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.
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.
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.
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.