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Root of black pro baseball celebrated in Babylon

The first all-black professional team, the Cuban Giants

The first all-black professional team, the Cuban Giants was established in in 1885. Credit: Babylon Hist. and Preservation/Bill Davis

Walking back the story of black baseball to its precise origin is no easy chore after more than a century of mostly oral history and sometimes conflicting bits of written record. But Sunday, Babylon Village officials will mark the approximate spot where members of a long-gone resort hotel staff are believed to have formed the first all-black professional team in 1885.

The players were said to be waiters, bellhops and porters employed by the Argyle Hotel, built in 1882 but a white elephant most of its 22-year existence near the end of Babylon's summer-tourist era. During 1 p.m. ceremonies Sunday, a plaque will be unveiled on the northwest edge of Argyle Lake, formerly a large mill pond on the old hotel's sprawling property.

Somewhere near that plaque was the site of home games for the Cuban Giants, whose name possibly was 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 because the team's manager, Stanislaus Kostka Govern, was a native of the Caribbean.

There are even some accounts that the non-Cuban Cubans barnstormed in Cuba in the winter after their creation. At a time when base ball (it was two words then) had moved beyond a recreational activity to become America's No. 1 spectator sport, the Cuban Giants were a powerhouse, winning all 10 of their games against white competition in 1885 and proclaimed the "world colored champions" of 1887 and 1888.

The Cuban Giants rapidly "attained a level of notoriety that gave them the right to pick and choose which white teams they would play," Mark Ribowsky wrote in his 1995 "Complete History of the Negro Leagues." By 1888, the black Indianapolis Freeman newspaper reported: "The Cuban Giants, that famous base ball club, have defeated the New Yorks, four games out of five, and are now virtually champions of the world. The St. Louis Browns, Detroits and Chicagos, afflicted with Negro phobia and unable to bear the odium of being beaten by colored men, refused to accept the challenge."

A sort of early baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters, the Cuban Giants, by the 1890s, periodically counted among their roster players 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 the time; and Bud Fowler, memorialized in Cooperstown as the first black man to be paid by a white baseball team - about 70 years before Jackie Robinson broke the major-league color line.

Fowler, first employed by a white team in Chelsea, Mass., in 1878, included the Cuban Giants, in the late 1880s, among the teams he represented in 22 states and Canada.

White, who not only was a player and manager but wrote the first history of black baseball, is considered the source of many Cuban Giants details - though he joined the team several years after its creation. The team was formed, sources agree, by Argyle headwaiter Frank Thompson, though it is not clear whether Thompson's players came to be paid - $18 a week for pitchers, $15 for infielders, $12 for outfielders - to provide baseball entertainment for hotel guests after hours, or in fact had baseball as their primary jobs.

The 2005 book edited by Bill Kirwin, "Out of the Shadows, African-American Baseball from the Cuban Giants to Jackie Robinson," said Thompson recruited semi-pros from Washington and Philadelphia teams to form his Argyle Hotel club.

Either way, according to Jules Tygiel, a historian of black baseball, the Cuban Giants toured the East in a private railroad car, consistently drawing sellout crowds, and were so financially and artistically successful that they spawned a handful of imitators: the Lincoln Giants from Nebraska, the Page Fence Giants from Michigan (another of Bud Fowler's teams), and the Cuban X Giants of New York.

At the time of the Cuban Giants' emergence, Babylon was just past its peak as a booming resort destination that had been triggered by the arrival of the Long Island Rail Road in 1867. First as the gateway to Fire Island's hotels and beaches - the words "Fire Island" were written as large as "Babylon" at the original Babylon station - the village accommodated a stream of summer visitors from New York City with the construction of more than a dozen hotels.

The Argyle was the last of those hotels, funded by a syndicate headed by LIRR president Austin Corbin and built on the former estate of railroad magnate Electus B. Litchfield. The hotel was so named because its investors included the son of the Duke of Argyll, but it never was more than one-third occupied, fell into disrepair by the 1890s and was razed in 1904.

Before it went, though, it gave the country its first black professional baseball team. And given that the hotel's lumber still exists in several of the homes built on the former resort's grounds, today's plaque in Argyle Park figuratively will keep alive the Cuban Giants.

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