Blacks in 19th Century Organized Baseball

This article was written by Merl F. Kleinknecht

This article was published in 1977 Baseball Research Journal

Moses and Welday Walker played with the Toledo club of the American Association in 1884 and thereby became the only recognized Negroes to make the major leagues until Jackie Robinson did it in 1947. But what about the rest of Organized Baseball, the fledgling minor leagues of the 19th Century? Was it just as difficult for black players to break down the barriers there?

The answer is “not quite.” it was tough and the tenure was usually pretty short, but there were a number of Negroes who played in the minor leagues from 1883 to 1898. We know of 55 by name who were home-based with O.B. clubs of 14 states, primarily in the Northeast and Middle West.

About one-half of the Negro representation in Organized Baseball prior to 1900 was through all-black teams in an otherwise all-white league. This apparently was considered more palatable-you may not want Negro players on your team, but you would be willing to play against them. The other half of the Negro players connected with minor league teams based on individual merit or the ability to stimulate fan interest (or curiosity). Some of these players were good enough to play in the majors, but the opportunity was not there. Players like Bud Fowler, George Stovey, Frank Grant and Sol White had the ability, but were lucky to demonstrate it even in the minors. Fowler was the pioneer black player of this period and a review of his career may shed some light on the state of Negroes in the minors in the 19th Century.

John W. Fowler is credited with being the first Negro to play as a regular on white teams as well as being the first black professional player. Born John Jackson in Cooperstown, N.Y. about 1850, he began a checkered but successful baseball career in 1869 with the black Washington, D.C. Mutuals. Three years later he joined an all-white professional team in New Castle, Pa. His wanderings over the next dozen years have not been fully documented, but in 1884 he played with Stillwater, Minnesota in the Northwestern League. He did some pitching that first year, but was primarily a second baseman over most of his 8 years in the minors. He played for at least 12 different teams in 7 different leagues, from Binghamton, N.Y. to Pueblo, Colorado.

As opportunities for Negro players were limited after 1890, Fowler played independent ball for the next four years. In 1895 he went to Adrian, Michigan, where he organized a black team for the Page Woven Wire Fence Company. And so was born the Page Fence Giants, one of the crack Negro teams of that period. It was not in O.B., but played many teams that were. Also, several of its players played a few games for the Adrian team in the Michigan State League.  Fowler, himself, played most of his games with the Lansing club.  It was his last effort in O.B. There were essentially no more openings for blacks in the minors, and Fowler was already 45 years old.

The major contribution of Negroes in the minors was probably in the International League, or Association, as it was sometimes called in the mid-1880s. Southpaw George Stovey had two good years, one with Jersey City in 1886 and another with Newark in 1887 when he won 34 games. His catcher with Newark was Moses Walker, making them the first black battery in O.B. The next year Walker shifted to Syracuse, where he caught Bob Higgins, who had a 20-7 record in 1888.

Bud Fowler was with Binghamton in 1887, where he batted .350, and Frank Grant was with Buffalo, where he hit .366. There was a friendly rivalry when these two second basemen played against each other. Second base was a rough position for blacks as most opposition players seemed to enjoy sliding in with spikes high. Fowler and Grant found it advantageous to wear makeshift shinguards. Grant, probably the best Negro player in the 19th Century, was with Buffalo for three years, 1886-88, a record for a black with a white minor league team.

* Assisted by Ray Nemec and Roger King

It is interesting to note that it not only was in the International League where Negroes made their best showing in the 19th Century, but when they were returned to O.B. after nearly a half century absence in 1946, it was again to the International League. Jackie Robinson, John Wright and Roy Partlow broke in with Montreal that year, opening the gates to a long procession which has revolutionized the sport.

Moses Walker was the last Negro of the 19th Century to play in the International League in 1889. Individual blacks were still playing occasionally in certain of the lower classifications. But it was getting more difficult to do so, based on the apparent prejudice of certain players and occasionally of spectators. Black players still attracted crowds and some promoters were looking for ways to capitalize on that aspect.

There had been a number of good all-black teams organized and playing in the Philadelphia and New York areas. The New York Gorhams were one and the Cuban Giants were another. It might be appropriate to digress briefly at this point to try to explain the name “Cuban” Giants and the way that the white press dealt with the Negro question in baseball. Seldom would the local press refer to a black player as Negro. There were usually “cover” names such as the Spaniard, the Cuban, the Indian, etc. The paper of the visiting team would sometimes refer to colored players. Some historians feel that the Negro dialect might have contributed to the foreign references. Anyway, the Cuban Giants were no more Cuban than President William McKinley.

