Category Archives: black history month

The non-Cuban Cubans who made black baseball history

It’s Spring-like somewhere. And, really, this is an ideal time to conflate the passing of Black History Month with the approaching baseball season—even here in cold, cold Babylon Village, on the South Shore of Long Island, N.Y.

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Especially here. This is where—more than a century ago—a staff of waiters, bellhops and porters at a fading resort, the Argyle Hotel, formed America’s first black professional baseball team. That was the summer of 1885—62 years before Jackie Robinson’s Major League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Aug. 22, 1885 edition of Babylon’s South Side Signal reported that a game on the Argyle grounds, between the National Club of Farmingdale and the Athletics of Babylon, was won by “the employees at the Argyle Hotel,” 29-1.

Formed by Argyle headwaiter Frank Thompson, they became known as the Cuban Giants, so named by a white New Jersey promoter who soon backrolled them for Harlem Globetrotter-style tours. The name may have been based on the racial realities of the day—that white crowds would sooner pay to see Latinos than blacks play ball. Or maybe the result of the sporting press, known at the time to euphemistically refer to blacks as Cuban, Spanish or Arabian. Or perhaps became the team’s manager, Stanislaus Kostka Govern, was a native of the Caribbean.

In his 1995 book, “Complete History of the Negro Leagues,” Mark Ribowsky wrote that, in spite of “reams of attention in the press….it takes a leap of the imagination to believe that anyone who came to see them perform was really conned” by the Cuban ploy.

Less clear is whether the players originally were paid (top salary: $18 a week) to provide entertainment for hotel guests or, in fact, had baseball as their primary jobs.

A 2005 book, “Out of the Shadows: African-American Baseball from the Cuban Giants to Jackie Robinson,” edited by Bill Kirwin, said Thompson recruited players from as far away as Washington and Philadelphia. And Jules Tygiel, the late historian of black baseball, wrote that the team toured the East in a private railroad car and consistently drew sellout crowds—and was such a success that there was a handful of imitators. The Cuban X Giants in New York, Page Fence Giants from Michigan, Lincoln Giants from Nebraska.

At the time, base ball (two words in the American vocabulary then) was becoming the nation’s No. 1 spectator sport, and the Cuban Giants were a powerhouse, winning all 10 games against white competition in 1885 and proclaimed the “world colored champions” of 1887 and 1888.

(Babylon Historical and Preservation Society)

(Babylon Historical and Preservation Society)

A story in the black Indianapolis Freeman newspaper soon reported that the Cuban Giants had beaten “the New Yorks” two straight games and that “the St. Louis Browns, Detroits and Chicagos, afflicted with Negro phobia,” declined challenges to play the Cuban Giants—“unable to bear the odium of being beaten by colored men,” the paper said.

By the 1890s, the Cuban Giants periodically counted on their roster such widely acclaimed players as Frank Grant, considered by baseball historian Robert Peterson to be the best black player of his era; Sol White, called by black sports historian Art Rust, Jr. the best long-ball hitter of his time; and Bud Fowler, memorialized in Cooperstown as the first black man to be paid by a white baseball team (and there were several for the barnstorming Fowler).

At the time, Babylon was past its peak as a booming resort destination triggered by the arrival of the Long Island Rail Road in 1867, when New York city’s summer crowds and other tourists made their way to nearby Fire Island. The Argyle, funded by a syndicate headed by LIRR president Austin Corbin and built on the former estate of railroad magnate Electus B. Litchfield, was the last of a dozen hotels in the village. Among the Argyle’s investors was the son of the Duke of Argyll; thus its name.

(Babylon Historical and Preservation Society)

(Babylon Historical and Preservation Society)

But it never was more than one-third occupied, fell into disrepair by the 1890s—even as its employees began to rule the base ball world—and was razed in 1904. Some of its wood lives on in homes situated on the hotel’s old grounds, on the West bank of Argyle Lake—which had been a large mill pond during the resort’s existence.

In 2010, a plaque—remembering the Cuban Giants—was erected on the approximate site of the team’s playing field. There is a home plate next to the marker. That is covered by snow for now. But it’s Spring-like somewhere, just as sure as there is baseball history right here.

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Arthur Ashe: Not just a tennis stadium

I had not yet heard of Barack Obama at the time, and certainly had not considered the kind of leap forward in American race relations that could lead to voting a black man into the White House. But in late August of 1992, during a lengthy interview with Arthur Ashe, it suddenly didn’t seem the least bit unreasonable when Ashe said, “I really want to be president. I think I can be a good president.”

Here in Black History Month and, this Friday, exactly 22 years since Ashe’s death at 49 from complications of AIDS, is an ideal time to be reminded that Arthur Ashe is not just a stadium in New York City. Not just some departed tennis pioneer.

