Posts Tagged ‘Nat Strong’

The Lincolns

February 16, 2017
Lincoln Giants jersey from 1910

Lincoln Giants jersey from 1910

When we think of Negro League teams, most think of the later Negro League teams such as the Crawfords, the Grays, or the Eagles. But way back before the founding of the first of the famous Negro Leagues, the Negro National League of the 1920s, there were other leagues and other teams. One of the more dominant of the early 20th Century teams was the Lincoln Giants of New York.

There is a bit of question about their origins. Their Wikipedia page indicates that an ancestry can be traced back to Nebraska in the 1890s, but doesn’t indicate how they got to New York. More conventional sources indicate that Jess McMahon (of the current WWE wrestling McMahon’s) was a prominent sports promoter in New York with extensive interests in Harlem. In 1911 he joined with Sol White to form the Lincoln Giants. It was a formidable team that immediately began to dominate black baseball in New York. With Hall of Famers John Henry Lloyd, Louis Santop, Smokey Joe Williams, and the likes of Spottswood Poles, Bill Pettus, and Cannonball Dick Redding (God, I love old-time nicknames) they dominated Eastern black baseball into 1914. In 1913 they played an unofficial black championship against the pride of the Midwestern black leagues, the Chicago American Giants, led by Rube Foster. The exact number of games and wins in the series is in some question, but there is agreement that the Lincolns won the series.

the 1911 Lincoln Giants

the 1911 Lincoln Giants

By 1914, McMahon was in financial trouble. He sold the Lincoln Giants, but retained the contracts of several of the big stars. He formed a new team, the Lincoln Stars, and competed directly with his old team. The Stars lasted to 1917, folded, and most of the remaining former Giants went back to their old club.

According to the Seamheads website, the Lincoln Giants were still doing well in the 1914-17 period, but fell off some due to the loss of many of their stars. By this point Smokey Joe Williams was doubling as ace pitcher and manager. It was the height of his Hall of Fame career. But the team ran up against a formidable foe off the diamond. Nat Strong (see my post “The Schedule Man” of 20 August 2015) controlled scheduling for black baseball in New York at the time and the Lincolns wanted to play more games than Strong was willing to schedule. They attempted to schedule some games without going through Strong, and were thrown out of the existing league structure in New York. Barnstorming followed.

With the founding Foster’s Negro National League, the eastern teams found it to their advantage to form their own league, the Eastern Colored League, in 1923. The Lincolns were a significant member of the league. They never won a league championship, finishing as high as third in 1924. By 1928 the ECL was on life support. A changing economy, weak teams, chaos at the top of the league (again another story for another time), and the dominance of Foster’s NNL, caused it to collapse.

The remnants of the ECL formed a new league, the American Negro League in 1929. It lasted one year. The Lincoln Giants held on one more year in a declining economy and finally folded after the 1930 season.

During their existence, the New York Lincoln Giants were dominant in the East. They won unofficial championships most of the decade of the 19-teens and led Strong’s New York league most years (which is why they thought they could challenge him). They provided Eastern black baseball with some of the greatest players of the era in Lloyd, Wood, Santop, Redding, and later Hall of Famer Turkey Stearnes. Not a bad legacy.

the 1911 version of the Lincoln Giants cap

the 1911 version of the Lincoln Giants cap

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The Schedule Man

August 20, 2015
Nat Strong

Nat Strong

From its beginnings, Negro League baseball was always dependent on at least toleration from the majority white society around it. The teams needed white permission to use the best parks, they needed an OK from the local political leadership to obtain the requisite paperwork to hold a game. Additionally in New York they needed Nat Strong.

Born in 1874, Nathaniel “Nat” Strong, in the first decade of the 20th Century, became the primary booking agent for black teams wanting to play games in New York City. He attended City College in New York, moved into the Sporting Goods business (he worked for Spaulding), and gained control of the Brooklyn Royal Giants, the premier black professional team in Brooklyn. He moved in 1906, along with other entrepreneurs, to form the National Association of Colored Baseball Clubs. As secretary of the Association, he was in charge of scheduling games for the Association and for determining which teams would be allowed to play games against Association members. That gave him a lot of clout in black baseball and he used it to set himself up as the man in charge of scheduling games for black teams wanting to play in the New York market. He was apparently pretty good at it because he quickly became the “go to” guy for scheduling in the Greater New York area. To some, Strong became known as “The Schedule Man.” He made a lot of money off the scheduling (he charged 10% of the team gate cut on top of a normal scheduling fee) and was able to purchase interest in the New York Black Yankees. That, with ownership of the Brooklyn club plus ownership of some of the best white semi-pro teams like the Bushwicks, gave him almost total control over scheduling Negro League games in New York. Not only could he control the scheduling of games between two black teams, he could now control scheduling of games that pitted a black team against a white team in the New York area. His power was such that when the Lincoln Giants tried to schedule games without going through him, he was able to have them thrown out of the Association.

