The Many Giants of Black Baseball

In 1921, the Subway Series may not have been the best game in town


The first all-New York World Series occurred 100 years ago, as the Giants beat the Yankees in eight games, all played at the Polo Grounds of Coogan’s Hollow, at 155th Street along the Harlem River. (The better-known “Coogan’s Bluff” technically refers to the ridge that overlooked the park.) But as Major League Baseball neared its 1921 finish, the Series was not the only game in town.

 It might not even have been the best.

Elsewhere in NYC, Black teams like the Lincoln Giants, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, the Bacharach Giants, and the visiting Chicago American Giants—yes, they were all Giants in those days—showcased elite-level baseball. On weekends and holidays, Black fans traversed the city to cheer on their teams in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Upper Manhattan, and Queens. According to historian Stephen Robertson’s blog, Digital Harlem,  “If watching baseball in the 1920s meant leaving black-dominated Harlem, the journey of crowds of several thousand to these stadiums, and their occupation of places otherwise associated with whites, was a quite different experience than leaving Harlem in small groups to go to work. Crowds of fans claimed …  temporarily, spaces within the city for blacks.” Don’t go looking for remains of these spaces, though. All were demolished in NYC’s ongoing impulse to pave over itself, and in almost every case, nothing marks the spot. The fields get mentions in books about what would eventually be called the “Negro Leagues,” but not in volumes devoted to NYC baseball sites, such as Babe Ruth Slept Here: The Baseball Landmarks of New York City, by Jim Reisler.

Newspapers of 1921 labeled Black baseball teams “semi-professional”—the kind of mischaracterization that Major League Baseball is finally, slowly, addressing, per a recent announcement that it will “officially elevate” Negro League player statistics to Major League status. The tone-deaf rhetoric, however, undermines the intention. Poet and historian Rowan Ricardo Phillips, currently writing a book about Black baseball, asked in The New York Times: “Who thought it was a good idea to announce that after half a century of segregating and sabotaging Black baseball players in the United States, the organization was now ‘elevating’ the Negro leagues? The implications that the Negro leagues were beneath Major League Baseball are obvious and tired.” Insidious word choice aside, the MLB communiqué rang hollow to many, because the players and organizations that produced Black statistics have rarely been given their due.

Statistics at best only tell part of the story, and are misleading without context. For example: The Catholic Protectory Oval in the Bronx, a snug, enclosed stadium, favored offense. One player who was likely most victimized by its short distances was “Smokey” Joe Williams, famous for having outdueled the top white pitchers of his time. As pitcher-manager of the Lincoln Giants, who were based at the Protectory from 1920 onward, Williams surely saw his numbers suffer in a park so favorable to hitters. But there is no “ballpark factor” (the way baseball experts calibrate the effect of a ball field’s dimensions and layout on player performance) without ballparks.

The Lincoln Giants’ original home was in Harlem: Olympic Field (136th and 5th). They were neighborhood favorites, beloved both for high-caliber play and pregame burlesque, the “clowning” that became a staple of Black baseball. (Jesse McMahon, who cofounded the team in 1911, was grandfather to a more recent sports entrepreneur who similarly combined athletics and absurdism, pro wrestling’s Vince MacMahon.) When Olympic was demolished, the Lincoln team decamped for the Bronx, taking the grandstands with them to upgrade their new home, the ballpark owned by the Catholic Protectory, a refuge for orphans built in 1863 at East Tremont Avenue and Unionport Road. The diamond sat where, now, Unionport and Metropolitan Avenue intersect, at the periphery of the Metropolitan Life Corporation’s Parkchester Houses (which were erected in 1939). On Sunday, October 2, 1921, the Protectory hosted a doubleheader between Lincoln and the Cuban Stars East, a Black Latino team, precursor to later squads such as the Cuban Stars and the New York Cubans, owned by Cuban American entrepreneur Alex Pompez. Williams pitched nine innings and allowed one run as the teams split. A week later, as Game 5 of the World Series got underway at the Polo Grounds, an alternative championship matchup unfolded at the Protectory: Lincoln and the Brooklyn Royal Giants played two games “to decide the eastern colored championship,” according to the Yonkers Herald. (They split these—and split two more in their October 30 rematch, again at the Protectory, neither Black Giants establishing NYC bragging rights for 1921, as the white Giants had done.)

