A team of Black players in the late 1800s helped shape sport
By Tim Rowland
In the same years as visionaries in Albany were sketching out the details of what would become the Adirondack Park, hundreds of people in New York’s northeastern communities were enthusiastically paying good money to more often than not watch their home town baseball team get shellacked by a barnstorming band of players.
Frequently, said author and Glens Falls Post-Star journalist Maury Thompson, the visitors were the Cuban Giants, the first salaried Black baseball team. Its arrival, in the late 1880s, coincided with a time when the sport was rocketing to the top of America’s sporting consciousness.
The team was also a storied part of African American baseball history in the future park, where bigotry was still the norm, but fans’ thirst for talent inspired them to, at least for an afternoon, set aside their prejudices.
Thompson, speaking at a program sponsored by the Ticonderoga Historical Society, said local papers wrote prodigiously, but not always accurately, about baseball, making the truth about Black baseball players something of a sticky wicket to sort out.
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Still, a story emerges of sport as a racial ambassador in which Black players were sought after, even if equality was not part of the equation.
The name Cuban Giants was itself a misnomer, as none were of Caribbean lineage. The origins of that name are uncertain, but Thompson said it’s suspected that organizers felt white America would be more comfortable watching a team of what they perceived to be Latinos than Black players. Accommodating the delusion, players would holler gibberish to each other on the field to make crowds think they were speaking Spanish, Thompson said.
Communities meanwhile were busy fielding their own teams, with inconsistent degrees of success. In the area of Glens Falls, the Granville paper reported that the community spent lavishly to build a new stadium, only to watch their new team go out in its inaugural contest and commit 14 errors in a 12-1 loss to the Cambridge Acorns.
Better baseball was to be found as well at some of the region’s grandest hotels, where the Black staff that toted luggage and served meals to wealthy vacationers would take to the field to provide them with entertainment. At the Fort William Henry Hotel in Lake George, to take one example, the bellhops would play the waiters for the amusement of the well-heeled.
Head waiters at the Sagamore on Lake George or the Champlain Hotel near Plattsburgh assumed the role of de facto general managers, putting quality teams on the field.
One notable player was William Clarence Matthews, from Selma, Ala., who, with the help of Booker T. Washington, worked his way up to Harvard University, where he was a standout player at the turn of the 20th century.
His talent was not appreciated everywhere; when Harvard made its annual road trip to play Southern schools, Matthews was left home. Harvard later dropped the Southern swing and scheduled a run through Pennsylvania instead, so he could play.
A familiar player in the Adirondacks, he signed with the Burlington, Vt., Northern League team, making him the only African American player in any white professional baseball team.
More than 40 years before Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier, Matthews was rumored to be close to signing with the Boston Beaneaters. He was warned off, not just because of race, Thompson said, but because some believed his intellect was too great to be wasted on sport.
Obtaining a law degree, Matthews worked on the campaign of Calvin Coolidge and became a U.S. Assistant Attorney General. Denied advancement in sport, Matthews hit a home run in life.