  In 1889 in the Middle States League it was agreed that the Trenton franchise would be filled by the Cuban Giants, which had such good players as pitcher George Stovey (part-time), Frank Grant, Jack Frye, and Sol White. The team played well; in fact had a slight edge in percentage over Harrisburg, but had not played as many games and the title went to Harrisburg. The New York Gorhams also got into the league, replacing the faltering Philadelphia Giants in mid-season. As a reflection of the loose organization of that time, George Stovey pitched briefly for both Negro teams.

In 1890 the Cuban Giants represented the York, Pa., team in the same but renamed Eastern Interstate League. This time the Negro team had a greater lead over Harrisburg, but again did not really win the title because Harrisburg and Lebanon pulled up stakes in mid-season and joined the Atlantic Association. This caused the Eastern Interstate to fold and the Cuban Giants played independent teams the remainder of the season.

The Giants performed very well that season even though two of their players-Frank Grant and Clarence Williams-played with their chief rival, Harrisburg. It might be of interest to give some of the report of the Harrisburg Morning Patriot on May 6, 1890 concerning Grant’s arrival.

“Long before it was time for the game to begin, it was whispered around the crowd that Grant would arrive on the 3:20 train and play third base. Everybody was anxious to see him come and there was a general stretch of necks towards the new bridge, all being eager to get a sight at the most famous colored ball player in the business. . .When he appeared on the field a great shout went up from the immense crowd to receive him, in recognition of which he politely raised his cap.

Grant was well thought of in Harrisburg and stayed with the club when it transferred to the Atlantic Association. However, in 1891 he returned to the Cuban Giants as they took the place of the Ansonia team in the Connecticut State League. The Giants had tougher sledding this season, and it wasn’t all because of lack of talent. Here is a report by the Hartford Courant, describing what should have been a routine force out play in the fourth inning of the Hartford-Ansonia game on May 13.

  “Williams, catcher of the Cuban Giants, caught the ball with his foot on the home plate several seconds before Uplander reached home.  The runner was not touched with the ball and he need not have been as the run was forced. The umpire declared the run. Then there was a howl from the Cubans and their pitcher, Stovey, threw the ball over the fence into the paddock. While the situation was being argued, the three men on base trotted around. The game was lost to Hartford 9-5 in spite of home runs by White and Jackson.”

The Connecticut State League had some problems that year. The weather was bad and attendance was dropping off. Some members of the Cuban Giants left to join the N.Y. Gorhans, who were not in O.B. in 1891 and were having a successful season against independent teams. The league folded in June. That was the end of the Cuban Giants in Organized Ball. It also seemed to be the end of Negro players in the minor leagues. Although the field has not been fully researched, we have no record of a black player in O.B. competition in the next three years.

In 1895 there were several blacks who played in the Michigan State League as somewhat of an outgrowth of the presence there of the Page Fence Giants. The star pitcher of that circuit was the Negro pitcher of the Adrian team, George Wilson, who compiled a 29 and 4 won-lost record. Nevertheless, neither Wilson nor any of the other players, including Bud Fowler, returned to the league the next season.  Sol White, who played with Fort Wayne in the Western Interstate League for part of the 1895 season, also played no more in the minor leagues.

The final 19th Century chapter was written in two widely separated parts of the country in the Spanish-American War year of 1898.  In the southwest corner of New York State, Harry Curtis an aggressive white man, put together what he thought was the youngest and strongest colored team in America and placed it in the Oil & Iron League, an O.B. circuit of that period. The Acme Colored Giants of Celeron, N.Y. put on quite a show for that resort area, but couldn’t put it together on the ball field, probably because of their inexperience.  There was no representation from earlier minor league games on the team. Although they sometimes were referred to as “darkies” and the “Celeron Chocolates,” it wasn’t discrimination that drove them out. By July 5 they had only 8 victories and 41 defeats. They were broken up by Harry Curtis, and a new team was recruited from Louisville.

About the same time that the Celeron club was closed out in New York, the Kansas State League was finally getting organized for the 1898 season. Reorganized from the year before, the teams were Atchison, Topeka, Wichita, and Sauna. Bert Jones, a southpaw pitcher of some local reputation, had pitched for Atchison in 1897 and continued for a short time in the new campaign, which started on July 23.

Jones, called the “Yellow Kid” after a comic strip character of the period, played the outfield in one league game and pitched two victories in others. He shut out Topeka 13-0 and beat Salina 7-3. However, in late July, the Atchison Globe related that “Parvin, the new pitcher, who is being given a trial by Atchison, says he will not play a game in which the Yellow Kid plays. Parvin is from Missouri and will have nothing to do with a Cuban.”

