Cuban Giants: First Black Baseball League

Before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues and before Satchel Paige revolutionized baseball, there was Sol White and the Cuban Giants.

Following the American Civil War, baseball quickly took root in American culture. Each region had its own rules, played initially throughout New York City, New Jersey, and outside of Boston as early as 1790. The original New York set of rules became the standard on how the game is played today, except for the practice of tagging the runner from base to base by throwing the ball at them. Following the 1845 removal of pelting a player with the ball, Alexander Cartwright would create the New York Knickerbockers, which became the first official baseball team with many of the modern rules and regulations. As games and championships developed throughout New York City, popularity for the game migrated east into Nassau or Suffolk counties.

In the Village of Babylon, the newly built Argyle Hotel competed with the summer resorts of the neighboring town Bay Shore. After expanding the railroad lines, South Shore towns evolved to resort communities attracting middle to upper middle class city residents for rest and recreation by the ocean. But the Argyle was slow to pick up in popularity. During their downtime, head waiter Frank Thompson and the other workers of color formed the Black Panthers baseball team to pass the time. As the waiters and kitchen staff played ball among themselves, management noticed the games were becoming popular among the guests. Attempting to harness the growing enthusiasm, Argyle hired a Philadelphia-based Keystone Athletics Company to organize a paid baseball team with wages of $18 to $12 a week for players. Following the hiring of the management company, the team was renamed the Cuban Giants in 1885 and became the first all-black professional baseball team. S.K. Govern, waiter and team co-founder, advertised the team as Cuban and told players to attempt to speak Spanish while playing. The team’s branding as Latino was a method to reduce tensions among white teams. In its first season, the Giants won six of its nine games. The first white team to go up against the Cuban Giants was the New York Metropolitans. The Giants lost 11 to 3, but the game was a milestone because it was the Giants’ first major league game against an all-white team. With the growing popularity in the aftermath of the all-white Metropolitans’ game, the Giants attempted to join the ranks of the Eastern Leagues Teams. Five all-white leagues from Jersey City, Newark, Hartford, Waterbury, and Bridgeport blocked the Giants’ admission into future games. Following the blocking of the Giants, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran a column that argued, “the Eastern Leagues are too stuck up to be in league with black men and probably dread being beat by the Africans.”

Early in the first season, the Giants signed Ohio native Solomon “Sol” White, who quickly stood out as an all-star player. White would follow the team when it relocated to Trenton, New Jersey, in 1886. In the season of 1887, White joined the all-white minor league Wheeling West Virginia Green Stockings as an outfielder. White’s tenure on the team will be 60 years before Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball. White would return to the black leagues and become the captain of the newly formed Philadelphia Giants. As captain of Philadelphia, his team won every black league championship from 1904 to 1907. In his later years, White would write the book “History of Colored Baseball” and become a contributor to various sports columns. In 1955 at the age of 87, White died in Central Islip Hospital. In 2006 White would be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The site of Argyle Hotel is a popular park that includes a baseball field for the Babylon High School across the street. Many visitors do not know of the park’s history, and many others do not notice a section by Railroad Avenue that encapsulates the significance of its history. Next to a large boulder is a home plate, and tethered to the boulder reads a plaque “Site of Argyle Hotel, Birthplace of the Famous Cuban Giants. First professional Black baseball team 1885.”