Men Played in the Major Leagues. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1970.
Porter, David L. Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Baseball. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Riley, James A. The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1994.
Sporting Life, 1886-1898.
The Sporting News, 1886-1889.
Stevens, David. Baseball’s Radical for All Seasons: A Biography of John Montgomery Ward. Lanham, MD, and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998.
St. Louis Globe-Democrat, 1886.
Syracuse Daily Standard, 1886.
Syracuse Evening Herald, 1887.
Syracuse Herald, 1890.
Toronto World, 1887.
Trenton Times, New Jersey, 1886-1889.
Washington Post, 1889-1890.
Williamsport Gazette and Bulletin, Pennsylvania, 1885-1886, 1895-1913, 1929.
Worcester Spy, Massachusetts, 1888.
Zang, David W. Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart: The Life of Baseball’s First Black Major Leaguer. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998