The Royal Giants had already played promiscuously in that month of October 1921, competing against Black clubs and the white semi-pro teams around town: at Astoria’s Recreation Field (Steinway between 35th and 36th Avenues), East New York’s New Lots Oval (Rockaway Avenue and Linden Boulevard), and Gravesend’s Suburban Oval (where McDonald and Ditmas now cross). Such interracial competitions were the closest thing to unsegregated professional baseball as the nation got in 1921. On October 23, Brooklyn faced the Parkville Athletic Association team at Glendale’s Ivanhoe Park (Cypress Hills and Cooper). It was “Waite Hoyt Day”—a celebration of the Yankees pitcher, who was presented with a “loving cup,” and it was a big enough event that Mayor John Hylan put in an appearance. Earlier in the month, against the Brooklyn Bushwicks, the Royals showed “the best brand of baseball ever seen at Dexter Park,” according to the Brooklyn Citizen. Dexter was home for both teams—notwithstanding its location in Woodhaven, Queens. Dexter’s legacy is intertwined with that of the colorful Bushwicks and the many Major Leaguers, such as Joe DiMaggio and Dazzy Vance, who appeared with them; thus the Woodhaven Historical Society commemorated the site with a plaque at Dexter Court and Jamaica Avenue, below the elevated tracks. The ballpark was actually a block or so north, near 86th Road, where brick split-level ranch houses now cluster.

Dexter Park is celebrated for having been visited by famous white players, such as Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. So it also is with Dyckman Oval, in Inwood, a mixed-use field that sat between Nagle and Amsterdam Avenues and 204th Street, a spot now given to basketball courts, a playground, and a community center. While Ruth, Christy Mathewson, and others all made their mark there, Dyckman drew its largest crowd of 1921 for an October 2 doubleheader between the American and Bacharach Giants. The Americans, on a barnstorming tour from Chicago, were champions of the Midwest’s Negro National League, and possibly the best team in NYC in the fall of 1921. Their owner was Rube Foster, the figure most associated with the founding of the Negro Leagues. As for the Bacharachs, they were led by Dick Redding, the pitcher-manager who was almost as much a legend as Williams. Redding lost the first game, on October 2, 3-1; the second ended in the fourth inning due to late-afternoon darkness settling over the unlit field.

The Americans and Bacharachs would continue their series two weeks later at the Bronx Oval, an open field located at 167th and Westchester, having moved from a few blocks away a couple of years earlier. These days, the site is occupied by a mix of industrial and residential buildings and a small park, Bryant Triangle. On October 16, 1921, it was where Chicago centerfielder Cristóbal Torriente took Redding deep for “one of the longest home runs ever hit on those grounds,” according to the Black weekly The New York Age.

The paper also reported that the Bacharachs, nominally based in Atlantic City, had announced that they would move to the Bronx Oval in 1922, receiving “prolonged cheers from fans.” (The Age also mentioned an announcement exhorting fans to re-elect Hylan.) Historian Layton Revel, in his article “Early Pioneers of the Negro Leagues,” writes that the Bacharachs in fact planned to make a new home base at the New York Oval, at 150th and River Avenue. The plan to put down roots in the city reflects the involvement of the team’s NYC-based owners, Barron D. Wilkins and John Connor, who had bought the Bacharachs in 1919. Connor was a longtime Black baseball entrepreneur; he founded the Royal Giants in 1904, and in 1911 leased the Harlem Oval at 142nd and Lenox, making the Royals the only Black team at the time to have control over a ballpark, according to Revel.

Connor, Wilkins, and Foster embodied a cultural shift for Black entrepreneurialism, overlapping with Marcus Garvey’s Negro Factories Corporation, which formed in 1920 to encourage Black business ownership. Black baseball success was temporarily abetted by Major League Baseball’s racist policies. As historian and author Neil Lanctot notes in Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution, “During the 1920s, the combined forces of discrimination and urbanization created a conducive environment” for “race institutions and enterprises” such as Black baseball leagues, which saw “remarkable profits.” That didn’t last.

A week after their Bronx match, the Americans and Bacharachs squared off at Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Robins (later, Dodgers). The phenomenon of Black teams renting NYC’s Major League ballparks had started in 1920, and would become increasingly common in the decade-plus ahead. As Black baseball organizations outgrew and/or struggled to maintain the smaller parks, white teams offered theirs for rent, ultimately contributing to the financial instability and inconsistent presence of Black baseball in New York. According to Lanctot, the Negro Leagues had practically no footprint in NYC during the early 1930s, as local teams spent their seasons mainly out of town.

That absence was a foreshadowing; absence marks New York’s Black baseball spaces. They are all around us, but with no traces of the sites, no commemoration of the crowds that congregated or the players who plied their trade there. Only by digging into the past can we feel their presence. Meanwhile, in August 2021, Major League Baseball spent five million dollars to build a ballpark in Iowa, a replica of a field where, in the movie Field of Dreams, white ghosts played—a copy with no original. But sites do exist where we can excavate Black baseball history, and recall a time that the white world of sports has tried to wash away.   ❖

From the Voice October 2021 print edition.

Editor’s note: The original caption for the Satchel Paige photo was incorrect. His first year in Major League Baseball was 1948, not 1940. 

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