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Ashe called himself a “political nut.” He was the rare athletic champion who actually connected with the real world. He was an activist against South African apartheid, a public face in the fight against HIV (which he had contracted through a blood transfusion after a second heart attack), an advocate for children’s education, a published historian.

When he found research material on past black athletes frustratingly lacking, he spent six years finishing his own three-volume work, “A Hard Road to Glory.” He was disappointed to learn that three-time Olympic track and field champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee had never heard of Alice Coachman, the first black woman to win Olympic gold (in the 1948 high jump). He called a dismissive quote by baseball’s Vince Coleman (“I don’t know nothing about no Jackie Robinson”) “one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.”

Ashe was a worldly, well-educated black man of enormous calm and grace who shattered stereotypes: An athlete with a sense of history, a jock interested in schooling, an elite sportsman who played in horn-rimmed glasses. He was a black star in what had been (and mostly remains) a white man’s sport—winner of three of tennis’ four Grand Slam tournaments.

And to celebrated sportswriter Frank Deford, who knew Ashe well, Ashe had offered a glimpse of the 2008 presidential campaign, in that Obama “reminds me more of Arthur Ashe than anyone in his own business,” Deford wrote.

After his death on Feb. 6, 1993, Ashe’s coffin was put on public view in the state capitol building in Richmond, Va.—Ashe’s hometown, but also the capital of the Confederacy and the heart of the not-so-long-ago segregated South. A local Baptist preacher named Larry Nobles was among some 5,500 people who paid their respects over four hours, marveling at the setting (Robert E. Lee’s father originally had lived on the site). “This is history, isn’t it?” Nobles asked then. “Look at this. This is history.”

In the crowd that day was LaVerne Buckner, who said she sat in front of Ashe in sophomore history class at segregated Maggie Walker High School more than 30 years before. “I was talking with friends before,” she said, “and we mentioned that Stonewall Jackson and Lee must be rumbling in their graves today.”

At Ashe’s funeral the next day, then-New York mayor David Dinkins called Ashe a “freedom fighter” and “one of the most decent human beings I have ever known. Let me say it as plainly as I can: Arthur Ashe was just plain better than most of us.”

The story was told about Ashe’s younger brother once sarcastically asking him, “If the world breaks down, are you going to fix it with a tennis racket?” Followed by testimonials that, in effect, Ashe did.

There now is a statue of Ashe in Richmond, at one end of Monument Avenue—which also has sculptures of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Confederate general Robert E. Lee—depicting Ashe with books in one hand and a tennis racket in the other, and surrounded by children. Symbolically fixing the world through a new generation.

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“He said he did not wish to be remembered just as a tennis player,” then-Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown told mourners at the funeral, “and I’m sure that we all will honor that wish. But I will surely remember his victory in the U.S. Open [in 1968—the first year of open tennis], and I surely will remember his victory at Wimbledon [in 1975]. He was a beautiful black man in beautiful white clothes, playing a beautiful white game. And winning.”

Jesse Jackson called Ashe “a moment in the conscience of mankind.” A champion, Jackson said, “when he wins, rides on the people’s shoulders. But a hero lifts the people. When Arthur won, we were on his shoulders.”

Ashe had been introduced to tennis when he was 5 years old, as the result of his father being named caretaker of the second-largest tennis club in Richmond, a job that came with a house located on the club’s grounds. Tutored by Lynchburg physician Walter Johnson, who had aided Althea Gibson’s entry into the national championships at Forest Hills—the forerunner to the U.S. Open—Ashe earned a tennis scholarship to UCLA, graduated with a business degree, learned 16 variations of the backhand stroke and became the first tennis pro to earn over $100,000. He looked out for his colleagues, founding the ATP, the players’ union for the men’s tour, at a tumultuous time when major tournaments were moving past an amateur model.

“Athletes,” he noted during that 1992 interview, “are focused on the here and now. Most of our premier athletes are between 18 and 34 years old. In that range, you’re at your best in a physical and emotional sense. You think you’re immortal. We all think of ourselves as invincible, indestructible.”

Yet he always was thinking beyond the game. Being able to sit down with national and global shakers and movers and decision-makers, he said, was “one of the joys of being a professional tennis player for 10 years.” When Nelson Mandela was released from his South African prison after 27 years, the first person he asked to visit was Ashe.

At a New York City memorial two days after Ashe’s funeral, tennis champ Billie Jean King said, “Arthur had the cutest, tiniest, sweetest ears I’ve ever seen on a human being. I used to ask him, ‘How do your glasses ever stay on those sweet little ears?’ But those tiny ears listened to so much. Because it didn’t matter to Arthur what gender you were, or what race, or what country you came from….”

Former basketball pro Bill Bradley who, like Ashe, was a world-class athlete who wanted to do more with his life than just be an athlete, declared at the memorial service that Ashe “made a difference. Arthur, you will be remembered.”

If he is not, it would be one of the saddest things a soul could hear. I, too, think he could have been a good president.