There was no mention of Jones for a couple of weeks until the Globe reported that “Since joining the Chicago Unions, the Yellow Kid has pitched three games and won them all.” The Chicago Unions were a top Negro team of that era and the implication was that Jones had been forced out, or found it expedient to leave the Kansas State League. It was too bad, because he had pitched some good games for Atchison, when the club was in league status and before. The Atchison newspaper gave the impression that he was a colorful character who sometimes had to be prodded by his manager, but who could throw “bullets.” The press references were usually complimentary, indicating that when there was to be an important game with a powerful Western League club, the Yellow Kid usually got the assignment.

Jones was probably the last Negro player in O.B. until Jackie Robinson in 1946. It is known that William Clarence Matthews, who won his letter as shortstop for the Harvard team, left the University in the summer of 1906 to play with Burlington in the Vermont League.  But this was an outlaw circuit, and even under those circumstances, it was a “disruptive innovation” and did not work out.

Closed off in Organized Baseball, Negroes formed their own clubs and later, with the organizing ability of men like Rube Foster, their own leagues. That is another chapter in the overall-all struggle for racial equality that went on for many years. This article is limited to the first phase of Negroes in O.B. We have tried to pin down all the names, but there surely are more. Research in this area is difficult because the minor leagues were not well organized before 1900 and usually did not get much play in the newspapers of that era. As we have already noted, the local press sometimes had a way of obscuring references to Negro players. First names usually were not given and assistance in that regard came from that pioneer work of Sol White, The History of Colored Baseball. Here is the list as it stands at present. If any readers can add to the list, the Society would be interested in receiving the information.

Register of 19th Century Black Players in Organized Baseball
*This list has been republished as it was printed in the original journal

