October 18, 1925: Oscar Charleston’s Lincoln Giants fall to Lou Gehrig and the Bronx Giants in an avalanche of runs
For the two major-league baseball teams that called the Bronx home, the 1925 regular season was dreadful. The American League’s New York Yankees suffered their worst season in over a decade, finishing in seventh place, 16 games under .500. The Lincoln Giants won only 7 of their 50 games in the Eastern Colored League and finished in last place, due in part to losing a trio of top players early in the season over their entanglement in a local murder.1
It didn’t take long after the Yankees’ October 3 season finale2 for their players to start barnstorming, a wildly popular and often lucrative activity in the 1920s. The next day, slugger Babe Ruth, hurler Ben Shields, and a team of “all-stars” collected $1,000 for a ballgame they played against a Queens semipro league champion.3 At roughly the same time, pitcher Waite Hoyt led Hoyt’s All-Stars in a shutout of another Queens semipro nine, with a lineup that included Benny Bengough, Mark Koenig and “Columbia Lou” Gehrig.4 As was the norm, each player needed club approval to play in these exhibitions.5
The Hoyt’s All-Stars game was one of many athletic contests in which Gehrig participated in the months after his first season as a Yankee regular. The day before that game, he triumphed in what the New York Daily News called the “weirdest sport tilt ever seen.”6 In a four-man “long distance accuracy test” at a Queens golf course, Gehrig’s 32 baseball tosses into yard-wide tubs won by a single “stroke” on the par-36 course over a golfer hitting golf balls into standard holes, a fisherman casting into 36-inch loops, and an archer shooting arrows into target bulls-eyes.7
Over the next month, Gehrig headlined his own baseball team, Lou Gehrig’s All-Stars,8 led a basketball squad also named Lou Gehrig’s All-Stars,9 and joined the semipro Bronx Giants for a series of clashes with the Lincoln Giants.10
The Bronx Giants were an all-White team that rose to prominence in 1920 with the addition of former New York Giant Heinie Zimmerman.11 Under Zimmerman, the Bronx Giants began adding Yankees to their roster to boost attendance at matches held after each AL season.12 They mostly played semipro teams from the New York/New Jersey area, including prominent Black teams like the Cuban Giants, Brooklyn Royal Giants, Bacharach Giants, and Lincoln Giants.13
The Lincoln Giants, formed in 1911, had won the 1913 National Black Championship over Rube Foster’s Chicago American Giants despite serious financial problems, including players getting paid only portions of their salaries.14 James J. Keenan and a partner bought the club in 1914,15 and moved its home games from Harlem in upper Manhattan to the Catholic Protectory Oval in the Bronx.16
In 1923 Keenan entered the Lincoln Giants into the Eastern Colored League, where they finished a disappointing fifth out of six teams. After that season, they hosted the Bronx Giants in what was billed “the semi-professional championship of the Bronx.”17 The Bronx Giants prevailed in both games of their doubleheader, with their regular squad augmented by several minor leaguers.18
The two teams held a Bronx championship series in 1924, playing a pair of doubleheaders at the Protectory Oval over two October weekends. As many as 10,000 fans attended the opening game.19 John Taylor’s pitching performances in Games 2 and 3, Bennie Wilson’s 5-for-5 hitting clinic in Game 3, and Jesse Hubbard’s Game 4 shutout gave the Lincoln Giants the crown, three games to one.20
Eager to repeat his club’s successes from the year before, Keenan recruited additional firepower for the Lincoln Giants’ 1925 championship series with the Bronx Giants, and a preceding contest against a group of major leaguers. The Pittsburgh Courier reported that Keenan’s lineup for that earlier event might include John Henry “Pop” Lloyd of the Bacharach Giants, plus the outfielder many newspapers called the black Babe Ruth: Oscar Charleston.
The Lincoln-All-Stars match, held on October 11, lost much of its luster when Commissioner Kenesaw Landis blocked Philadelphia Athletics spitballer Jack Quinn and rookie catcher Mickey Cochrane from playing.21 Luckily for Keenan and the Bronx Giants’ Zimmerman, Landis didn’t interfere with the Lincoln-Bronx matchup. That cleared the way for Zimmerman to play Gehrig, and for Charleston to shine against high-caliber White major-league players he was barred from playing alongside.
