Negro League baseball is the story of a multitude of teams. Some, like the Monarch, Grays, and Crawfords, are famous. Others are utterly obscure, playing only a few years with little success and dying a quick death. Most teams are somewhere in the middle. One of those, a team that had some success but was never seen as a truly first rank team, was the Baltimore Elite Giants.
Thomas T. Wilson was a black businessman in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1918 he formed a black baseball team called the Nashville Standard Giants. They were semipro and played mainly in the South. By 1921 they were one of the more successful black teams in the South. They had reached elite status and the name change was an obvious. Wilson pronounced the word “e-lite” rather than “e-leet” and the odd pronunciation stuck for the remainder of their history.
In 1928 they were good enough and professional enough to attempt entry into the existing Negro Leagues. It didn’t work. The Negro National League wanted to stay away from adding Southern teams as much as possible and frankly Nashville was no one’s idea of an Eastern team (Eastern Colored League). In 1930 the Elite Giants finally made it into the NNL, only to see the league collapse after the next year. They finished seventh (of nine) in 1930 and last in 1931 (after moving to Cleveland and calling themselves the Cubs).
The years 1931 and 1932 saw the team surviving in the Negro Southern League. The league was considered “minor” in 1931, but with no other viable Negro Leagues it became a de facto “major” league for the 1932 season. By 1933, with economic times improving slightly, there was a movement to recreate a new Negro National League. The Giants were charter members, finishing fifth of seven in 1933. By 1934 they were up to fourth, but failing in attendance. Attempting to reverse the trend, Wilson moved the team to Columbus, Ohio for the 1935 season. Again they finished fourth and attendance wasn’t better in Columbus. In 1936 they made another move, this time to Washington, DC, becoming the Washington Elite Giants. They stayed there two seasons, finishing fifth of six in ’36 and third of six in ’37.
Attendance still wasn’t good, and Baltimore had been without a team since 1934. Wilson made one last move, this time to fill the Baltimore void (a new team moved into Washington, failed, and was ultimately replaced by the Homestead Grays). This time they found a permanent home. Between 1938 and 1948 they were the Baltimore Elite Giants, the name by which they are most frequently known.
They also got better. In 1938 they finished second. In 1939 they finished third, but qualified for the NNL playoffs. They beat second place Newark 3 games to 1 to advance to the NNL championship against the Grays. They beat Homestead 3 games to 1 for their first championship. In 1940 there were no playoffs and they finished second. In 1941 they finished first. In 1942 they were again second. Several good things happened to propel the Elite Giants into championship contenders. First, they were now stable in Baltimore. Fans were up, revenue was up, and the league itself was now more stable. Second, they managed to put together a very good lineup. Hall of Famer Biz Mackey was there through 1938 (before moving to Newark). He was instrumental in mentoring fellow Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella. Charlie Biot played center field, and Henry Kimbro in left were in their prime. Here’s a shot of the 1941 team. Campanella is on the left of the first row and Biot is on the left of the back row.
By 1943 things were changing. The war was effecting attendance and play quality as team members went off to war. They finished with a losing record in 1943, finished second in 1944, but were barely over .500. In 1945 they were again second, but in 1946 dropped all the way to next-to-last (fifth).
1946 saw two major changes for Baltimore. First Wilson, health failing. sold the team and second, the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson and changed the entire face of black baseball. Campanella went to Brooklyn, other players retired or got a look at the white minor league. In 1947 they dropped to fourth. The 1948 season was a split season with Baltimore winning the first half and Homestead the second half. There was no playoff. By this point the Elite Giants had managed to reverse course for at least a short while. They picked up Leon Day and Toots Ferrell to go along with infielders Jim Gilliam and PeeWee Butts and new pitcher, Joe Black. It was enough to make the team good for a final few seasons.
The NNL folded in 1948, tried to revive in 1949 and failed. The Elite Giants were one of its premier teams. They won the 1949 pennant, came in second in 1950, and lost a ton of money. The team was sold back to Nashville where it hung on for one final year. They folded after the 1951 season.
Unlike the Monarchs, Grays, or Crawfords, or the Yankees for that matter, the Elite Giants were a more typical baseball team. As with most teams they were periodically good, sometimes wretched. As with most Negro League teams they were frequently on the move trying to establish themselves in new towns with new fans willing to support them. They finally hit pay dirt in Baltimore and stabilized for a long period of time. They also fielded some good teams and produced a lot of decent players (Gilliam, Black, etc) and one great one: Campanella. I sometimes wonder what the true sports (as opposed to social) legacy of the Negro Leagues should be. Keeping the sport alive in segregated times is number one, but I’m not sure that proving the depth of talent among black ball players wasn’t a close second. In that way the Elite Giants are both typical and important.