  • Al Baxter, OF, 1898 Celeron NY, Iron & Oil League
  • Frank Bell, OF, 1889 NY Gorhams, Middle States League; 1891 Ansonia (Cuban Giants), Conn. State
  • William Binga, C, 1895 Adrian, Michigan State League
  • Billy Booker, 2B, 1898 Celeron NY, Iron & Oil League
  • Ben Boyd, OF, 1889 Trenton (Cuban Giants) Middle States; 1890 York (Cuban Giants), Eastern Interstate
  • Pete Burns, C, 1895 Adrian, Michigan State League
  • Harry Cato, 2B, P, OF, 1889 NY Gorhams, Middle States
  • Chamberlain, 1B, 1889 NY Gorhams, Middle States
  • Eddie Day, SS, 1898 Celeron NY, Iron & Oil League
  • George Edsall, OF, 1898 Celeron NY, Iron & Oil League
  • Emory, C, 1889 NY Gorhams, Middle States League
  • Nat Collins, P, 1889 NY Gorhams, Middle States League
  • Cam, OF, 1891 Ansonia (Cuban Giants) Conn. State League
  • John “Bud” Fowler, P, C, IF, OF, 1884 Stiliwater (Minn.) Northwestern League; 1885 Keokuk (Iowa) Western League, Pueblo, Colorado League; 1886 Topeka, Western League; 1887 Binghamton, International Association; 1888 Crawfordsville & Terre Haute, Central Interstate; 1889 Greenville, Michigan State League; 1890 Sterling, Illinois-Iowa League; Galesburg, Central Interstate League; 1895 Lansing & Adrian, Michigan State League
  • Jack Frye, C, P, 1B, OF, 1883 Reading, Pa. Interstate Association; 1886 Lewiston, Penn. State Association; 1889 Trenton (Cuban Giants), Middle States League; 1890 York (Cuban Giants) Eastern Interstate League; 1891 Ansonia (Cuban Giants), Conn. State League
  • Ross Garrison, SS, 1889, NY Gorhams, Middle States League; 1890, York (Cuban Giants), Eastern Inter.
  • Good, OF, 1890 York (Cuban Giants) Eastern Interstate
  • Vacho Graham, C, 1895 Adrian, Michigan State League
  • Frank Grant, 2B, OF, C, P; 1886 Meriden, Eastern League; Buffalo, International Association; 1887 Buffalo, International Association; 1888 Buffalo, International Association; 1889 Trenton, (Cuban Giants), Middle States League; 1890 Harrisburg, Eastern Interstate & Atlantic Assoc.; 1891 Ansonia (Cuban Giants), Conn. State League
  • Abe Harrison, SS, 1889 Trenton (Cuban Giants) Middle States; 1890 York (Cuban Giants), Eastern Interstate
  • Robert Higgins, P, 1887 Syracuse, International Assoc.; 1888 Syracuse, International Assoc.
  • Ben Holmes, 3B, 1889 Trenton (Cuban Giants), Middle States
  • Andrew Jackson, 3B, 1889 NY Gorhams, Middle States League; 1890 York (Cuban Giants), Eastern Inter.
  • Bob Jackson, OF, 1891 Ansonia (Cuban Giants), Conn. State
  • Oscar Jackson, OF, 1889 NY Gorhams, Middle States League; 1890 York (Cuban Giants), Eastern Interstate
  • William Jackson, C, 2B, OF, 1890 York (Cuban Giants), Eastern Interstate; 1891 Ansonia (Cuban Giants), Conn. State
  • Richard Johnson, C, OF, 1887 Zanesville, Ohio State & Tri-State Leagues; Springfield & Peoria, Central Interstate League; 1888 Zanesville & Lima, Tri-State League; 1889 Springfield, Central Interstate League; 1890 Peoria, Central Interstate League
  • Bert Jones, P, OF, 1897 Atchison, Kansas State League; 1898 Atchison, Kansas State League
  • R.A. Kelly, IF, 1889 Danville, Illinois-Indiana League; 1890 Jamestown, NY-Penn. League; 1891 Jamestown, NY-Penn. League
  • William Kelly, 3B, 1898, Celeron, Iron & Oil League
  • William H. Malone, P, 1B, 3B, OF, 1889 Trenton (Cuban Giants), Middle States League; 1890 York (Cuban Giants), Eastern Interstate League
  • John Mickey, P, 1898, Celeron, Iron & Oil League
  • Frank Miller, P, OF, 1889, NY Gorhams, Middle States League
  • Joe Miller, P, 1895, Adrian, Michigan State League
  • John Nelson, P, OF, 1889 Trenton (Cuban Giants), Middle States League; 1891 Ansonia (Cuban Giants), Conn. State
  • William Payne, OF, 1898 Celeron, Iron & Oil League
  • Pointter, P, 3B, 1887 Binghamton, International Assoc.
  • Renfro, P, 1887 Binghamton, International Assoc.
  • Ross, 3B, 1889, Greenville, Michigan State League
  • William H. Selden, P, OF, 1889 Trenton (Cuban Giants), Middle States; 1890 York (Cuban Giants), Eastern Interstate
  • John Southall, C, 1898 Celeron, Iron & Oil League
  • George W. Stovey, P, OF, 1886 Jersey City, Eastern League; 1887 Newark, International Association; 1888 Worcester, Northeastern League; 1889 Trenton & NY Gorhams, Middle States; 1890 Troy, NY State League; 1891 Ansonia (Cuban Giants), Conn. State League
  • W.W. Terrill, Utility, 1890 York (Cuban Giants) Eastern Interstate
  • Arthur Thomas, C, 1B, OF, 1889 Trenton (Cuban Giants), Middle States League; 1890 York (Cuban Giants), Eastern Interstate
  • Shep Trusty, P, OF, 1889 Trenton (Cuban Giants) Eastern Interstate
  • Moses Fleetwood Walker, C, 1B, OF, 1883 Toledo, Northwestern League; 1884 Toledo, American Association (major league); 1885 Cleveland, Western League; Waterbury, Eastern League; 1886 Waterbury, Eastern League; 1887 Newark, International Association; 1888 Syracuse, International Association; 1889 Syracuse, International Association
  • Welday Wilberforce Walker, OF, 2B, 1884 Toledo, American Association (major league); 1885 Cleveland, Western League; 1887 Akron, Ohio State League
  • Solomon White, 2B, 3B, 1887 Wheeling, Ohio State League; 1889 NY Gorhams, Middle States League; 1890 York (Cuban Giants) Eastern Interstate; 1891 Ansonia (Cuban Giants), Conn. State; 1895 Fort Wayne, Western Interstate League
  • William T. Whyte, P, OF, 1889 Trenton (Cuban Giants), Middle States; 1890 York (Cuban Giants), Eastern Interstate
  • Clarence Williams, C, 3B, SS, OF, 1889 Trenton (Cuban Giants), Middle States; 1890 Harrisburg, Eastern Interstate; 1891 Ansonia (Cuban Giants), Conn. State
  • George Williams, 1B, 3B, 1889 Trenton (Cuban Giants), Middle States; 1890 York (Cuban Giants), Eastern Interstate
  • Walter Williams, P, 1898 Celeron, Iron & Oil League
  • Edward Wilson, P, 1898 Celeron, Iron & Oil League
  • George H. Wilson, P, OF, Adrian, Michigan State League
  • Clarence Wright, 1B, 1898, Celeron, Iron & Oil League