As the club’s player-manager and chief gate attraction, Charleston had led the Harrisburg Giants to a solid 48-24-1 record in the ECL, finishing second behind the Hilldale club from suburban Philadelphia. Riding the peak of his Hall of Fame career, he was “a meteor now flashing … with a dazzling luster.”22
Charleston won the ECL triple crown for a second straight year, including hitting .427 with an otherworldly 1.299 OPS. He also dominated games Harrisburg played outside of the ECL, racking up at least 26 more home runs in those contests by the end of September, according to the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) New Era.23
In a nationwide poll conducted by Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter W. Rollo Wilson after the ECL season, Charleston was voted the most popular player on a “mythical all-Eastern baseball team.”24 In reporting poll results, the Pittsburgh Courier called Charleston “the greatest colored outfielder of all times.”25
The 1925 Bronx championship series opened with a doubleheader on Sunday, October 18, at the Protectory Oval, under fair skies and temperatures in the low 50s.26 The home Lincoln Giants took the field in Game 1 with southpaw Rube Chambers on the mound, Charleston in center field, and regulars at the other positions.27 The visiting Bronx Giants lineup had Gehrig batting cleanup and playing first base, New York Giants rookie center fielder Al Moore in center field and 31-year-old Cincinnati Reds rookie Chuck Dressen at third base.28 Reid “Rube” Zellars of the International League’s Jersey City Skeeters was their starting pitcher.
A crowd of 6,000 was treated to a scoreless pitchers’ duel over the first four innings.29 In the top of the fifth, left fielder Charlie Mason made a “star catch,” then gunned down a runner at home to keep the game scoreless.30 In the Lincolns half of the fifth, Charleston “laced one of his famous home runs” to break the deadlock. A fly ball by 22-year-old Bronx shortstop Billy Urbanski after three walks with nobody out in the top of the sixth tied the score, 1-1.31 Chambers fanned the next two batters to escape further damage.
The Lincolns immediately took back the lead, as Burdell Young plated Cleo Smith with a single. The next two innings were scoreless, leaving the Bronx Giants down a run entering the ninth. An errant throw to third by first baseman Robert “Highpockets” Hudspeth allowed Gehrig to score the tying run. The Lincolns proved unable to score in the bottom of the ninth, pushing the contest into extra innings.
Both teams came up empty in the 10th, with Young’s splendid catch in deep right field preventing a Bronx score.32 The 11th inning brought “an avalanche of runs.”33 Chambers, by now tiring, gave up a single, then walked Gehrig and Moore (his 12th and 13th walks of the game) to load the bases. Lincoln Giants captain-shortstop Clarence Lindsay replaced Chambers with righty Bill Nuttall, who promptly surrendered a bases-clearing double that second baseman Riley “hit through” Hudspeth.34 Dressen singled, moving Riley to third, after which Nuttall uncorked a wild pitch that brought Riley home.
The Bronx Giants held a commanding 6-2 lead, but the Lincoln Giants had no intention of going quietly. In the bottom of the inning, Charleston drilled a two-bagger for his fourth hit of the game. The next batter, Mason, singled to drive in the big Cuban, giving him four hits for the game as well. Up next was Smith, whose third hit of the game drove in Mason.
Zellars retired Hudspeth but then gave up a single to Young, scoring Smith for the fifth Lincoln run. The Lincolns had cut the deficit to a single run. With two men on, the home crowd roaring, and his teammates urging him on, catcher Rich Gee stood at the plate. A hit could tie or even win the game. But it wasn’t to be. Gee struck out to end the game. Despite being outhit 21 to 7, and striking out 11 times, the Bronx Giants had taken Game 1.
Game 2 of the doubleheader made it only to the second inning before darkness descended. The game was rescheduled for the following Sunday, October 25, with Lou Gehrig earmarked to pitch for the Bronx Giants.35 Gehrig’s pitching adventure was then pushed off to November 1.36 An inch of rain on the 25th was the likely culprit.37
The Bronx Giants won Game 2 by an 8-7 score behind the pitching of Zellars, with no other details published.38 It’s unclear whether Oscar Charleston played. He was scheduled to headline the Philadelphia Royal Giants in the Los Angeles Winter League beginning on October 24, but didn’t appear in Royal Giants games that weekend, or the next.39
Games 3 and 4 of the Bronx semipro championship were scheduled for November 8, but there’s no record of them having ever been played.