Needless to say, he didn’t have a lot of friends in the Negro Leagues leadership. Rube Foster hated having to go through Strong to schedule games in New York. Part of Foster’s reasoning for forming the Negro National League was to get around Strong’s stranglehold on New York games (but I should emphasize it wasn’t the major factor in Foster’s decision to form the NNL). Foster’s determination to have his NNL schedule its own games, gave rise to a sort of compromise between the two men. Foster’s NNL was based mostly in the Upper Midwest, while Strong’s base of power was in the East. Although no formal agreement was made (at least not one I can find), the two men each controlled their scheduling in their part of the country without significant interference from the other. It cut into Strong’s power, but certainly didn’t curtail it.

Strong maintained a major position in the Negro League world until his death in 1935. His position was so strong that the balls used by teams he scheduled were stamped “Made Especially for Nat C. Strong.” That’s clout, people.

It’s tough to evaluate Strong. He’s one of the most important people in early black baseball, but he wasn’t well liked by the black baseball community. He made money, lots of it. That seems to have been his major motivation, not the improvement of the lot of black baseball players or owners. In short, he was a mercenary in many ways. He did make black baseball available to people who might not have otherwise seen the teams play, but he got awfully rich doing it. The old political columnist Drew Pearson used to say “In this country all the right things get done for all the wrong reasons.” Nat Strong is a good example of that.

That Other League

February 25, 2013
1925 Hilldale

1925 Hilldale

Ask most baseball fans about the Negro Leagues and you’ll get an acknowledgment that they’ve heard of such (which is, I guess, an improvement). Ask them to identify a particular league and if you’re really lucky they’ll reply with Negro National League (without knowing it came in two phases). Or if you’re really, really lucky you’ll find they’ve heard of the Negro American League. Generally if you tell them one of the two existed, they’ll guess the other one. But, of course, those weren’t the only Negro Leagues. For most of the first half of the Twentieth Century they were the most important, but they weren’t alone. For a short period in the 1920s, before the Negro American League was formed, there was another league that could, and did, compete with the Negro National League at the highest level. The first Negro World Series occurred not between the Negro National League and the Negro American League, but between the Negro National League and the other league, the Eastern Colored League.

The Negro National League was formed in 1920 and combined most of the better black independent barnstorming teams into a single entity. The league was not without problems. Rube Foster, founder and President, ran the NNL with an iron hand and a number of  eastern teams felt he favored western teams, especially Chicago, in disputes. In 1923 Ed Bolden, owner of the Hilldale Daisies, proposed the formation of a new league based primarily on the East Coast. He approached New York booking agent Nat Strong (who was white) about forming the new league. Strong handled booking for most East Coast black teams and agreed to support Bolden and handle the booking.  They convinced the Bacharach Giants of Atlantic City to join them in jumping from the NNL and the two teams created the Eastern Colored League.

Two teams don’t make much of a league, so both Bolden and Strong actively recruited new members. They went after both NNL affiliated teams and independents. By opening day 1923 “that other league”, as Rube Foster described them, fielded six teams: the Daisies, Bacharachs, Alex Pompez’s Cuban Stars East, the Brooklyn Royal Giants, New York’s Lincoln Giants, and the Baltimore Black Sox. The ECL played between 36 (Royal Giants) and 49 (Hilldale and Baltimore) games with Hilldale taking the first pennant by four and a half games over the Cuban Stars.

Through the winter of 1923 into early 1924 the two leagues feuded over contracts, stealing teams, hijacking players, and Rube Foster’s complaint that the ECL had too many white owners (the NNL also had white owners). Toward the end of the season, the leagues made peace, agreeing to honor contracts, stop raiding (and all the other things leagues agree to and frequently ignore). With Kansas City winning the NNL and Hilldale repeating in the ECL, they leagues determined to play an end of season Negro World Series, which Kansas City won. The series lasted through 1927.

Hilldale repeated in 1925, winning the Negro World Series, then slipped back in 1926. Founding member the Bacharach Giants replaced them as the ECL’s leading team, winning titles in both 1926 and 1927. They lost the World Series each time. By the end of the 1927 season, the ECL had gone from playing 49 games to a high of 117 games (Hilldale). With the longer season there were increased ticket sales and an appearance of stability.

But the stability was illusionary. Bolden was having health problems and other owners were beginning to chafe under his leadership. As he both owned  Hilldale and was President of the league, several owners and a few newspapers began questioning if Bolden could serve impartially. In 1927 he was replaced as ECL President, becoming secretary in 1928. But Hilldale was hemorrhaging money and pulled out of the league. He took the Royal Giants with him along with the Harrisburg Giants (who’d joined the ECL in 1924).  It left the league with five teams, shaky finances, and few prospects. In May, the ECL folded, with the teams going their independent ways.

The ECL was generally considered the second league behind the NNL, weaker, less stable. All those things were true and the ECL was unable to stay afloat for long. During its existence, it did provide legitimate competition for the NNL, winning one of four Negro World Series. Its collapse followed by the failure of the NNL in 1931 began a long period of independence in black baseball.