Posts Tagged ‘Chicago Unions’

The Pride of Chicago

February 7, 2019

Chicago American Giants logo

Although baseball as we know it begins on the East Coast, Chicago has traditional standing as one of the earliest hotbeds of the sport. William Hulbert, founder of the National League lived in Chicago. His team, the White Stockings (now the Cubs) won the first ever National League pennant. But the Windy City was also the home of a number of Black Americans who liked the game as much as their white counterparts. If the Cubs were White Chicago’s team, the American Giants were Black Chicago’s team.

In 1887 the Chicago Unions were formed by Abe Jones, a local catcher and William S. Peters, a local black business owner and first baseman. Peters managed the team. The team was successful, being one of only two black teams to survive the economic downturn in 1893 (the “Panic of ’93” to historians). In 1899, the Unions were joined by the Chicago Columbia Giants. The Columbia Giants were the lineal descendants of the Page Fence Giants (a story for a later time) and included such stars as William Patterson and Sol White (who is now a Hall of Famer). They defeated the Unions in a championship match.

Frank Leland

By 1898, Frank Leland gained control of the Unions, and in 1901 worked a merger of the two clubs which he renamed the Union Giants. They were immediately successful. In 1907, Leland renamed them after himself, the Leland Giants. They were easily the finest black team in the upper Midwest. With the name change, came a bevy of stars from Black Baseball that made the Leland’s even more formidable. Pete Hill took over in center field, “Big” Bill Gatewood was on the mound, but the greatest find was pitcher Andrew “Rube” Foster. To Leland’s dismay, Foster had big plans and wanted to found his own team.

Rube Foster (with the team logo on the uniform behind him)

By 1910, Foster made his move. He claimed control of the team (and the team name) and renamed the team the Chicago American Giants. Leland hung on to a handful of the players and continued games as the Chicago Giants. But Foster had the big names, John Henry Lloyd, Pete Hill, Bruce Petway, and Frank Wickware.

The team was as successful as ever, but Foster dreamed of creating a black league to rival the Major Leagues. In 1920, he created the Negro National League with the American Giants as a founding member. They were, for most of the period of the NNL’s existence, the best team, winning pennants in 1920, 1921, and ’22. In 1926, with Foster’s failing health, and questions of his favoritism as league president toward the American Giants, Dave Malarcher took over the team and led it to pennants in 1926 and 1927. By that point, the NNL had a rival, the Eastern Colored League. The two leagues staged the Negro World Series which the American Giants won in both 1926 and 1927. In 1928, the ECL folded.

Economic crisis once again afflicted Black Baseball in the 1930s as the Great Depression caused the folding of the NNL. The American Giants remained viable and transferred to the Negro Southern League in 1932, winning the pennant before the NSL also collapsed. That began a period of transition for both the American Giants and Black Baseball in general.

A new Negro National League was formed in 1933, which the American Giants joined. They were good, but the Pittsburgh Crawfords were an all-time team and the Giants were unable to capture a pennant. In 1936, they played as an independent team, barnstorming games as they could find them. By 1938, they’d joined the newly formed Negro American League, but were never able to compete with the Kansas City Monarchs as the NAL’s top team.

With the admission of Jackie Robinson and other players to the Major Leagues, the Negro Leagues went into decline. The American Giants hung on through 1956, when they finally folded. By that point they were hiring white players and had lost much of their Negro League identity. But early on, the American Giants were one of Black Baseball’s premier teams.