This article was fact-checked by Kurt Blumenau and copy-edited by Len Levin.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted David Jones’s SABR biography of Heinie Zimmerman, Tim Odzer’s SABR biography of Oscar Charleston, and James Lincoln Ray’s SABR biography of Lou Gehrig. The Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, Seamheads.com/NegroLgs, and statscrew.com/baseball and /basketball websites also provided pertinent material.
1 The Lincoln Giants season had a promising start: They swept their season-opening April 26 doubleheader with the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City. After a local longshoreman was murdered two days later, three of their players, Dave Brown, Frank Wickware, and Oliver Marcell, were sought by the police for questioning. Brown and Wickware couldn’t be located, and were charged with the murder. Wickware was soon found and released for lack of evidence, but Brown had disappeared. Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter W. Rollo Wilson lamented that the loss of the three players “will just about wreck” the team, but also insisted that they must be banished. (Brown was the ace of their pitching staff and considered by Wilson to be the top southpaw in the league. Marcell was the team captain and the top third baseman in the league, according to Wilson, while Wickware was an accomplished veteran expected to bolster the pitching staff.) The trio never played for the Lincoln Giants again. “Local Baseball Players Alleged to Be Mixed in Shooting of Benj. Adair,” New York Age, May 2, 1925: 1; W. Rollo Wilson, “Eastern Snapshots,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 9, 1925: 13; “A Murder in Harlem,” The Negro Leagues Up Close blog, https://homeplatedontmove.wordpress.com/2014/05/02/a-murder-in-harlem/, accessed May 15, 2022.
2 In that game the Yankees defeated the Philadelphia Athletics, 9-8, when speedster Earle Combs scampered home from second on an infield groundout in the bottom of the ninth. Combs had reached second after tying the score with a single that drove in pinch-runner Leo Durocher, scoring his first run as a major leaguer.
3 Ruth played first base, pitched the last three innings, and collected two hits in a losing effort against College Point. “Babe Ruth to Head Team in Game at College Point,” New York Daily News, October 4, 1925: 54; “Babe Makes Two Hits in College Point Game,” Brooklyn Standard Union, October 5, 1925: 10.
4 How much Hoyt and his fellow Yankees were paid for the game wasn’t reported in newspaper accounts of the game. “Waite Hoyt Hands Shutout to Jamaica Cardinals—Yields Three Hits,” Brooklyn Standard Union, October 5, 1925: 11.
5 Not all requests were approved. Yankees manager Miller Huggins reportedly denied a request for Gehrig to play in a three-game series for the Italian American Athletic Association of Morristown the weekend of October 4. “New Madison Team Plays I.A.A.A. at Morristown,” Madison (New Jersey) Eagle, October 2, 1925: 8.
6 It’s unclear from newspaper accounts whether this event, held at a country club in Bayside, Queens, took place before or after the Yankees-Athletics game that day at Yankee Stadium. “Lou Gehrig Wins Weirdest Sport Tilt Ever Seen,” New York Daily News, October 4, 1925: 224.
7 “Baseball Player Captures Freak ‘Golf’ Tourney,” Buffalo Courier, October 5, 1925: 1.
8 “Lou Gehrig’s Stars to Play Farmers,” Brooklyn Standard Union, October 9, 1925: 15.
9 The basketball team competed from November through January, including a win over the “world champion” Original Celtics in which Gehrig reportedly starred. The New York-based Original Celtics, a strictly barnstorming team in 1925, joined the fledgling American Basketball League the following year and won that league’s first two championships, competing as the Brooklyn Celtics and then the New York Celtics. Twenty years later, Walter Brown named his new Basketball Association of America team the Boston Celtics in homage to the New York Original Celtics. “Gehrig in Basketball,” Brooklyn Times, October 22, 1925: 40; “Gehrig, Yankee Star, Is Clever Basketeer,” Brooklyn Standard Union, November 16, 1925: 13; “Nonpareils Win from Gehrig’s Team by 41-36,” Brooklyn Standard Union, November 19, 1925: 17; “Capacity Crowd Sees Triangles Bow to Celtics,” Brooklyn Eagle, January 11, 1926: 23; Cameron Tabatabaie, “Who Were the New York Celtics,” August 9, 2018, Celtics Hub website, http://www.celticshub.com/2018/08/09/new-york-celtics/, accessed May 13, 2022.
10 “Yank Players in Bronx Lineup,” New York Daily News, October 14, 1925: 39.
11 Though not officially banned from professional baseball, like the Chicago Black Sox, Bronx native Zimmerman was persona non grata after admitting he participated in efforts to fix major-league games during the 1919 season.
12 In October 1920 Babe Ruth, who had just finished his first season in New York, played center field for the Bronx Giants against the Washington All-Stars, a team sprinkled with Yankees teammates and Washington Senators “No Homer for Ruth,” New York Herald, October 18, 1920: 10.
13 “Cuban Stars Out to Stop Bushwicks To-Morrow,” Brooklyn Standard Union, September 25, 1920: 8; “Bronx Giants Divide,” New York Tribune, September 13, 1920: 10; “Bacharach Giants Defeat Bronx Giants,” New York Age, June 24, 1922: 6.
14 Todd Peterson, “May the Best Man Win: The Black Ball Championships 1866-1923,” Baseball Research Journal, Spring 2013, https://sabr.org/journal/article/may-the-best-man-win-the-black-ball-championships-1866-1923/.
15 Euell A. Nielsen, “The Lincoln Giants (1911-1930),” December 31, 2020, Black Past website, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/the-lincoln-giants-1911-1930/, accessed May 13, 2022.
16 The club had the bleachers removed from their former home ballpark, Olympic Field, and reinstalled at the Protectory Oval as it was commonly called. The Oval was located on the site of a Catholic orphanage. “Catholic Protectory Oval,” February 28, 2011, Agate Type website, https://agatetype.typepad.com/agate_type/2011/02/catholic-protectory-oval.html, accessed May 13, 2022.
17 “Lincoln Giants to Play Bronx Giants in Series for Bronx Championship,” New York Age, October 27, 1923: 6.
18 New York Age described the Bronx Giants as “made up mostly of major league players,” but none of the Bronx Giants identified in the story ever played in the major leagues. Pitcher Edgar LePard, a 10-game winner for the International League Buffalo Bisons, was the most prominent. “Bronx Giants Take Final Game from the Lincoln Giants,” New York Age, November 3, 1923: 6.
19 “Bronx Championship Series Attract Huge Crowd Sunday,” New York Age, October 25, 1924: 6.
20 Lou Gehrig, called up to the Yankees from Hartford of the Eastern League in late August of 1924, was the hitting star of the first doubleheader for the Bronx Giants, stroking five hits including a home run, triple and double. The absence of his name from the New York Age account of the second doubleheader a week later suggests he didn’t play in that one. William E. Clark, “Lincoln Giants Win Semi-Pro Title in the Series with Bronx Giants,” New York Age, November 1, 1924: 6.
21 Landis ruled that the pair couldn’t play because the Athletics’ season had not ended, despite the team’s having played its last regular-season game a week earlier. Landis bizarrely asserted that since the Athletics finished in second place behind the Washington Senators, and would share in receipts from the ongoing World Series between Washington and the Pittsburgh Pirates, their season was not yet complete. Quinn did attend the game, as a spectator. Jeremy Beer, Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019), 173; “Lincoln and Bronx Giants to Begin Series for Bronx Baseball Championship,” New York Age, October 17, 1925: 6: “Lincoln Giants Trim Bayside by 7 to 2 and All Stars, 7 to 0,” Brooklyn Union Times, October 12, 1925: 45.
22 William G. Nunn, “Diamond Dope,” Pittsburgh Courier, June 20, 1925: 12.
23 “Colored Giants at Parkesburg,” Lancaster (Pennsylvania) New Era, October 1, 1925: 8.
24 Charleston was named on 212 votes out of 221 ballots submitted (96 percent). Bacharachs pitcher Rats Henderson and Hilldale pitcher Nip Winters finished second and third, respectively. “Selected by Fans as Manager and Most Popular Player on Mythical All-Eastern Baseball Team,” Pittsburgh Courier, October 3, 1925: 14.
25 “Selected by Fans.”
26 “The Weather,” Brooklyn Standard Union, October 19, 1925: 2.
27 Oscar Charleston, four days after celebrating his 29th birthday, took the place of center fielder Tom Fiall, a Charleston, South Carolina, native who had the lowest ECL batting average of any Lincoln Giants regular (.234).
28 The game box score published in the New York Age showed both Gehrig and Moore playing center field. The Brooklyn Standard Union published a box score that listed Gehrig at first base and Moore in center field, which is assumed by the author to be correct. “Little World Series for Bronx Title, with Bronx and Lincoln Giants Battling; Opened with 11-Inning Win for Bronxites,” New York Age, October 24, 1925: 8; “Bronx Giants Defeat Lincolns in Eleventh,” Brooklyn Standard Union, October 20, 1925: 18.
29 “Little World Series for Bronx Title.”
30 “Little World Series for Bronx Title.”
31 Urbanski, born in the Staten Island, New York, hamlet of Linoleumville (site of one of the first linoleum factories in the world), had just completed his first year of professional baseball, playing with Zellars for the Jersey City Skeeters. It would be nearly six more years before he debuted in the major leagues.
32 “Little World Series for Bronx Title.”
33 “Little World Series for Bronx Title.”
34 The Bronx Giants second baseman’s last name is spelled Reily in the New York Age boxscore, Riley in the accompanying game account and both Reily and Riely in redundant entries in the Brooklyn Standard Union box score. Newspaper accounts of the game do not identify Riley’s first name and the author’s review of other Bronx Giants box scores and game accounts in New York area newspapers don’t list him playing in any other game for them. Baseball-Reference.com lists no major leaguers and only one minor leaguer playing in 1925 with the last name of Riley, Riely, Reily, or Reilly. That player was Jim Riley, a first baseman for the Mobile Bears of the Southern Association, who’d played four games at second base for the St. Louis Browns in 1921 and two at first with the 1923 Washington Senators. With Gehrig playing first base for the Bronx Giants, if Riley/Reily/Riely was in fact Jim Riley, it would make sense that he’d be shifted to his former position. Canadian-born Riley carries the distinction of being the only person, as of the start of the 2022 season, to play in both major-league baseball and the National Hockey League. “Bronx Giants Defeat Lincolns in Eleventh,” 18; “Little World Series for Bronx Title”; John Thorn, “Old News in Baseball, No 10,” July 3, 2015, Our Game website, https://ourgame.mlblogs.com/old-news-in-baseball-10-73987b460597, accessed May 13, 2022; April Whitzman, “MLB Players Who Played Hockey,” mlb.com website, https://www.mlb.com/news/mlb-players-who-played-hockey/c-44302058#:~:text=James%20Riley%3A%20Riley%20is%20the,professional%20baseball%20and%20professional%20hockey, accessed May 13, 2022.
35 “Gehrig to Hurl in Game Today,” New York Daily News, October 25, 1925: 172.
36 November 1 was set to be a busy day for Gehrig. In addition to the Bronx championship game, his all-star basketball team was scheduled to play the Original Celtics. “This Is One Busy Day for Lou Gehrig,” New York Daily News, November 1, 1925: 263.
37 Weather for October 25 obtained from National Weather Service historical weather website, https://www.weather.gov/wrh/Climate?wfo=okx, accessed May 13, 2022.
38 “Bronx Giants Win,” Brooklyn Standard Union, November 2, 1925: 19; “Zellars on Mound for Bronx Giants,” New York Daily News, November 6, 1925: 47.
39 “Major Leaguers, Black and White, Play Opening Games of Winter Season Sat. and Sun.,” (Los Angeles) California Eagle, October 23, 1925: 9; “Britt and Jess Hubbard Star on Mound for Royal Giants,” California Eagle, October 30, 1925: 9; “Great Ninth Inning Play Saves Game for Philadelphians,” California Eagle, November 6, 1925: 9.
Bronx Giants 6
Lincoln Giants 5
Catholic Protectory Oval
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